Adapted Cooking: A Recipe for Independence

(Continued from Perkins Insight eNews)


In the classrooms and cottages at Perkins, eating and cooking techniques are central components to the curriculum at every grade level. Over the course of her career, Cindy Coon has worked with students ages six to 14 with wide ranging ability levels.

Photo. Young girl smiling as she holds up a bowl of pasta

Bon appetit!

Today Coon works with younger students with visual impairment and developmental disabilities. For these children, she says, it’s all about exploration, exposing them to new tastes and textures, and developing motor patterns. Giving the students choices and opportunities to handle different types of food can help introduce more variety to their diets, which is important since nutrition is often a challenge.

Jane Cancilliere and Lyndsi Berthiaume are occupational therapists in Lower School and say sensory exploration is key for students without the benefit of visual learning.

“You want them to know almost all the properties of the food before it gets to their mouth,” explains Cancilliere.

Using descriptive language helps prepare students for what they are about to experience. Cancilliere and Berthiaume talked about introducing concepts slowly and clearly when making cookies they might tell a student “let’s reach out and feel the dough with our fingers, it’s wet and sticky.” Breaking tasks like stirring, cutting, or pouring into concrete steps, using simple and familiar language, can help students achieve success.

Parents can help children with eating skills by creating a structured environment, making sure every meal has a beginning (such as washing hands) and an ending (maybe clearing the table). If the utensils and types of food on the plate (meat, vegetable, potatoes, etc.) are always in the same location as a child is learning, they can do more independently and choose what to eat first. Another important consideration is adapted seating for children with motor impairments. Back supports, foot rests, and nonstick mats under a seat to prevent sliding, help make sure students are comfortable and can concentrate on the task at hand.

Consistency and planning is crucial, insists Beth Caruso, director of Perkins’ Outreach Services. Outreach Services for Ages 55 and Older offers cooking classes for older adults who are visually impaired. In a Strategies for Life, Living Well with Vision Loss column for Senior Times magazine, Outreach Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Renee Man offers simple adaptations, such as labeling canned goods in large print, to help older adults cook safely and independently.

Every year, students from public schools come to Perkins campus for educational and fun weekends through Outreach’s Services to Students. During Cooking for Life Weekend students experience everything from meal planning to grocery shopping to cooking and cleaning the kitchen.

“Every child needs to play and experiment in the kitchen and get their hands messy in the mix,” says Caruso.

Photo. Young girl examines Pringles at the grocery store.

Knowing how to shop fosters independence.

Sometimes parents of children with visual and other impairments are afraid to let them help in the kitchen or simply have trouble finding the time required to cook with their children. Caruso said something as basic as taking your child to the grocery store can make a critical difference. If you bring your child along shopping, she says, make sure you keep them engaged and make it a fun experience. If buying a cantaloupe, for example, explain what it is, let your child touch and smell it and identify that it’s located in the fruit aisle to help give them a sense of how a grocery store is laid out.

Caruso advises parents to keep their kitchens organized with dishes, utensils, and foods always stored in the same place. Using braille and large print labels on cabinets and appliances can help children with visual impairments be more independent. The techniques students learn during Cooking for Life Weekend can also be used at home for instance, using a tray when baking to stay organized and keep any spills or mess contained. Caruso advises getting out all the ingredients beforehand and placing them on the tray, as each ingredient and utensil is used, the student can put it behind the tray to stay on task.

At a recent Cooking for Life Weekend, Perkins’ Volunteer Coordinator Mike Cataruzolo was a guest chef. Cataruzolo, who is blind, worked with other guest chefs, who were visually impaired or blind, showing students techniques he uses in everyday life.

“I came from an Italian family and I can’t remember not cooking,” Cataruzolo remarked.

Surrounded by students in paper chef hats they had each decorated, Cataruzolo led a team making spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread and salad. He taught cutting techniques by placing the students’ hands over his as he sliced tomatoes. He taught them to roll the meatball mixture and bake them on a cookie sheet checking the consistency with a fork once the oven timer went off.

“People who are visually impaired have to know that other people are having the same challenges, and overcoming those challenges,” says Cataruzolo, who described cooking as a creative art. “If you’ve got creativity (with teaching), then you’ve got the key to success.”

Creativity is used every day in Keller-Sullivan Cottage, where about nine Perkins high-school seniors live and learn daily living skills. Kathy Bull, a Perkins employee for 30 years and co-author of the publication Clean to the Touch, is a home and personal management teacher at the cottage. She divides her time with students between working in the kitchen and working on housekeeping and personal grooming.

“Everything is turned into something you can feel,” explains Bull, as she offers a tour of one of two large working kitchens in the cottage. A large island with enough room for four working stations lies in the center of the room and each cabinet and appliance is labeled in braille. An adjustable stovetop allows access for students in wheelchairs and oven dials are marked with tactile bumps on the arrows that students line up by touch with tactile indicators on each setting.

Students in the cottage have recipe books in whatever medium they use - braille, large print, or audio. By each appliance lies a checklist with step-by-step instructions for use and safety precautions - for example making sure hair is tied back before using the stove or checking the counter top to make sure nothing is in front of the microwave door before using it.

Photo. Teacher watching over as a student turns on the stove.
Communication and continuity is important to all of us,” Bull said, describing the challenge of making sure every teacher and family member working with a particular student knows the techniques and learning styles that work well for them.

To that end, each student has an independent living skills assessment notebook that is a tool for communication from one setting to another throughout their time in the Secondary Program. The binders are broken down into sections, tracking the student’s progress for a variety of daily living skills. Cottage staff make notes on the student’s progress and fill out a tips and techniques section with methods and adaptations specific to the student.

Reinforcement at home is important, Bull says, and parents are periodically invited in to observe classes.

“It (communication) should be a two-way street … we learn a lot from the parents they are the ones who know their son or daughter best and they often have ways that they do things at home that we can learn from,” Bull remarked. “When families include their son or daughter in household activities and have the same expectations of them as they do of other family members, you can see that it really does a lot for the student’s learning and growth.”

This holiday season, encourage your child and your students who are visually impaired to have fun with food. Patience and praise for a job well done can help create a positive experience. Each small step and every skill learned will help the child build self esteem and provide an opportunity to increase independence, socialize, communicate, and be merry.