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Chef for a day, science and decision-making skills for life

By Carrie Ann Olson

What youth program activity combines math, chemistry and decision-making skills? Cooking!

Healthy living is one of the national 4-H mission mandates, and here in Minnesota we are using the Chef for a Day program to get youth involved in eating more healthfully and gaining science and decision-making skills at the same time.

We know that eating habits are established early in life. Studies tell us that kids who are involved in meal preparation and cooking are better at making healthy food choices.

Beyond healthy diets, we also know that cooking programs can teach youth about doing science, by learning how to:
  • follow directions
  • understand food terminology
  • predict the chemical reactions from mixing ingredients
They can also take learning a step further and encourage youth to make their own science experiment. Research has shown that youth can be sufficiently motivated and empowered to come up with their own research questions and design proper experiments to test their hypotheses through cooking. In addition, cooking programs with youth can be just as beneficial to a young person's decision making skills as with the long-term impact of healthier food choices they will make.

Our Chef for a Day program starts with some basic nutrition and cooking skill safety, and provides a basic recipe for a stir-fry or a salad that uses terms like protein, liquid and vegetables. Youth teams craft their own variations on these dishes, recording their tweaks to the ingredients or cooking methods as they go. This method of thinking, problem solving and tinkering is the basis of all science research and engineering, and provides a foundation for food and cooking literacy.

Chef for a Day will culminate at the Minnesota State Fair in a cook-off for youth. Thousands of visitors to our 4-H building will be able to watch these demonstrations. Participants will be evaluated on their knowledge of safe food preparation, nutrition, meat preparation and importance of protein in the diet. The 2013 cook-off is a one-day event, but like everything in 4-H, future programming will be youth-driven, and could be expanded.

Are you using cooking as a way to teach healthy living, science or life skills? Can you share your ideas here? And please come and see us at the fair!

-- Carrie Ann Olson
Extension educator & associate Extension professor, educational design & development

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  1. I enjoy cooking with my children (9 and 5) and have found it a wonderful way to teach math and science. We've had a few "flops" over the year which lead to great discussion. I've also found it a good way to teach about the world. This year we have been doing a meal from a different country each month. We find the country on a map and then make a meal that is traditional in that country.

  2. Thank you Mary for sharing about exploring culture through cooking! What great family memories as well as learning you are building. Now, when I cook, I don't like to use the work "flops" but prefer to say the experiment just turned out differently then planned. Yes, such events can lead to great discussions and investigations of why with youth.

  3. I love this topic - and who wouldn't? Science and eating are two great joys, so cooking has to be right up there with the two. I have a resource to share - a book my Sweetie gave me for Christmas last year. It's a terrific book for people of all ages who love food & science & food science. Kind of reminds me of Alton Brown's "Good Eats" but more interactive. The book is called "Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food" by Jeff Potter. It offer lots of possibilities for experimentation as well as interviews on a varietyof topics by "greats" in varied fields of science.
    Good and fun cooking to all!

  4. Thanks Heidi for sharing such a great book! I can't wait to get my copy. Yes, I love creating different possibilities with food and it is even more fun to help kids experiment and find success.

  5. Hi Carrie -
    Thanks for the resources that help us combine cooking and science as a way to foster healthy living habits in the everyday lives of children and youth. I really like the idea of meshing these topics. I just wanted to point out the great list of resources on your Chef for the Day link that you provided. They could really help get youth and adults started as they explore this project area.
    Hi Heidi -
    Thanks for the book tip. After quickly scanning the Potter book online, I can see why you'd recommend it. I want get myself a copy too!
    - jennifer

  6. Hi Jennifer - Thank you for checking out the Chef for the Day resources. This project also provides a great opportunity to partner our youth development expertise with those in the health and nutrition field. In Minnesota we have a invaluable partnership with the Cooking Matters program, that utilizes Chefs in their cooking programs with youth and families, to bring Chefs in to work with youth during each of the Chef for a Day events.


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