Teaching Cooking to Persons with Intellectual Disabilities

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There are some skills which are required in order to be independent throughout a person’s life. For this reason, teaching cooking to persons with intellectual disabilities is a functional skill needed to maintain a high quality of life. It not only allows them to be independent, it also gives them an opportunity to put other skills like shopping, basic math and reading to use in a functional way that will benefit them.

For many students with disabilities, it is easier to learn these skills in the context of real life situations than it is by completing worksheets or dealing with imaginary activities.

What to Make?

Choosing food items that provide the opportunity to meet multiple educational goals will allow students to spend the amount of time necessary on the activity. Cooking activities can allow a student to work on many things such as sequencing, reading a chart, measuring, and working with time. Choices of what to make should include multiple steps and ingredients to provide practice that can generalized to other items.

Also, when deciding what to make, it is important to not only look at resources, but to also look at the preferences of the student. When possible, giving the student a choice of what to cook can make the whole activity more motivating. Another benefit to practicing to make a food item that the student has chosen on his or her own, is that you are more likely to be helping them learn how to make something that they will choose to eat at home.

There are different ways to give the student a choice of what to make. Providing samples of several different recipes allows the student the opportunity to taste each item and then decide. Photos of different food items can also be provided to show the student which choices are available. For students who are able to read, several different recipes can be provided and the student could be allowed to browse through the ones which are of interest.

Obtaining Ingredients

Making a shopping list and buying ingredients are necessary steps when teaching cooking to persons with intellectual disabilities. Depending on the cognitive ability of the student, creating the shopping list can be done in a variety of ways. For students who are capable, this can be a good opportunity to work on reading and typing skills. Having students type up a list on the computer by copying the ingredients listed on the recipe demonstrates a way in which they can be independent when making a shopping list. They can then go through the list and see if any of the ingredients are already available at the school and cross it off of the list. For those unable to read, a picture list can be put together. The pictures can either be provided by the teacher and glued to a list or the student can be asked to cut the pictures out of grocery store fliers. The list should be done in a way that the student is able to look at it while in the grocery store in order to obtain the materials.

Once at the store, the student should be shown the first item on the list. The amount of prompting as to where to find it will depend on the student’s familiarity with the store. Some students will be able to utilize signs on the aisles while others will need to be shown the area the item is in. The student should then be responsible for putting the item in the cart or basket, crossing it off their list, and paying for it.

Putting It Together

The most important part of teaching cooking to persons with intellectual disabilities is providing directions in a way that the student can understand. Like the shopping list, the way the recipe is written will be determined by the cognitive and physical abilities of the student. While some are able to read the recipe right off a container, others might need it to be printed bigger or to have picture instructions. Once certain steps are mastered such as setting the oven to the proper temperature, measuring out ingredients, and mixing appropriately, they will be able to follow multiple recipes by adjusting just a few things based on those directions.

Once the recipe is presented to the student, the amount of help needed will vary. The student should be prompted to collect the ingredients listed so they are handy, along with any tools such as measuring spoons, appliances and dishes. Then, each step of the recipe should be followed in the order presented, beginning with preheating the oven, if necessary.

As the students go through each step, there are accommodations that can be made to increase their Independence. Providing clearly marked measuring spoons and cups can assist with liquid ingredients so the student has a visual cue of when to stop pouring. Things such as the start button on the microwave could be clearly marked along with dials on ovens for preheating. Ideally, these things will eventually be faded and the student will learn to cook without it. However, these are simple accommodations that could be done at home if necessary.


When determining what to teach it is important to consider physical needs and personal preferences. If a student will not enjoy eating desserts, focus should not be placed on baking. To begin with, it is also beneficial to find something to make that will be highly motivating for the student in order to gain interest. Since all students must maintain nutrition, teaching cooking to persons with intellectual disabilities is an important step for everyone in order to be independent. Even students that are unable to eat regular textured food can learn how to blend their meals or make appropriate recipes.

This article was written based on over seven years of experience as a teacher of students with severe disabilities that focused on functional skills.