Coming Together Through Cooking And Learning


In late November, staff, faculty and friends gather together to articulate ways they are thankful for each other and celebrate. The major event is also a part of the food and nutrition curriculum at New York Institute of Technology’s Vocational Independence Program.

A holiday tradition at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT)’s Vocational Independence Program (VIP) is our annual Thanksgiving Dinner. NYIT has a program that teaches students independent living, job, social and academic skills.

In late November, it is time for staff, faculty and friends to gather together to articulate ways they are thankful for each other and celebrate. It is also a major event and part of the food and nutrition curriculum at VIP. The campus is modeled along the lines of a Jeffersonian Academical Village. The basis of such a community is that living and learning are connected. The academic buildings are close to the residential hall. Some offices are located in the residential hall and residential advisors live there. Faculty members often come over the residential hall to teach independent living skills.In this way, students and staff connect on a deeper level.

As a part of the Food and Nutrition curriculum, the second and third year classes plan, shop for, and prepare most of the Thanksgiving meal for close to 75 people. It usually takes a month of planning and preparation. The meal consists of turkey, ham, mash potatoes, sweet potatoes (with marshmallows of course), green bean casserole, corn soufflé and a green garden salad. The students who are learning the cooking curriculum and are currently in cooking classes are reinforcing the skills they learned by this experience. They familiarize themselves with the recipe, determine how much of each ingredient should be used, and how long each item will take to prepare and cook. These students also cook the dessert from simple fare such as brownies and cookies to more complicated items such as homemade apple and pumpkin pie.

The students involved are also responsible for the set-up and clean-up of the dining room, as well as the decorating. The first year students get to enjoy the meal without any participation as “their turn will come” next year. They also get to experience the excitement exhibited by the upper classmen at watching all of their planning and preparation finally take shape. The invited guests are staff members on campus whom the students are grateful for, such as their teachers, administrators, social skill coaches, vocational coaches, transportation team, facilities team, housekeeping and the chefs from the dining hall.

Students attending the dinner are encouraged to “PYB” (present your best). This means they must come showered and shaved. Their hair  should be washed and combed and their clothes must be clean, preferably business casual. As they have independent living coaches, they have been prepped on the daily care tasks they need to do each day to present their best (brush teeth, wash face, use deodorant, take  morning medications). This self-care will be learned and cleanliness habits will be ingrained and prove useful, post-graduation.

The students are taught cooking skills in instructional kitchens. These kitchens have two purposes: (1) To improve the activities of daily living skills (ADLs) training of our students on the spectrum; and (2) To provide students a hands-on experience in the kitchen preparing meals that they have planned and for which they have shopped. Food and nutrition instructors use the augmented kitchens to teach students how to plan, budget, shop and prepare meals for themselves. The equipment in the kitchen helps with the preparation of nutritious meals and serves to concretize the lessons needed in a life-like setting. This makes the absorption and generalization of skills more likely. Repetition is an important teaching tool. Without the adaption of these daily activity skills, students on the spectrum will not be able to transition to the world of work and independent living. The outcomes of independent living and employment are measured by alumni surveys as required by the U.S. Department of Education.

In general, emphasis is placed on the safe handling and storage of food and the importance of kitchen sanitation. Basic kitchen skills are  covered over the years regarding use and care of equipment and utensils, understanding cooking terms, measurement, basic food preparation skills, as well as serving and clean up. Students are guided in making healthy food choices when planning their menus and have the opportunity to select healthy food at the supermarket.

The theme of the first year curriculum is for students to learn the tenets of basic nutrition and how to make healthy food choices. Students use the federal government “Choose My Plate” website to access information on healthy food choices. My plate illustrates the five food groups that are necessary for daily nutrition. The plate is divided into four sections. One-third is grains, one-fourth is vegetables, one-tenth is fruits and one-twentieth is proteins. A small circle is included to represent milk or yogurt. Students are encouraged to make up to half their plate fruit and vegetables, drink low fat milk and consume whole grains. They use a food diary and personal planner to analyze the food they eat, determine areas that need correction and create healthy daily meals.

A second theme is learning the importance of portion control. Students learn what acceptable portions are and avoid “portion distortion” when eating out. A third theme is having the students demonstrate to the instructor that they can locate healthy options on the fast food menu. Students in the first year are encouraged to use the SuperTracker, which is an interactive tool to track personalized diet and physical activity planning, calculations and analysis.

In the second year, instruction includes hands-on experience in academic kitchens preparing meals. Students plan, budget and shop for materials they need. Emphasis is placed on safety. The basic cooking skills covered are: comprehending cooking terms, measurement, basic food preparation and storage, as well as thorough clean up. Topics include recipes, kitchen safety, food storage, microwave cooking, use of kitchen appliances and nutrition. The students meet each week for a lesson and will cook every week. Repetition is, again, very important. Simple recipes are used and the students will realistically be able to replicate the meals on their own. Second year students are brought once a semester to the supermarket to familiarize themselves with the layout.

In the third year, the juniors participate in a food and nutrition practicum that runs on a three- week cycle. Students create menus for three weeks, including breakfast, lunch and dinner. Students shop for the necessary ingredients for the recipes they have chosen. They will also have to properly store their selections and plan necessary defrosting of food items prior to preparing their meal. Students then prepare their meals as independently as possible, with minimal supervision to foster confidence. Students also prepare a potluck meal from ingredients that can be found in the refrigerator and the pantry.

Students with disabilities benefit from adaptive kitchen aids as some are challenged by fine motor issues. Difficulty opening jars and bottles is common. Using a slip resistant mat which allows two hands to open the jar is helpful. Tin can openers can be used with features such as improved grip or automatic powered operation. As for opening packets, it is sometimes helpful to secure a packet by wedging it in a drawer and then opening it with a package opener. Scissors should suit the hand size. Left handed scissors are available and especially useful if a student has tremors in his right hand.

Each VIP student uses the resources in the kitchens that include a working station with access to computers where they can find prices of items and comparison shop to create lists that meet their needs. Visual learners benefit from picture directions on the package. A student who may not understand one-half or three-quarters can match the “symbols” 1/2 or 3/4 cup on the package to the symbols found on the measuring cup. Pictures of kitchen appliances with words underneath can help the student match the word they read in a recipe with the picture of the appliance.

Students can also participate in cooking clubs and prepare items for special events held in the residence halls. During “ladies’ night” or “guys’ night,” students cook in an informal setting. As students are learning to socialize, all phones are put away so no social media is accessed. Students learn how to combine the ingredients and in what order. They need to be patient and have to take turns, which can be very difficult for some students. Impulses cause them to act and not wait. A social coach encourages the student to “step inside another’s shoes” to determine who wants a turn. A student may already have set “impulse control” as a social goal with their daytime social coach which can be reinforced during the club activity. The mantra for them is to “stop and think” before they act. The student needs to focus to see what the next step is so they can add the proper ingredient if they are assisting the chef. This is a challenge for students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) who get distracted by all the stimuli in the room. People are talking, music is playing, and the kitchen equipment can be loud. Students are primed to think about “what comes next” and how this will add to the taste or consistency to help stay focused on the task. Safety issues are reinforced throughout the event, for example wash hands, check for fresh ingredients, be wary of hot stoves, use proper mitts to prevent burns.

Students greatly enjoy the final result and eat and chat together. And you know what? Getting to taste the final product is a great motivator!•


Amy Colvin is a Social Counselor of the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT)’s Vocational Independence Program (VIP) program and Gina Frisina, Director of Independent Living, VIP.

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