Tips on success in the kitchen for teens with disabilities.
How do you make a perfect grilled cheese sandwich?
Ask Alexis Daniels, because she has it dialed. Alexis, age 17, is a junior at Bend High School, and she plans to continue her education in a transition program after high school. She and her mom, Suzi Daniels, have been focusing on developing her cooking skills for several years now. “We started working on doing everything independently when Lexi was young, and we just keep going step by step,” said Suzi Daniels. “Now Lexi has several things she likes to make—but grilled cheese is still the ultimate favorite.”
“I like cooking because when I feel hungry, I can just make it for myself,” said Alexis.
The simple independence of making your favorite sandwich without asking for help is a great reason to learn to cook—but skills in the kitchen are important in a lot of ways. Cooking helps people take charge of their nutrition, being sure they get a variety of different foods and enough vegetables. Alexis follows the family rule of eating veggies and fruit first, before chips and snacks.
Home cooked meals are healthier for the budget too, saving money by meal planning and stocking up on grocery staples. Just as importantly, preparing food can be a social activity. Cooking with friends and family is fun; eating together is a time for conversation and connection; and making treats for others (like cookies or Rice Krispie bars) is a thoughtful and inexpensive gift.
Tips to get started in the kitchen
When Suzi Daniels wanted to get Lexi into the kitchen, she found a recipe for homemade dog treats. “Lexi just adores our dog, so she was really motivated to learn to make the treats,” said Suzi. Using this recipe as an introduction to cooking helped Lexi get comfortable with the sensory part of baking. The batter can be gloppy and sticky, but the reward of creating treats for her dog made it worth the challenge. She also became familiar with measuring and mixing, and how to use the oven.
Along the way they’ve learned some key tips to making the kitchen more user-friendly for other young adults with disabilities. Their suggestions include:
- Move often-used items to a spot that’s easy to access. For example, when Lexi began making her own smoothies, they moved the heavy blender to a permanent place on the counter, rather than putting it away each time.
- For measuring, Lexi prefers to use a clear Pyrex glass measuring cup over the set of separate cups. The Pyrex cup has all the measurements clearly marked, so quantities like “one and two-thirds cup” are easier to get right.
- Take time to understand the dials and controls for the oven and stovetop. The Daniels have moved several times, and each stove has been different. A gas stovetop is very different from an electric one, and the “off” position on the controls can be different too. This can be an important safety issue!
- Toaster ovens offer a simpler alternative to using the large oven. They toast, broil, and bake small dishes – just enough for one or two people. They shut off automatically, making them safer to use. The toaster oven can also be moved to a new house, so there’s no need to learn to use a new appliance.
- The Daniels have discovered that it helps Lexi to build kitchen prep work into the daily routine. For example, every afternoon she sets up the coffeemaker to brew the next morning. She’s a coffee lover herself, so it’s a high priority—and also establishes a habit of using the kitchen independently.
Build a recipe notebook
Another tip is to start with a simple favorite recipe—like a grilled cheese sandwich. But a person can’t survive on grilled cheese alone! Here are some tips on building the list of recipes to include a variety of foods for any meal.
- Start a folder or notebook to collect your recipes. Each recipe should include clear instructions for every step of the process, including what supplies need to be found, the setting for the stove, and how to clean up after cooking.
- Non-readers use visual recipes with pictures to keep track of favorites. One easy way to do this can be found on the website Accessible Chef. They offer visual recipes for dozens of dishes from pancakes to shepherd’s pie. Their Recipe Creator allows home cooks to create their own visual recipes, too.
- Look for recipes that build on skills. Making a quesadilla is similar to a grilled cheese, but it adds in vegetables like peppers and onions. Each recipe adds something new: a different combination of flavors or a new way of putting a dish together.
- Some recipes work best when friends and family member cook together. For example, Suzi and Lexi share the work of making refried beans. Lexi preps the beans and boils them; Suzi handles the mashing and the frying part. They make a large amount to be used in different recipes throughout the week.
And about that perfect grilled cheese? Lexi’’s method is to use basic American cheese slices that fit the bread exactly. She heats it slowly in the toaster oven, with very little butter, for a sandwich that is extra crispy on the outside and melted just right on the inside. Simple but satisfying!