“Every time you step into your kitchen to cook or bake, you put science to work. In fact, physics and chemistry come into play whenever you simmer, steam, bake, freeze, boil, purée, or ferment food. Thus, every time you step into the kitchen, it’s an opportunity for everyone to learn more about science.”
— Liz Heinecke, author of Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: Edible Edition
Like many parents working from home while their kids are learning remotely, I’ve been looking for creative ways to connect with my child — and nowhere has this been truer than in the kitchen. As people around the world find themselves spending an unprecedented amount of time preparing meals, cooking with kids has become a meaningful way to turn an everyday task into a delicious learning experience.
If anyone knows this firsthand — and knew it well before the pandemic hit — it’s Liz Heinecke, a former molecular biology researcher who left the field after earning her master’s degree to be a stay-at-home mom. Heinecke started sharing her love of science with her three kids as they grew up, chronicling their adventures on her KitchenPantryScientist website; now she’s the author of a series of books ranging from hands-on activity guides to illustrated biographies of scientists, as well as a regular television guest and a NASA Earth Ambassador.
Kitchen science, as Heinecke calls it, doesn’t require any fancy equipment or ingredients — and, best of all in the era of remote education, you can integrate science lessons into everyday meal prep. By helping with cooking, kids from toddlers to teenagers can engage in lively, project-based lessons. Little ones can learn the basics of math and fractions; older kids already being exposed to basic science concepts in school can observe them in action, plus learn fundamentals about nutrition and flavor combinations. Most recipes contain multiple curiosity-sparking teaching opportunities — not to mention that, once you’re finished, you get to eat your work.
We spoke to Heinecke for some advice and tips on turning meal prep into fun family learning.
What can you teach toddlers in the kitchen?
Liz Heinecke: My goal is to make science fun and approachable for toddlers so that they aren’t intimidated when they start learning science in school. Toddlers can measure and count ingredients and learn fundamental science concepts. One fun experiment is to make a thickening fluid (often used to make gravy) with two parts cornstarch to one part water. Older kids will recognize that this is called a non-Newtonian fluid; little kids can simply have fun rolling it into balls and letting it slip through their fingers. Observing the way two ingredients change one another is basic chemistry.
How does doing kitchen science at home complement learning in school?
LH: Teachers do a great job, but their time and resources can be limited. At home, kids can really play and take as much time as they need, getting their hands dirty with a concept or experimenting with new ideas.
How can simple recipes teach complex science?
LH: Even the easiest recipes include both simple and complex scientific concepts. Kitchen science isn’t just about what you’re cooking; it’s also about understanding the why. By taking the time to understand how ingredients and temperature interact and why substances behave the way they do, everyone involved — including parents — will learn some chemistry, biology, and physics.
For example, we all know oil and water don’t mix easily, but we can change this by adding mustard, which is a surfactant, to the oil and water to make a salad dressing. This is an opportunity to teach kids about the science of emulsions. Adding lemon juice to a vegetable stops that vegetable from turning brown; cabbage changes color when you add vinegar to it. Both of those phenomena are the result of chemical reactions. In the classroom, it can be hard to see how scientific concepts will apply outside the lab. But when kids see these concepts play out in the real world, that sparks curiosity and learning.
What’s your advice for enlisting older kids?
LH: Cooking with older kids is a great way to up your own science knowledge. With kids ages nine to twelve, I recommend side-by-side learning. Try out more advanced recipes that offer both culinary and scientific challenges — for example, mirror glaze frosting or a soufflé. If your kids love cooking shows, that can be a great opportunity for you to challenge one another to make more sophisticated and delicious recipes, while still learning the science behind each dish.
What are some tips for turning kitchen time into science time?
- Remember that cooking is an opportunity for experimentation. Play with different quantities of ingredients in the same recipe to see how the results differ.
- Read the recipe before you start cooking. (Scientists always read their protocols before they start an experiment.)
- Use rimmed baking sheets in order to keep your work areas clean.
- Safety first! Before you begin, make sure you have a good idea which steps will require parental guidance.
- Keep a kitchen science log: as you cook, observe and write down what you see. Research and discuss the “whys.”
- Most importantly: Have fun!
Eight meal-worthy recipes that double as edible science experiments for the whole family
Sweet soda syrups: Simple syrups are sweet liquids that contain more sugar than water would normally hold at room temperature. Adding heat to the water makes it possible to dissolve extra sugar molecules in it, creating a delicious liquid that can be used to sweeten everything from pancakes to drinks. This experiment will help you understand supersaturated solutions.
Sunset lemonade: Atoms are the building blocks of matter. The number of atoms in a certain volume of a liquid determines that liquid’s density. The more atoms a liquid has in each liter, the denser that liquid is. In this recipe, you’ll see how liquids of different densities interact: less-dense liquids float on top of denser ones.
Vinaigrette: An emulsion is simply a mixture of two things that are normally unmixable, like oil and water. To create an emulsion, it helps to add a mediator, or a “surfactant,” which can get between the molecules to stabilize the mixture. While making vinaigrette dressing, you’ll observe how mustard acts as a surfactant to hold the mixture together.
“Pucker-up” pickles: Acids, such as citric acid and vinegar, taste sour and are often added to food to balance and brighten flavor. Acids can also be used to preserve food. In this recipe, you’ll learn how vinegar inactivates the chemicals that cause vegetables to turn brown, which helps keep pickled veggies looking pretty.
Chewy pizza crust: When particles of wheat flour are added to water and then stirred, the proteins in the flour form a unique elastic complex called gluten. Gluten can absorb large amounts of water, and kneading the resulting dough allows those gluten complexes to come into contact with more gluten, which in turn forms super-long elastic structures. In this recipe, you’ll learn why gluten strands add chewiness to pizza crust.
Sky-high soufflé: A soufflé is built on a simple foundation of eggs, milk and flour. When that mixture is placed in the oven, the heat forces the air bubbles in the batter to expand, causing the soufflé to rise. In this recipe you’ll learn about the elasticity of egg proteins while making a cloud of deliciousness.
Ice cream: Surrounding a mixture of sugar and cream with very cold temperatures starts a process that causes the water in the cream to begin freezing, forming solid ice crystals in the mixture. Making ice cream is a great way to understand the science of crystal formation.
Baked Alaska: The meringue topping on a Baked Alaska is a foam made up of bubbles, which makes it a perfect edible insulator. In this recipe, you’ll observe how this network of air-filled bubbles protects the ice cream from melting in the oven.
Liz Lee Heinecke has loved science ever since she was old enough to inspect her first butterfly. She graduated from Luther College and received her master’s degree in bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After leaving the lab to become a stay-at-home mom, she’s dedicated herself to making it simple for parents to do science with kids of all ages, and for kids to experiment safely on their own. Today Liz is the author of Kitchen Science Lab for Kids; Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: Edible Edition; Outdoor Science Lab for Kids; STEAM Lab for Kids; and Little Learning Labs: Kitchen Science for Kids. Her Kitchen Pantry Scientist series pairs illustrated biographies of scientists with engaging hands-on activities inspired by their work. Current titles in that series include Chemistry for Kids and Biology for Kids. Her newest book, Physics for Kids, will hit shelves in the fall of 2021.