It can't be easy, right? Writing a cookbook for kids? I mean, if you're writing a cookbook, that means you are a good cook. You know your asparagus from your elbow macaroni, if you know what I mean. And here you are writing instructions for people who don't know what the salt looks like when you tell them to get it out of the cupboard.
IT'S THE BLUE CYLINDRICAL CONTAINER. CYLINDER. YOU KNOW, ROUND LIKE A... oh Christ I'll get it. SEE? THIS IS SALT.
I'm writing an article about books about food for kids for School Library Journal. It's coming out in... June? July? Watch for it. But it turns out that the WRITING is the tiniest little last-minute aspect of this project. We've spent a gigantic amount of time reading, evaluating the visuals, and then actually cooking the recipes to test the instructions.
And it's not like I can test these instructions, no, man. That would make no sense. I know how to fold eggwhites into chocolate sauce. I know how to saute garlic so that it doesn't burn. I am not the point here.
MY POOR KIDS.
So. Here are the things I've learned, in no particular order. When you are browsing a kids' cookbook, look for this kind of stuff:
- How many ingredients in each recipe? Too few and your meatloaf turns out bland. Too many and your moussaka is too intimidating to try.
- Process photographs? With hands in them? A kids' cookbook has to do movement instruction as well as everything else. This is what your hands look like when you roll cookie dough into balls. This is the motion you use to whisk eggs. The kind of stuff you and I do without thinking.
- Pictures of kids doing the making. Bonus if there are also pictures of them doing the eating. A book needs to reinforce "YOU can do this."
- CLEARLY LABELED instructions. DK has this habit of laying out their steps any which way. Ezra noticed it: "On this recipe the steps go across and then down, and on this one they're in columns." JESUS, DK. Nobody's gonna grow up to be Emeril that way.
- Bring all of your own knowledge to bear. For example, most kids' cookbooks will not include electric mixers in their instructions. So if you see a step instructing a kid to cream a stick and a half of butter and a cup and a half of sugar by hand, allow yourself to be the expert. "That is mania," you must remonstrate. "Let me show you how to use the KitchenAid."
Gimmick cookbooks are not all bad. But they are mostly not good.
And one more thing - it is important in kids cookbooks to have pictures of both appetizing food and engaged children. BUT - you can either light food or you can light people. The food's likely to look terrible in pictures that show the whole kid, and if the food's properly lit the kids are going to look shifty and strange. Bear this in mind.
If you follow me on Goodreads, you may have seen versions of some of these reviewlets. A condensed version of this list also appeared on WYPR's Maryland Morning website the day I went on the radio to talk about kid cookbooks.
For your littlest pals, look for books that match objects and ingredients to pictures. Part of the process of cooking with little kids is teaching them their way around the kitchen. Pointing to a picture of a whisk sure beats explaining what one looks like!
Grandpa's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs Cookbook by Judi Barrett, Ron Barrett
There’s nothing earthshattering in here – kid-friendly recipes for pancakes, tuna fish, broccoli salad – but the whole book is illustrated with big, funny original drawings that will delight fans of the books. SUPER GIANT BONUS: spiral lay-flat binding.
Mommy and Me Start Cooking by DK Publishing
Oh, this infuriating gendered crap from DK. But it might be worth duct-taping over the cover for the recipes and information inside. I like the double page spreads introducing and explaining key ingredients – kids learn “What is rice?” from a diagram of a rice kernel, a photo of rice farming, and pictures of several different varieties of rice. The recipes that follow (chicken risotto really?) definitely require an adult hand, but include kid-friendly steps like mashing, kneading, rolling and stirring.
Noodlemania!: 50 Playful Pasta Recipes by Melissa Barlow
My problem with this book is probably just *my problem*. This is one of those cooking for/with kids books that shows you how to turn cherry tomatoes into ladybugs using bits of black olive, how to get peas and carrots into Mac and cheese, and how to make jellyfish out of spaghetti noodles and hotdogs. Because that sounds DELICIOUS.
To me, that is just enabling a picky eater - but a) I was never cursed with a picky eater so I don't know just how hard it is and b) I don't enjoy the silly playing with the food thing. Silliest food thing I ever did was using a cookie cutter on the pb&j.
What I really want to know is - would a kid enjoy doing these projects himself? Kids are the ones with all the time on their hands, and they are not yet sick of the kitchen.
On the recipe end, this book does not get high marks, calling for Alfredo sauce from a jar, goldfish crackers, and Mexicorn. Also, there's a recipe for ramen with kielbasa that sounds revolting. As if spaghetti with hotdogs hadn't already covered that palate territory.
Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up by Mollie Katzen, Ann Henderson
I'll be honest - this book and its companion volume, Salad People and More Real Recipes: A New Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up, never did much for me. If I was going to play with my toddlers in the kitchen, we were going to make cookies, not some boring fruit salad with cheese. BUT. Better parents than I use these recipes as exercises in sensory learning, numeracy, color and volume concepts, and vocabulary. AND these books contain recipes that preschoolers can legitimately make, start-to-finish, all by themselves. Which is huge.
BOOKS FOR ELEMENTARY COOKS
Make an end run around the occasional bad habit that school-age kids pick up by keeping them engaged in the kitchen. Making lunches, weekend breakfast, and even simple weeknight meals gives children the opportunity to make their own food choices and to contribute to the most basic mechanics of family life.
The Cookbook for Girls, by Denise Smart, Howard Shooter
As the mother of boys – boys who like pink lemonade, chocolate truffles, and baked eggs as much as any girl – a title like this is a little hard to take. HOWEVER, great close-up photos of finished food, good process photos, and recipes that hit the sweet spot between “too basic to be very appetizing” and “delicious but way too much trouble” make me willing to wade through pages suffering from DK Design Disease and try the recipes out.
Cooking Together: Real Food for the Whole Family by Sara Begner
I have a total love/hate relationship with this book. On the one hand, the crunchy-classy styling gets on my nerves, out-Gwynething Gwyneth and sending the message that "cooking together" is an activity best undertaken when you have all the time in the world, a beautiful, serene kitchen, understated, elegant, monochromatic clothes, and, of course, beautiful blonde children produced by your own beautiful slender blonde self.
Instead of chasing each other around the kitchen yelling about preheating the oven and pushing the cat off the counter, which is how it works in my house.
On the other hand, we have turned to this cookbook more than once, and had spectacular success with the recipes. Milo, who is twelve, chose to make bacon-wrapped meatloaf, and I swear he did it all himself, from planning to shopping to preparation to serving, and it was wonderful. He also made the saffron salmon soup, and it took not much more than the 20 minutes(!) promised by the recipe, and it too was tasty and satisfying.
Sure, I'd like to see these recipes come with menu suggestions - that soup needed a veg and some bread (which he also made! come on! props for my boy!) - and there are some pretty unusual ingredients involved, but the author is Swedish, so we just skip those recipes.
Sara Begner, you are beautiful and your kids are beautiful and damn you, you write a terrific, beautiful cookbook too.
Cool World Cooking: Fun and Tasty Recipes for Kids! by Lisa Wagner
Ezra, who is ten, welcomed a new baby to our neighborhood with a batch of Crunchy Almond Cookies from the China section of this cookbook. They were delicious and very nearly foolproof – that's two for two on the recipe score. The six regions represented in this cookbook are Mexico, France, Italy, Africa, the Middle East, and China & Japan. Nothing too challenging here, and what a bonus it would be to add carrot salad or tabbouleh to a family’s weeknight repertoire (especially if the kid can make it!).
Series cookbooks usually make me crazy. They're like 48 pages long and $26 apiece, and have about 6 to 9 recipes in em per book. This series is pretty great though. Standouts: hot dogs two ways in the Game Day volume, and an impressive make-ahead brunch casserole (saving that recipe) that feeds a crowd. And most kids will take any opportunity to shove their (washed) hands into a bowl of ingredients and squish away, especially if it means meatballs cooked in sauce are forthcoming. Milo made that, and it was really good, over spaghetti one night and on a bun the next day.
Harmonious design with a retro country look – kraft paper and faux hand-drawn block letters – keeps this series looking gender-neutral. 9 recipes per volume. An unusually good cookbook series for kids who already know the difference between simmer and boil.
Kids Cook 1-2-3 by Rozanne Gold
This cookbook is best for the simpler recipes - which makes sense, because they're all three-ingredient dishes. Not too sure what the point of limiting it to three ingredients is. The results can come out pretty bland. Three-step recipes might make more sense to me. But it has an index, and over a hundred recipes.
Cakes (My Cookbook) by Laura Tilli, Jess Tilli
The recipes in this book and its companion volume, Baking (My Cookbook), are rated “Easy-peasy” to “Super chef,” which helps junior bakers chart their progress. Steps are illustrated with drawings instead of photos, which isn’t always perfect, and this is one of those books that would really benefit from acknowledging the invention of the electric mixer.
Ezra was 9 when he made a four-layer birthday cake for his brother using a recipe in this book. He then iced it using a frosting recipe also in this book, and decorated it with Swedish fish and candy LEGO. It was BRUTAL.
IF you were putting together a superhero-themed birthday party AND you were feeling especially uncreative - to the extent that it might not occur to you to buy a Bat-Signal-shaped cookie cutter or blueberry ice cream - you would probably need to check this book out of the library.
The DC team has come up with some ideas ranging from Okay (bundles of veggies wrapped in gold thread like Wonder Woman's lasso - I suppose so that they'll tell the truth? "We are not really baby carrots! We are normal carrots that have been cut down and tumbled in a drum! Take it off!") to Oh God (granola + goldfish-shaped graham crackers + milk = Atlantis Cereal, which is apparently what Stoner Aquaman eats late at night).
Your kids will want you to bring it home though, because the pictures are super cute. Loads of action figures heroically hoisting sandwiches, that kind of thing. The design and styling are clean and zingy, with lots of Golden Age drop-in art. Who knows - maybe your kid will even be inspired to try to make Power Ring Pasta (fusilli, spinach and kale, butter) or Robin's Breakfast Bar (baked granola bars made with melted marshmallows).
Milo made the Sweet and Tangy Chilli Beef Salad from this cookbook for a potluck at our house and it was a great success, not only because it tasted good but because he got a taste of how sweet it is to have a whole roomful of people praise your cooking! That's half of why we do it in the first place, right? Be honest.
This book has good instructions and very helpful process photos showing the kids doing the cooking. Every recipe is from a different country – jambalaya from the United States and jollof rice from Ghana, heavy on the grains and vegetables, light on red meat.
Our School Garden! by Rick Swann, Christy Hale
School gardens are proliferating across Baltimore, thanks in part to organizations such as Gather Baltimore. This book of poems celebrates and explores the sensations and revelations that a garden can offer a kid – holding a handful of compost, eating a leaf, watching a bug. Lively mixed-media illustrations offer readers lots to look at.
Napoli - Hmm. Yes to the celebration of cooking and eating, yes to the story of ingredients and the descriptions of Naples... No to the older sister being so frightened and trepidatious that her younger brother is constantly monitoring her comfort level, and has to make all the decisions and cajole her into action. Yes to the actual recipes included in the book (giant Yes), and I'm going to read the next book to see whether Emilia becomes emboldened in the course of these adventures.
Hong Kong - Well all right then. Yes to Emilia significantly sacking up! Kind of No to the depiction of a modern Chinese family as high-strung, superstitious, and really strict with their daughter.
Overall I'd call these celebrity-penned food-centric geography novels fun but flawed. But better than average - I assume these are ghostwritten at least in part, but it's actually in the flaws that I feel like I can see the nominal author coming through.
Strange Foods (No Way!) by Michael J Rosen, Ben Kassoy, Doug Jones
Recipes for thousand-year eggs and yak butter tea along with info about fugu, water bugs, birds' nest soup, mithridatism, kiviak, kopi luwak, etc. Mmmaybe a tiny bit disrespectful to the cultures that consume these foods? But super interesting!
Twist It Up: More Than 60 Delicious Recipes from an Inspiring Young Chefby Jack Witherspoon, Lisa Witherspoon, Sheri Giblin
This sat on our kitchen counter for three months and we never cooked anything out of it. Either the recipes were too self-evident (pasta with pesto) or they kind of didn't look very good (Jack's chili is made with ground turkey, onions, seasoning and not much else). Or they're all-day things - White Chicken Chili wants a whole roast chicken, skinned, boned, and meat shredded.
Children find Jack, who is a celebrity chef and leukemia survivor, an engaging “host.” The book is personal and conversational, with pictures of Jack out surfing with his family, on a picnic, and with his karate class, as well as preparing food.
BOOKS FOR OLDER KIDS
Older kids and kids who have already learned the difference between a simmer and a boil will appreciate cookbooks that let them create meals on par with what the grownups make. Look for cookbooks that mention teens in the title, or even the word “college.” Kids with an interest in cooking may want to think about food as a subject for science projects or research papers – I’ve also reviewed a few books about the skills and science that surround food and cooking.
The recipes here are not uncomplicated. Some of them use unfamiliar or hard-to-find ingredients (korma paste, ground lamb). But we had enormous success with Top Sausage Yorkshires (individual Toad-in-the-Hole - that's them in the picture above, looking a lot like dicks en croute) and if this book teaches Milo how to make Shepherd's Pie I will be forever in its debt. This one's a keeper for us.
Extra points for showing Sam and his friends actually engaged in the processes of food creation and consumption.
How to Cook by Maggie Mayhew
This book has gotten a lot of play in our house, in part because it offers so many choices of recipes. My sons have made the Lamb tagine and Empanadas, both of which were flat-out fantastic, and Chocolate mousse and Profiteroles, neither of which were quite as successful. The techniques in those cases – folding egg whites into chocolate, beating yolks into pastry dough – required more finesse and by-eye judgment than a young cook can learn from a book. Don’t let that stop you from considering this cookbook though. Once I took over that profiterole dough, those little cream puffs made our family Oscars watching party truly fancy.
Cooking With Meat and Fish (Cooking Healthy) by Claire Llewellyn and Clare O’Shea
Part of a series called Cooking Healthy, this book follows beef, lamb, pork, poultry, and fish from breeding, production, and processing to putting it on a plate. Not sure I've ever seen so much about food production, use, and preparation in one book before. Good photos, excellent diagrams. Maybe 3-6 recipes per food category - i.e. moussaka, shepherds pie, lamb curry and kebabs for lamb, and hummus, dhal, and minestrone for legumes.
Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs by Rozanne Gold
Multicultural, updated, unexpected - this book puts cauliflower in your mac and cheese, parsnips and prosciutto in your pasta, and uses pitas to make fajitas. Kids are shown getting their hands dirty (or herby at least) and the food looks terrific.
UNFORTUNATELY, we have only field-tested the roasted asparagus in this book, and how hard is it to write a recipe for roasted asparagus? It's not. So I can't evaluate how well the recipes are written yet.
KewlBites(TM): 100 Nutritious, Delicious, and Family-Friendly Dishes by Reed Alexander
I am calling "ghostwriter" on this, not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, whoever wrote these recipes has done a fine job with their instructional writing. Many cookbooks for kids and teens are a bit sloppy in that respect. The recipes themselves are rational and reasonably accessible, though somewhat time-consuming for weekday use. Good photography (although no process photos) and lots of friendly first-person jabber from your host (apparently he was on iCarly) will make this an appealing choice for Tweens and teens.
Of all the gimmicky cookbooks I've read (Fairy Tales, Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, etc.), this one seems the most like a cookbook. The recipes are at a consistent difficulty level (sort of high medium) and the hooks to the books are remarkably uncontrived. Plus there are just a hell of a lot of them - this is well worth a look.
Ok folks - stay clear of the nightlock and the trans fats and you should be ok. Cooking with your kids is a great way to teach 'em all kinds of stuff that you would otherwise have to kind of hammer into them with lectures - nutrition, economy, hygeine (wash them hands!) and a whole lot more. It's good for their self-esteem and it's good for your family's sanity once they can participate in the morning breakfast/lunch rush and the nightly dinner panic.