Helping Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities Learn to Prepare Meals

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

By Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA
[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on 9/24/20]

Teaching a person with intellectual disabilities (ID) to prepare meals can be a fun way to encourage independence and provide opportunities for social connection with others. And the final product can be delicious!

Cooking takes a lot of practice and will require different levels of supervision depending on each person’s abilities. The key to helping an individual with special needs learn to cook safely and effectively is to do an assessment of his (or her) skills before you begin.

The next step is to find a recipe for a meal that appeals to him. Make sure the recipe is clearly written and not too complicated. Read the recipe before starting and make sure that you have all the things you will need. For people providing support to individuals with ID, this is an opportunity to give an overview of what is expected. It can be a chance to let the person ask questions or problem-solve before starting to cook. It may also present an opportunity for an outing to the grocery store to purchase items you do not have on hand.

Following a written recipe can be challenging; it may be helpful for the person to have additional supports available, if necessary. For some learners, you may want to illustrate the steps of the recipe by using pictures that are in the same sequence as the recipe. Other learners might benefit from watching you go through the steps of the recipe in person, or by watching a video of someone following the recipe.

To make the process of cooking less stressful, it is essential to make sure the person can use the needed kitchen appliances and instruments safely and efficiently. It’s also important to try to keep cooking instruments and appliances the same, and in the same place. For example, if a new appliance has been purchased, or the location of the mixing bowl has changed, spend some time working with the person to ensure they can use a new appliance and find items that have been moved in the kitchen.

Start small, and gradually decrease supervision and increase the complexity of meal preparation as the person masters the targeted cooking skills. Even learning to use a microwave to heat up food can be a huge step forward for someone who is just beginning to learn how to prepare an entire meal.   

Don’t be discouraged if the meal does not come out exactly as planned. Making mistakes is part of learning how to cook. Try to make cooking teaching sessions fun and exciting by spending time looking at magazines or cookbooks for ideas that are interesting to the individual. When developing teaching sessions, always take into consideration what kinds of additional supports he may need and have a good idea about his or her ability to stay on task. Shorter sessions are better than sessions that run too long and are boring to the individual.

With the proper support and supervision, learning to prepare a meal can increase an individual’s independence and confidence because cooking does take a lot of effort and patience. Learning to put in the effort and patience into making a good, simple meal pays off because food is pleasurable to eat and can be shared with others. If you need another reason to promote the joy of cooking, establish the rule that the person who cooks does not have to do the dishes. When this rule is followed, most people will be very willing to cook for a lifetime! 

Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA, is the Director of Clinical Services for the May Center for Adults Services in Western Massachusetts. She can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300 (ext. 262) or at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit