Connecting Through Food – What We Learn by Cooking Together

young boy rolls out challah dough while Kristin Zeldes observes

Many of us have memories of favorite foods that transport us back to childhood, and we witness our children building powerful memories and connections as they share food in the classroom. When we ask the children what they love best about Shabbat, “The challah!” is typically one of our first responses.

Recipes play a crucial role in shaping our cultural identities, connecting us with the stories of who we are and where we come from. For our ECC children, baking challah to bring home to their families for Shabbat, making hamantashen to put in Mishloach Manot baskets during Purim, and chopping up ingredients for charoset as we prepare to welcome families in for Passover celebrations create joyful memories while supporting the children’s own developing Jewish identity as they connect to our Jewish values and traditions in developmentally appropriate ways.

Throughout the cycle of our year together in the ECC, many of the children are forming memories and connections around the holidays for the first time. Children naturally explore the world using all their senses, and these experiences are crucial for their brain development. Children, as well as adults, learn best through hands-on sensory experiences, and for this reason, many of our strongest memories are associated with smells and tastes. In addition to creating joyful memories and fostering connections to Judaism, cooking offers numerous learning opportunities for children.

Reading a recipe together introduces children to new words and promotes literacy. Older preschool children can help read along using a visual recipe, which also supports their cognitive abilities and understanding of sequencing. As children count and measure ingredients, they develop math and science skills. Furthermore, in addition to strengthening their fine and gross motor skills, children discover how they can create transformation as they pour, chop, stir, blend, and shape ingredients into something new.

Together, the children share observations and make predictions about how their ingredients will change throughout the process. They wonder how high the dough will rise or how it will look once baked, honing their observation skills as they tune into the changes that occur throughout the process. When things don’t go as planned or predicted, the children share feedback and develop theories about what might have happened.

As children negotiate turn-taking, work together to pour ingredients, and support one another by, for example, holding the bowl, they practice communication and creative thinking skills. Children build confidence in themselves as important and capable members of our wider community as they share the fruits of their labor with others.

Exploring the Jewish holidays through cooking and food provides an opportunity for the children to connect not only to their own family stories and recipes but also to expand their understanding of the Jewish experience and deepen their connection to the global Jewish community. Through food, children can connect to a diversity of experiences in a way that is exciting and relevant to them.

For example, during Passover, our classrooms experiment with Sephardic and Mizrahi-style charoset using various dried fruits and spices such as cardamom and ginger, in addition to a more familiar Ashkenazi-style charoset with chopped apples. Children will often create their own charoset recipe combining elements from recipes around the world. What recipes play an important role in telling your family’s story? We invite you to share them with us!