The Benefits of Cooking – Part 3: The Lessons

When I was in junior high school, all girls were required to take a class called Home Economics and all boys were required to take Wood Shop. Well, to be truthful, I never took Home Ec because I opted to take an extra science course instead.

What did I need Home Ec for? I was told that what they did in that class was learn to cook and sew. I already knew how to do those things. My grandmother taught me to sew when I was 9. My mother was delegating her baking to me even before that. I was ready to learn something new. I was off to take a new science class in which I excelled. Why? I was well prepared. All those lessons I learned in the kitchen had prepared me for science, math, and process thinking.

As we watch our kids become less and less skilled in these three areas, I often wonder how closely related it is to the fact that many of us no longer cook. Perhaps we should consider getting the kids back in the kitchen so they’ll be better prepared for school.

Double a recipe and your daughter will quickly come to understand why adding and multiplying fractions are critical skills. Without understanding common denominators, how can she know that 1 1/4 cups plus 1 1/4 cups equals 2 1/2 cups?  But once she has learned these conversions while cooking, there will be no need to resist expanding on that knowledge in math class. Certainly the familiar – “Why do I need to learn this, I’ll never use it in real life?” – argument will be nullified. Want to help her even more, have her make one and a half recipes of cookies. The division required provides an opportunity to use even more advanced math skills.

Throw some salt in a pot of water that you need to hurry up and boil. Your son just learned that you can lower the boiling point of water by adding salt. Put some baking soda in lemon juice and let him watch a frothing chemical reaction that doesn’t threaten to destroy your house or poison its occupants.

There are endless chemistry and physics lessons inherent in cooking. You can point them out, or just let your children learn without knowing they’re learning as they watch solid fats melt into liquids, lemon juice curdle cream, or heat cause baking soda to release carbon dioxide and make a cupcake rise. Even if you don’t specifically discuss the science behind these reactions while you’re cooking, you are creating a repository of knowledge that will make these concepts seem familiar when it’s time to take a chemistry class. This knowledge will help remove the fear of being in the lab and lay the foundation of curiosity for a formula that explains how the acids in baking powder react to create carbon dioxide.

If you have a child who wants all the food to look pretty, you can focus on the art and design lessons in cooking. Mix red and yellow food coloring and the kids can immediately see the resulting orange color. Explore scale and proportion by layering cakes. Experiment with different piping tips, brushes, or “found” tools to create texture in frosting, cookies, or crackers. Build houses, make dough people, or create an entire edible village. For this lesson, innovation and creativity are your guides. Let the ideas flow freely. Feel the excitement that collaboration brings when one idea sparks another.

No matter what lesson you’re attempting to learn in the kitchen, you will learn about process, procedure, and order of operations. If you begin without any plan and ignore a certain order of operations, you will not get the results you expect or want. That doesn’t mean you have to follow every recipe to the letter, or that you must know exactly what you’re going to cook for dinner before you walk into the kitchen. It means you must think through and understand the process. Process thinking helps you to recognize that what you do now should be determined by what you want to happen next, and next, and next…until the end of the process – a finished dish or a coordinated meal. Of course this type of thinking is beneficial in all areas of life. We reach a specified goal with much greater ease when we understand that today’s decision can be determined by our priorities for what will happen next, and next, and next, then allow the process to support us.

My grandmother didn’t talk about process, she just instructed me to always read through an entire recipe before I ever started to get out ingredients, pans, or bowls. There were several reasons for this. One was to make sure that all the ingredients were available in the kitchen. One was so I would only get out what I needed and make less of a mess in her kitchen. One was so that I wouldn’t dump dry ingredients and liquids together until it was time to do so and create a batter that had to be thrown away. She couldn’t stand to waste food. She also wanted to make sure I would properly preheat the oven and prepare the proper baking dish in advance. She didn’t like to waste time either. Once I was competent to prepare individual dishes, I carried this same process thinking into creating a timeline that allowed me to create a coordinated meal in which my all dishes were ready for the dining table at the same time and piping hot.

As a project manager, I have used the reverse timeline to great success when handling complex, detailed, and deadline driven assignments. Communicating instructions based on what must happen one or two steps past that specific instruction streamlines the process and narrows the margin for error. Understanding the process also allows me to be more swift and flexible in finding solutions to problems because I have a clear understanding of what is critical and what is not in achieving a desired result. These are skills I desire in all employees. These are skills I developed in the kitchen before I reached junior high. I simply built on them in secondary school, college, and at work.

I suspect the boys in my junior high were learning a great deal about process thinking in Wood Shop too. If they failed to allow for the thickness of a piece of wood in their overall measurements, they would not cut boards to the proper length when building a cabinet. If they didn’t understand how the equipment worked, they could lose an appendage. I’m certain that these skills serve them well whether they became bankers, writers, carpenters, or electricians.

We worry so much about declining standardized test scores and how to fix the schools. In spite of much discussion, we have made little headway. Perhaps the solution to improvement is quite simple, and possibly delicious. Get the kids in the kitchen and get things cooking!




The Benefits of Cooking – Part 2: The Fun!

Some of you are probably reading this just to see how really crazy I am.  I get it.  Your initial thought when hearing the word cook may be more along the lines of: time consuming drudgery, additional work, pots & pans to wash, a disaster waiting to happen, or too much trouble…blah!   I’m with you. Those phrases don’t sound fun. So where is the fun to be found in cooking? Let’s explore the possibilities!

In addition to providing sustenance, cooking can lead to compliments, camaraderie, spoon licking, new creations, toys, play, shopping, new friends, and chances to learn about other cultures.  Much more appealing terms to be sure, and really…is there anything better than licking the spoon?

My fun often begins before I ever reach the kitchen. I’ll grab a reusable shopping bag and walk to the local farmers’ market.  If, like me, you enjoy fresh air, sunshine, walking, and the smell of seasonal flowers blooming, you’ll be having fun as soon as you hit the door.

Most farmers’ markets are filled with an assortment of brightly colored fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are mouthwateringly appealing. Some also offer grass-fed meats.  Others have live bands performing and sell handmade baskets, jewelry, soaps, and clothing.  A morning of shopping and people watching often gives me enough funny stories to last all week.  At the very least, I know I’m supporting the local economy and going home with beautiful, healthy ingredients.

Farmer's Market Produce

Shopping at an outdoor market can add fun when you travel as well.  I once drove through the North Island of New Zealand in an RV.  Along the route were incredible outdoor markets full of kiwifruit, silverbeet, asparagus, and oranges.  Not only were these items fresh, flavorful, and inexpensive, they provided a unique chance to meet people.  On the edge of every town was an RV park with a community kitchen.  The kitchens were stocked with pots and pans larger and more numerous than the RV kitchen could carry.  They also sported industrial size sinks and running hot water for doing dishes.

These $15 per night RV parks also offered electrical hookups and large community bathrooms with showers.  They were affordable and popular.  That usually meant sharing the kitchen with several locals.  There’s no better way to find out where the trout are biting, what kind of flies to use to catch them, and where you can buy the best flies.  Even though I’m not a big one to chat with strangers, the common denominator of food made it easier to strike up a conversation.

Shopping and cooking in a foreign country can leave you with a rich cultural experience that you will never forget.  One of my favorite things to do when I travel outside the US is to visit indigenous grocery stores.  I notice the similarities to, and differences from, what I experience at home.  Some European package design is totally charming making me want to buy products on which I can’t even read the labels.

In the same vein, I find it fun to visit the ethnic markets in my town.  I recently tried Milk Cake upon the recommendation of the checkout girl at the Asian market.  A combination of buffalo milk and sugar, this cake is moist and dense.  While it didn’t turn out to be my favorite dessert ever, it provided a good deal of entertainment at a neighborhood dinner party when I took it in the original packaging.

Some of us could shop ’til we drop, but then we’d never get any food on the table.  Perhaps it’s time to move on to the fun found IN the kitchen.  For those of you who love gadgets, the kitchen can offer an endless supply of specialized toys.  There are blenders, mixers, openers, graters, grinders, peelers, processors, choppers, skewers, colanders, sifters, tenderizers, muddlers, ballers, mortars and pestles, mandolins, juicers, whisks, knives, rolling pins, tongs, herb mills, thermometers, corkscrews, molds, cutters, stones, smokers, and special grapefruit knives.  Available in electric and unplugged versions, many of these can be purchased in bright colors for an additional element of fun.  If you love toys, you’ll love playing with them too.  I’m ready to chop, puree, macerate, pound, slice, cream, cut-in, muddle, grind, juice, measure, smoke, mix and match.  Whew!  Recess was fun.  Is it nap time yet?

Coming up with new flavor combinations or preparing familiar foods in an unfamiliar way offers entertainment for both your mind and your palette.  My grandmother used to grow radishes in the garden.  She would cut the sides part of the way through to form the petals of a radish rose.  These roses formed a garnish on many of her salads.  I don’t like the bitter-hot, biting taste of radishes, and I’ve never voluntarily used one in the kitchen…until last month.

Ben has been building greenhouses for an organic garden.  One day he showed up with some arugula and some tender young radishes.  Feeling appreciative of the gift, I wanted to eat the radishes rather than give them away.  Since I knew I wasn’t fond of them raw, I decided to try a sauté. The result was a delicious change of pace.  I quickly consumed two servings and thought of several variations I wanted to try. I requested more radishes from the garden.

Sautéd Radishes
Sautéing Watermelon and Red Radishes

The next bunch arrived with the most beautiful green tops.  I decided to see if the greens are consumable.  They are!  Now I had another challenge – what to do with the greens.  I don’t know about you, but I love learning and I love puzzles.  I needed to learn more about the greens, and I had a chance to put together the pieces of a taste puzzle.  I was excited to see what the resulting dish would be.  Creating something new in the kitchen is supremely fun for me!

The only thing that makes creating something new in the kitchen more fun is to compete with my boys in a cooking challenge.  The informal rules are that we will all cook the same main ingredient in any way we chose as long as we make the recipe up as we go.  We gather in the kitchen and the chaos begins.  We can all be quite competitive and we’re used to combining lively conversation with meal preparation.  The atmosphere in the kitchen is light-hearted and electric.

Last Thanksgiving, James and I had a pie cook-off.  Maybe it was supposed to be a piecrust cook-off, but it turned into a full-fledged competition.  Luckily, James wanted to make whipped cream for his sweet potato pie.  I say luckily because he makes the lightest, fluffiest whipped cream ever.  He always puts the bowl and whisk in the freezer before he starts, and he always lets me taste test when he adds the sugar.  Both of us won in the compliment department, but James’ pecan pie beat my parsnip pie as the favorite.  That’s okay.  Next time I’ll challenge with my lemon meringue pie.  And who won was not as important as the camaraderie in kitchen.  I think it’s safe to pronounce that all family fun should be topped with whipped cream!

James' Pie
James Won the Pie Contest with this Pie

Relaxed family time can provide many moments of fun in the kitchen.  When the kids get excited because they get to ice the cupcakes and then lick the knife, when they jump up and down because you let them add the chocolate chips to the cookies, when your daughter’s friends want to eat at your house because you make macaroni and cheese from scratch, how can you not feel good about cooking?

I know that sometimes you’re too tired to cook.  Don’t force yourself.  Eat gluten-free cereal and milk or yogurt and fruit, or tuna straight from the package and a banana. Giving yourself a break when you really need it will leave you free to remember the fun of cooking.  Forcing yourself to perform in the kitchen when your heart isn’t in it will leave you resentful and less likely to get back in there and have fun another day!

Just be careful not to fool yourself into thinking that you “can’t” cook, or it’s ALWAYS drudgery, or it HAS TO take way too much time.  Sometimes it’s easier to say these things than to face our real feelings about food or to recognize that we miss the love we felt in our grandmother’s kitchen when we raided the cookie jar. Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge that we feel pressured to DO so many things, we don’t relax enough to find the fun in the routine activities that fill our days. Please recognize that every time you stop yourself before you start, you may be missing out on a chance for a rewarding connection with yourself and with your family and where’s the fun in that?

Cooking engages all our senses:  sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing.  It can feed our intellectual curiosity, our desire to collect or create, our desire to make order from chaos, or our desire to get our hands dirty.  Best of all, it offers many paths of connection to the earth, our communities, our friends, and our families.  When it comes to cooking, the possibilities for fun that satisfies the body, mind, and soul are truly boundless.

Next up The Benefits of Cooking Part 3: The Fixin’ in which we’ll explore the skill sets we master when we cook.  Don’t worry if you’re too busy having fun in the kitchen to read it immediately, you can always go to the archives and read it later.


The Benefits of Cooking – Part 1: The Food

One of my kids recently asked why we’re called Cooking2Thrive® rather than Eating2Thrive? Given how much all of us like to eat, it’s a valid question. Not only that, but say the word cook and lots of folks want to run for the hills ’cause it sounds time consuming and difficult so why would we want that in our name?

Since the question has been posed, I’m going to answer it with a series I’ll call The Benefits of Cooking.

So here goes – The Benefits of Cooking – Part 1

The Food

I like to focus on rewards, and one of the rewards of cooking is having great tasting food to eat. When I say cooking, I am referring to the act of preparing food using basic ingredients like meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, rice, polenta, honey, herbs, spices, milk, cheese, and yogurt. If you grew up eating home-cooked meals, your mouth may start watering just thinking about Sunday dinner. It’s hard to argue that food made from fresh ingredients does not taste better than food that has been processed to stay consistent in appearance through weeks or months of transportation and shelf-life.

I grew up helping my grandmother in the garden. Every time I see a pale, hard, overly trucked tomato in the grocery store, I cringe as my memory plays the contrasting picture of a soft, dark red, full flavored tomato just plucked from the vine. You know, the kind that sends juice running down your chin when you take a bite! It’s the sort of memory that has many of us attempting to grow tomatoes on the porch when we don’t have a yard. I still miss my grandmother’s tomato juice canned in glass and sitting on a shelf in the basement. That tomato juice started with those vine-ripened tomatoes and ended up as a critical ingredient in my grandmother’s chili or sometimes disappeared as I gulped it thick and sweet from a glass when it was chilled.


The juiciness of a strawberry, the brightness of a sugar snap pea, the crispness of a golden delicious apple with tender skin – all are better when ripened before picking and prepared fresh. As a child, some of my favorite dishes were corn-on-the-cob, fried okra, baked sweet potatoes, green rice, and beef & noodles. Oh, and don’t forget the lemon meringue pie. I requested it for every birthday. My sister preferred cherry pie made with bing cherries from a tree in the yard. One year my mother discovered a fresh peach pie recipe. We bought local peaches in season, peeled them, sliced them, and placed them in a sweetened gelatin atop her flaky piecrust. Topped with whipped cream, this cold pie showcased the uncooked peaches perfectly.

These days I’m quite fond of boneless skinless chicken thighs seasoned with jerk spices, seared in coconut oil, and baked in a cast iron skillet with a little chicken broth, curried pork chops and polenta, mashed butternut squash, roasted cauliflower with a hint of crushed red pepper, steamed sugar snap peas, and my own version of my grandmother’s chili. Since cooking is the easiest way to consume my favorites often, I’m happy to spend some time in the kitchen.

Not only does freshly prepared food taste better, it makes it easier to avoid flavor enhancing chemicals, high sodium content, preservatives, and excess sugars. Even if you’re a great label reader, when you purchase processed food products, you may be consuming chemicals that are not required to be listed or specified on the label. Obviously, most of these won’t kill you on the spot or people would be dropping like flies, so there’s no need to be alarmist and say never ever buy prepared convenience foods from the store or eat what a friend is serving at a party, but it is naive to believe that these chemicals do not alter your body chemistry or affect your brain’s response to food.

And it may not take a large amount of an additive to change how you feel. A study cited in the April 2010 “Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise” reported that runners who rinsed their mouths with a carbohydrate solution right before and every 15 minutes during an hour-long treadmill session ran faster and further than those who rinsed with a placebo. The brain senses incoming energy “which may lower the perceived effort,” says Ian Rollo, PH.D. one of the study’s authors.1 Since it appears that a little dab will do it, here in a nation with increasing amounts of chronic disease, more studies of the potential negative effects of chemicals in our diet on long-term health are direly needed. In the meantime, it is up to you to decide how much risk you’re willing to take.

Cooking from fresh ingredients is also the easiest way to avoid allergens, gluten, and lactose or limit sodium, sugar, and starchy carbs. Of course, just because you cook the food doesn’t mean these items will magically be absent, but it does mean you have control over what’s included and it can eliminate the effort of reading and rereading labels.

If the word cooking scares you, remember that many fresh ingredients require little or no enhancement. Zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, lettuce, arugula, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, onion, bell peppers, avocados, radishes, and snow peas for instance can be eaten with just a tiny sprinkle of salt or nothing at all. Fruit may only require peeling.

Even if you purchase water-packed tuna or smoked brisket from a BBQ restaurant and only “cook” a salad to go with it, you can add a tremendous amount of fresh flavor and nutrients to your diet. If that leads you to explore new combinations of flavors and preparations, then you’ll have captured the essence of being a cook. A little curiosity, a bit of practice, and a willingness to sometimes throw the whole thing in the trash are where most great cooks start.

And we all have near disasters or major failures along the way. Most of us burn ourselves, catch a dishtowel on fire, cover the floor in flour, burn cookies, leave out the baking powder, or put too much salt in something from time to time. Often it is from those failures that we learn the most.

I’m going to let this conclude Part 1. As you can see, the benefits of cooking include: Great tasting food and easy elimination of chemicals, allergens, inflammatory foods and lots of label reading. But wait, there’s more! Next up: The Benefits of Cooking – Part 2: The Fun. If you think I’ve forgotten about baking, think again. This is a series, remember, we’ll get to that in a bit.

You’ll find the rest of the series right here at Cooking2Thrive. Look forward to having you back!

Do you experience benefits from cooking? We’d love to hear them!


1 Rollo, Ian, Matthew Cole, Richard Miller, and Clyde Williams. “Influence of Mouth Rinsing a Carbohydrate Solution on 1-h Running Performance.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: April 2010 – Volume 42 – Issue 4 – Pp 798-804. American College of Sports Medicine, Apr. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2012..

Breaking News from Cooking2Thrive: FINALLY – A Standard for Gluten-Free Labeling!

If you’ve seen the news today, you know that The Food and Drug Administration of the United States has finally determined its definition of gluten-free. Following a previously accepted standard in Europe and consistent with the Codex Alimentarius labeling guidelines of the World Health Organization, all food labeled gluten-free in the US one year from now must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten.

While this has been a long time coming (a standard was first proposed in 2007) a uniform measurement requirement for labels is good news for those with Celiac Disease as well as the gluten-intolerant. For the next year in the US, it will still be necessary to read the list of ingredients on products displaying a gluten-free label to make sure that there are no questionable items listed. After that, less vigilance will be required to feel assured that your risk of exposure is low when consuming a product bearing a gluten-free label.

It will be interesting to see whether this labeling standard will remain in place for the long term. After using the standard of labeling any product with 200 mg gluten/kg or 20 ppm as gluten-free for over 25 years, in 2008 the European Union revised its labeling to a dual standard. The two categories are:

1)Foods containing less than 20 ppm gluten – labeled as gluten-free

2)Foods that contain 21 – 100 ppm gluten – labeled as very low gluten

As more research emerges, it may be beneficial to change our standard as well. Hopefully, having now established a definition of gluten-free will make any future revisions go much faster. For now, let’s just celebrate this progress with a big bowl of ice cream and, perhaps, a piece of flourless cake!