Sneaky Teacher: Chef Rachel Willen on Good Morning America


How many people get to see themselves on TV as a fairly ridiculous cartoon character? Well, I’m happy to say that I can now add this to my eclectic and sometimes stranger-than-truth list of things I’ve done in my lifetime!

If you haven’t seen me as the Sneaky Teacher on a recent Good Morning America segment, than you can now! It was a lot of fun, the day beginning with being picked up by my own driver and whisked up to the gorgeous Connecticut home of Lara Spencer, the sassy lifestyle anchor for GMA, where I got to conduct a Sneaky Teacher cooking lesson for her and her two kids, Katie, 5 and Duff, 8. The “sneaky” part was getting in some math, science and reading in all while baking some “good-for-you” Ham and Cheese Muffins.

Here is my article on my “sneaky teaching” moments as it appears on for some tips on how to incorporate teaching moments for your kids as you are cooking with them.

Sneaky Teaching Through Cooking

Why not use the promise of warm muffins coming out of the oven as a way to teach your kids more about math, science, reading, history, geography and agriculture! While they are mixing, measuring, tasting and touching, they won’t suspect they are getting more than just a chance to get messy and cook!

Chef Rachel Willen, whose FoodFix business brings her brand of fun, informative culinary classes right into clients own kitchens, worked with Lara Spencer’s children, Duff, (age?) and Katie (?) today to bake some Ham and Cheese Breakfast Muffins and sneak in some “teaching moments” that enriched the educational experience, and actually made it more engaging for the kids too.

Here is are some of the teaching opportunities that came up in the 20 minute prep time it took to get these delicious and protein-rich breakfast muffins in the oven.

  • Reading: Recipe reading is still reading! Have kids take turns reading the ingredient list. After you’ve had them help prep all the items on the ingredient list, read aloud the procedures as you go along. It keeps them engaged in every step of the process and they will come across words and phrases they may have questions about. Our ingredient list let us to questions like, “what is baking powder and why do you need it?”
  • Math: Each item on the ingredient list has a measurement preceding it. This was a chance to discuss types of measuring devices used in the kitchen. One set of cups for dry ingredients, one for wet..we looked at the lines and fractions printed on the measuring cups and how they correspond to those in the written recipe. We decided to “double” the recipe and make 2 dozen muffins so the kids had a chance to multiply each item by 2 and figure out how much we needed. The fact that they had to figure something out and then measure it out, as opposed to just being told what to do, really kept their interest!
  • Science: We talked about how baking is a science, namely chemistry! It’s mixing exact amounts of certain compounds (ingredients) to create a reaction (wet gooey stuff becomes fluffy, puffy, airy, yummy stuff when you add heat) and a result that is different than what the ingredients are by themselves. (or, in other words…MAGIC!) Baking powder is a particulary “scientific” compound made up of an acidic agent, an alkalizing agent, a moisture absorbing agent, that when combined with a liquid will release carbon dioxide gas…and this gas is what’s responsible for making cakes and muffins rise during the baking process. The cooking eggs in the batter hold the gas in place to insure a beautiful and puffy result! But make sure you don’t over mix the batter or let it sit too long before you bake it… otherwise your CO2 gas gets all used up and your cake will fall flat!
  • More Science: Why doesn’t oil mix with water. With a 5 and 8 year-old you don’t want to get into molecular structure but it was easy to see that when we added the oil to the milk and eggs the oil just sat on top and wouldn’t mix. A simple explanation and analogy got them interested and talking. The oil is made up of tiny parts called molecules and the oil molecules are lighter than the milk or water molecules so the oil just sits on top. “Did you ever meet someone who is really shy and stands away from the crowd? They just don’t “mix” in very easily? Well sometimes you have to work a little harder to get that person to join in with everyone else…and it’s that way with the oil and water…we work a little harder, with our whisk, to get them to be friendly with each other!”
  • Food and Argriculture: These questions got the kids talking and guessing. Do you know where eggs come from? Lots of kids haven’t made the connection between the chicken and the egg! And other connections between food and their sources…like where does ham come from, or milk or cheese! What’s the difference between white and brown eggs? The answer is: the color! White eggs and brown eggs are essentially the same in today’s mainstream markets, but brown eggs come from certain varieties of chicken, like Rhode Island Reds or Plymouth Rocks that are bigger, and eat more food than other chickens, so that’s why brown eggs can sometimes be more expensive. Eggs that come from chickens on small farms, where they get to eat commercial feed as well as bugs and other more natural chicken foods, will have yellower yolks and a more distinct flavor.
  • Cooking skills: Last but not least when you cook with your kids you are giving them skills that will serve them for a lifetime…and studies show that the more they know about good food and the more they cook for themselves…the longer and healthier that lifetime will be.

In today’s lesson we touched on skills like safe cutting, different types of measuring tools, whisking, stirring by “folding”, lining muffin tins so the batter won’t stick, setting the temperature on the oven, setting the timer, and safety when handling hot things. We also got our five senses involved with touching, naming textures, tasting and discerning flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter), as well as smelling and commenting on the finished product. This kind of activity builds a more diverse palatte and helps get kids to get off the “white food only” treadmill and try new foods.