Your Special Chef: A Website That Makes Cooking Easier for All

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Your Special Chef, a website created by then-high school senior Anna Moyer in 2010, started as a means to help those with special needs navigate the kitchen. Years later, it’s evolved into something much more.

Moyer, who is currently completing her PhD in human genetics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, worked with an occupational therapist and life skills teacher to create recipes and lesson plans for individuals with disabilities, a population Moyer felt was underrepresented. “I was motivated to develop the website because at the time there were few free resources available to teach cooking skills to individuals with disabilities,” said Moyer.

For Moyer, the mission was personal. Her brother, Sam, was born with Down syndrome when she was 3 years-old. “Having a sibling with a disability was one of the most enriching and challenging parts of my childhood,” said Moyer. While she does not have a formal background in special education or occupational therapy, she had many years working with her brother and understanding his learning style and what accommodations were most helpful to be the best teacher.

Moyer developed Your Special Chef as a website with recipes to facilitate teaching basic cooking skills. To modify recipe, Moyer uses a technique called “task analysis” that breaks down the cooking process into a series of discrete steps, each visualized with a picture of the task and short verbal description.

There are a variety of recipes to choose from and all do not involve a stove or knives. Some take sensory differences or allergies into account. Visitors can explore photo recipes for drinks, snacks, sides, main dishes, and desserts. There is also a recipe creator, where visitors to the site can create their own visual recipe guide by dragging and dropping in pictures of ingredients and steps.

“Lately I have been taking requests for new recipes via the website survey and I also post new recipes that others develop using the custom recipe creator,” said Moyer.

Cooking is about independence and the goal is to prepare meals without assistance. For some, mastering the art of cooking can lead to a better chance at employment in food industries or help to save money because of eating out less often.

“A lack of resources may still prevent some individuals from reaching their highest level of independence as adults so I hope that creating this website is one tiny step in the right direction,” said Moyer. “Cooking incorporates more traditional educational goals like improving reading or math skills and is also fun and an opportunity for social interaction,” said Moyer. Safety is of utmost importance. “Individuals should be taught to wash their hands before and after touching food and should also learn how to identify hazards like heat and sharp blades,” said Moyer. Some kids will need a helping hand whereas others you can step to the side and watch them at work.

“Teachers can incorporate functional and adaptive skills from their students’ IEP goals into cooking lessons,” said Moyer. Start easy and work your way up to harder recipes. “Be patient and expect to make a mess.”

There are adaptive tools out there to make cooking safer and easier. “A plastic lettuce knife can often be used in place of a chef’s knife to reduce the risk of accidental cuts and measuring spoons and cups can be color-coded and matched with a color-coded recipe,” said Moyer. Adaptations of course depend on the needs of the child.

“I honestly believe that every individual is equally gifted but identifying those gifts may be more challenging in people with disabilities,” said Moyer. For example Moyer commented on her brother’s knack for being social, empathetic and open. “I approach teaching him with the mindset that he has something to teach me in return so when I show him how to cook a sandwich perhaps he will teach me about perseverance or problem solving,” said Moyer. “People with disabilities do have a distinct set of needs but they are more alike than different and they, like everyone else, need to be treated with kindness, dignity and respect.”

“We hope that understanding differences in brain development will one day lead to better treatments for people with intellectual disabilities,” said Moyer.

These are some ideas from Your Special Chef for adapting kitchen equipment to make cooking and safer and easier for people with disabilities.

Easier-to-Use Utensils

Tongs: These can be operated with one hand and can help strengthen fine motor skills or help flip pancakes over a hot griddle.

Non-Skid: Many cooking supplies from mixing bowls to cutting boards are available with non-skid surfaces which prevent them from sliding around while you’re cooking.

Functional Tools: Tools that serve a specific purpose in the kitchen to make common tasks easier include jar openers, can drainers, a flexible scoops. These specialized tools can be used hand-over-hand until the individual is comfortable with using the device independently.

Safer-to-Use Tools

Cutting: Moyer says plastic lettuce knives work great for most recipes involving cutting. They have no sharp blade, cut most fruits and veggies, and are available in many styles.

Opening: Opening packages and cans can tough. OXO makes a Smooth Edge Opener that leave cans without a sharp edge and Copco makes a bag opener that’s blade is only exposed when it is fully closed over a bag.

Easier-to-Understand Tools: Some aspects like measuring can be difficult. Look for measuring cups with big, easy-to-read labels or even ones that are color-coded.

Adaptive Cooking Tools