Lara Spencer's Sneaky Teaching Through Cooking

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Why not use the promise of warm muffins coming out of the oven as a way to teach your kids more about math, science, reading, history, geography and agriculture. While they are mixing, measuring, tasting and touching, they won't suspect they are getting more than just a chance to get messy and cook.

Chef Rachel Willen, whose FoodFix business brings her brand of fun, informative culinary classes right into clients own kitchens, worked with Lara Spencer's children, Duff, 9, and Katie, 7, today to bake some Ham and Cheese Breakfast Muffins and sneak in some "teaching moments" that enriched the educational experience, and actually made it more engaging for the kids too.

Here is are some of the teaching opportunities that came up in the 20 minute prep time it took to get these delicious and protein-rich breakfast muffins in the oven.

Reading: Recipe reading is still reading. Have kids take turns reading the ingredient list. After you've had them help prep all the items on the ingredient list, read aloud the procedures as you go along. It keeps them engaged in every step of the process and they will come across words and phrases they may have questions about. Our ingredient list let us to questions like, "What is baking powder and why do you need it?"

Math: Each item on the ingredient list has a measurement preceding it. This was a chance to discuss types of measuring devices used in the kitchen. One set of cups for dry ingredients, one for wet..we looked at the lines and fractions printed on the measuring cups and how they correspond to those in the written recipe. We decided to "double" the recipe and make two dozen muffins so the kids had a chance to multiply each item by two and figure out how much we needed. The fact that they had to figure something out and then measure it out, as opposed to just being told what to do, really kept their interest.

Science: We talked about how baking is a science, namely chemistry. It's mixing exact amounts of certain compounds (ingredients) to create a reaction (wet gooey stuff becomes fluffy, puffy, airy, yummy stuff when you add heat) and a result that is different than what the ingredients are by themselves. (or, in other words…MAGIC!) Baking powder is a particulary "scientific" compound made up of an acidic agent, an alkalizing agent, a moisture absorbing agent, that when combined with a liquid will release carbon dioxide gas, and this gas is what's responsible for making cakes and muffins rise during the baking process. The cooking eggs in the batter hold the gas in place to insure a beautiful and puffy result. But make sure you don't over mix the batter or let it sit too long before you bake it, otherwise your CO2 gas gets all used up and your cake will fall flat.

More Science: Why doesn't oil mix with water. With a 5 and 8 year-old you don't want to get into molecular structure, but it was easy to see that when we added the oil to the milk and eggs the oil just sat on top and wouldn't mix. A simple explanation and analogy got them interested and talking. The oil is made up of tiny parts called molecules and the oil molecules are lighter than the milk or water molecules so the oil just floats on top like a boogie board on the waves. "Did you ever meet someone who is really shy and stands away from the crowd? They just don't 'mix' in very easily? Well sometimes you have to work a little harder to get that person to join in with everyone else, and it's that way with the oil and water…we work a little harder, with our whisk, to get them to be friendly with each other." Just a little extra work with the whisk and our oil and milk became great friends.

Food and Argriculture: These questions got the kids talking and guessing. Do you know where eggs come from? Lots of kids haven't made the connection between the chicken and the egg. And other connections between food and their sources, like where does ham come from, or milk or cheese. What's the difference between white and brown eggs? The answer is: the color. White eggs and brown eggs are essentially the same in today's mainstream markets, but brown eggs come from certain varieties of chicken, like Rhode Island Reds or Plymouth Rocks that are bigger, and eat more food than other chickens, so that's why brown eggs can sometimes be more expensive. Eggs that come from chickens on small farms, where they get to eat commercial feed as well as bugs and other more natural chicken foods, will have yellower yolks and a more distinct flavor.

Nutrition: Telling kids to eat healthy is one thing. We already know they will resist, But Chef Rachel, whose husband has a wellness and nutrition practice in New York City, has learned with her own kids and the hundreds of kids she's taught, that if they understand why something is more healthy, or why they should eat it (besides "I said so") they will often begin to comply and make better choices. Today's Breakfast Muffin is a chance to explain how eating protein before school, instead of sugary cereals and other carbohydrate and sugar laden foods, gives them more longer-lasting brain power during their mornings at school. With a protein rich breakfast they will be less tired, cranky, restless, bored and confused in school and studies show that kids who eat protein for breakfast get better grades.

Cooking skills: Finally, when you cook with your kids you are giving them skills that will serve them for a lifetime, and studies show that the more they know about good food and the more they cook for themselves the longer and healthier that lifetime will be.

In today's lesson we touched on skills like safe cutting, different types of measuring tools, whisking, stirring by "folding," lining muffin tins so the batter won't stick, setting the temperature on the oven, setting the timer, and safety when handling hot things. We also got our five senses involved with touching, naming textures, tasting and discerning flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter), as well as smelling and commenting on the finished product. This kind of activity builds a more diverse palatte and helps get kids to get off the "white food only" treadmill and try new foods.

For more fun tips check out Rachel Willen's blog