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Kids in the Kitchen

This article is part of our weekly series, Executive Function Tips for Families.

Today, we’re creating memories as we expand self-control and working memory skills while we mix, stir, or pour in the kitchen!  

Are you looking for a fun way to work on following directions and taking turns with your child? Then let’s stir up some fun!


In this engaging activity, children will practice the art of inhibitory control  – a skill that involves taking turns and remembering instructions. They will use these skills as they follow a recipe’s instructions and work with a partner.

Executive Function Skills Practiced

  • Inhibitory Control: The child must practice patience while waiting for the next step of the recipe.
  • Working memory: While adding an ingredient, the child will need to remember what comes next.

Cooking presents a fantastic opportunity to enhance a range of executive functioning skills—such as attention, cognitive flexibility, planning, organization, time management, working memory, and self-monitoring—while engaging in an enjoyable activity and producing a delightful meal.

What you will need:

Duration: 10-15 minutes, depending on the recipe

Materials List:

  • Assorted cooking materials (bowls, pans, measuring cups, etc.)
  • Ingredients for your cooking project
  • Recipes
  • Paper and pencil

Environment: Kitchen or dining table

Ready To Play? Activity Levels and Step-by-Step Instructions:

  • You can do this activity with one child or a small group.
  • If an activity seems too difficult or easy, then adjust as needed. You can move down a level or up a level at any time! 
    • Read: Check out this article for more information about the stages of EF!
  • You can guide this activity in different ways based on the level of support needed. For children who get easily frustrated, for example, you could choose a few simple recipes to pick from so there is a better chance of them being successful.

Activity Level 1– (2-3 years): Let’s Do Some Dumping and Stirring

  1. Choose a recipe.
  2. Measure out the ingredients beforehand and place them in separate containers for easy dumping.
  3. Talk with your child,

“Today I need your help! We are going to make ______ together. We’re going to take turns adding things to this big bowl and stirring them together! First, I need you to dump this into the big bowl.” (Hand your child one of the pre-measured ingredients). “Great job!”

  1. Repeat as needed until all of the ingredients are combined according to the recipe.
  2. Add another challenge by asking your child to stir the ingredients a certain number of times or to switch hands or directions when they are stirring.

Activity Level 2– (3-4 years): Let’s Measure!

  1. Choose a short and simple recipe. 
  2. Have the ingredients, measuring spoons, and cups set out where you will be working.
  3. Talk with your child,

“Today, I need your help! We are going to make ______ together. The first thing we need to do is add (whatever ingredient your recipe calls for first) to this big bowl. This measuring cup lets us know when we have the right amount of the ingredient. Can you measure out the first ingredient and add it to the bowl?”


Activity Level 3– (4-5+ years): Let’s Follow the Recipe!

  1. This time, in addition to having the ingredients and measuring cups/spoons set out ahead of time, write out the recipe in numbered steps that your child will be able to follow.
  2. Talk with your child,

“Today I need your help! We are going to make ______ together. This recipe will tell us the directions we need to follow so that our ____ turns out the way we want it to! They are in order so that we know what to do first. Step 1 says to mix 2 tablespoons of cooking oil and 1 cup of salt into a saucepan.”

  1. Repeat for each step of the instructions.
  2. If your child can read, let them read the recipe. If your child doesn’t know what a tablespoon is, help them identify the equipment they will need.

Activity Level 4– (5+ years): You are the Head Chef!

  1. Let your child choose a recipe that has a few simple ingredients and that they can easily read.
  2. Help your child gather the ingredients and materials.
  3. Talk with your child,

“Today you are the Head Chef, and I am your assistant. I will help you when you tell me that you need help. What is the first step? 

  1. Encourage your child to ask for help as needed.

Talk & Reflect

After you finish cooking, ask your child questions like:

  • “Why was it easy or hard to measure out the ingredients?”
  • “How did you remember what ingredient came next?”
  • “What was your favorite part of making the __________?”

Additional Ideas & Resources:

  • Offer young children a choice of different recipes from photos in a cookbook or the internet.
  • Here is a simple recipe for playdough that might be a great place to start
  • For more activities on inhibitory control and working memory check out Back to School.

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