With the surprising popularity of reality television cooking shows such as MasterChef Jr., Chopped, Cupcake Wars, Hell’s Kitchen, Top Chef and others, more children than ever are taking over the kitchen to explore their passion for cuisine. Whether basic familiarity with the toaster, oven, blender or microwave, most parents excite at their child’s interest in learning this valuable life skill.
However, not all children maintain the same ability to cook, even if their passion is equally as strong, due to developmental delays or physical limitations. Enter Beverly Palomba, who has created the unique Special Day Cooking cookbook containing healthy, easy-to-prepare recipes that anyone — particularly children and young adults with developmental disabilities — can prepare with relative ease.
Palomba, an Arlington, Mass., native turned San Francisco transplant, wrote Special Day Cooking to support children and young adults with developmental challenges so they would become more independent in the kitchen. After years working in Massachusetts’ technology industry, Palomba and her family moved to the Bay Area of Northern California where she returned to her true professional passion, teaching. And with more than 10 years teaching life skills to children with special needs, Palomba recognized a deep hole in the training programs offered by school systems.
“A lot of children with special needs are not exposed to cooking at a young age as the focus is predominantly on reading, writing, personal hygiene, dressing and social skills — all of which are extremely important,” she said. “But then comes the day when they are young adults and may be looking at living on their own, attending college or even living in a group home, and they are simply not prepared.” Palomba felt that resources, such as a properly designed cookbook, previously did not exist and, therefore, created Special Day Cooking as the first-of-its-kind life skills cookbook for the special needs community.
Special Day Cooking chefs learn to prepare dinner, pack their own lunch, and even create special treats to bring to social events. In Palomba’s opinion, cooking fosters teamwork, encourages self-confidence and is a fun activity to do with family and friends.
“Learning to cook doesn’t just teach an invaluable life skill, it also teaches how to follow directions, develop language, build social skills, self-esteem and confidence,” she noted. “It can give a child a sense of belonging, foster teamwork and prepare for independent adult living.”
Through a repetitive, consistent, step-by-step approach, each recipe found in Special Day Cooking is laid out within one- or two-page formats complete with large print and photos (see above). Beginning recipes include pudding, scrambled eggs, salads, and sandwiches. All recipes, even more advanced ones, are adapted for easy creation within a microwave, blender or toaster — to avoid open flame — and plastic knives may be used in place of sharper alternatives. At the front of the book, Palomba also incorporates helpful hints, a list of useful kitchen equipment, and a nutritional guide.
“Special Day Cooking teaches the process of cooking, to first gather ingredients, equipment, and then follow step-by-step directions in a consistent, large text-style format,” she said. “For example, once you learn to crack an egg in one recipe, that skill is easily transferred across all the recipes that require eggs.”
Massachusetts Programs Can Adapt Programming
for Special Students
While many families may find Palomba’s cookbook a perfect tool to initiate cooking lessons at home, others may find it complimentary to experiential cooking opportunities. Fortunately, several youth cooking programs exist across the state and in Southern New Hampshire — most of which are amenable to hosting workshops or classes for children with special needs.
In fact, several have already hosted or currently list as students individuals with diverse abilities. One point that echoed across each program is the absolute requirement for advance communication prior to sign-up. While no specific “life skill” cooking classes currently exist, many culinary schools appreciate the opportunity to work with students of all abilities.
Joan Horner, owner of Newton-based Create a Cook, has become the go-to resource for metro Boston chefs-in-training. After receiving her Professional Chef degree from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, Horner taught at Eurostoves, Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, Williams-Sonoma, and Newton Continuing Education. Her business is regularly frequented by many students with different abilities, including one teenager with severe autism.
“While we don’t currently have specific classes arranged, we are absolutely open to working with students with special needs,” Horner said. In fact, she and the team at Create a Cook have worked consistently with Our Place Our Space, a non-profit organization that organizes activities for legally blind students.
Most area cooking schools that host programs for children and young adults indicated that a conversation with parents is a necessary first step. During this initial vetting process, the owners and chefs are able to successfully determine a student’s level of skill so that a tailored cooking program, workshop or series can be created, and that the recipes, kitchen utensils and demands are modified appropriately to ensure the safety of all.
“Cooking is so tactile and engages the senses of sight and taste with delicious results,” said Lori Leinbach, founder of the Culinary Underground in Southborough. “Learning to cook is an incredible confidence builder — beyond a basic and necessary life skill.”
Leinbach’s business, located next door to the New England School for Autism, provides culinary training and life skills to many — including students from the school next door, and has accommodated the needs of all students, including one in a wheelchair. While not special needs-focused, Leinbach recognizes the inherent value in teaching culinary skills to anyone with interest; she herself was lured into the culinary world after years in elementary education. Upon graduating from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, Leinbach opened the Culinary Underground where today she teaches students age 8 and older, how to cook.
For many parents of children with special needs, there are many things to consider when it comes to preparing children for the world. Cooking is one element that may get overlooked in lieu of seemingly more-important concepts such as hygiene, telling time, money matters, and so on. However, cookbook author Palomba believes that if feasible, initiating cooking instruction with children of elementary age is ideal so they are able to advance their cooking skills over time and continue to appreciate and enjoy the learning process.
“As in learning any life skill, the earlier the better, so that it becomes second nature,” she said.
Children and Tween/Teen Cooking Programs
• Cooking Up Culture, Boston
• Create a Cook, Newton
Classes for children 3-5 with parent; 6-18; adult
• Culinary Playground, Derry, N.H.
• Culinary Underground, Southborough
Classes for children 8+ with parent; 10+ years and adult
• Eurostoves, Beverly
• Kids Cooking Green, Lexington,
Lexington Farmer’s Market
• Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, Cambridge
Students ages 12-16
Helpful Kitchen Tips for Beginners:
Cutting: For safety reasons, use a plastic knife when cutting. To help remember not to push when cutting: sing-song, "saw, saw, saw".
Cutting Boards: A cutting board with a rubber backing will stop the cutting board from slipping on your working surface.
Dry Measuring Cups: Metal dry measuring cups with long handles, with clearly marked measurements are best. They last longer, are easier to use, and the measurements won't wash off.