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Children's Cookbook Reviews

reviewed by Margaret Lukens

There was a time when most children learned basic cooking skills from their mothers. Standing at her side as she mixed cake batter or prepared chicken soup, they learned to measure, chop, simmer, boil, sift, beat, grease a pan, test for doneness, and an apprenticeship's worth of other culinary knowledge. These days there is a lot less home cooking going on than in former times. Still, the ability to make the foods they love is an important skill to impart to our sons and daughters, and there are many reasons why we should pass on this knowledge.

For your own kids or for young friends who might be interested, there are several good cookbooks to inspire them with words, pictures, and recipes. Here are the best of today's crop of books to help launch a child's culinary adventures, with an age guide to help you choose what's right for the child you have in mind.



First Meals: Fast, Healthy, and Fun Foods to Tempt Infants and Toddlers
by Annabel Karmel

For anyone who has ever had to cajole, plead and beg a child to eat their vegetables, relief is here. First Meals features deliciously simple and economic recipes guaranteed to whet the appetites of even the most finicky eaters. Included are over 150 fast and easy recipes for each stage of a child's development, beginning from ages 6-9 months and continuing through the toddler years up to the age of five. Karmel's goal in First Meals is to insure that parents are giving their baby the best nutritional start in life while guarding against future eating difficulties. This is a bible for first-time parents. Fully illustrated with child-friendly recipes that have been researched for their nutritional value and tested on children for their taste appeal, this is a must for any parent who has ever experienced the meal-time standoff of a child who refuses to eat.

Age: Three to Seven

This age is generally too young to use sharp knives and open flame. Most recipes in the following books use mixing and baking techniques, but just stirring things together satisfies the pre-school child. To make cooking really enjoyable for these kids, put an electric skillet on a child-sized table, so there's no need to teeter precariously on a chair at the stove. On solid ground with an electric skillet, this age can competently concoct spaghetti sauce, pancakes, and other "skillet" foods.

Pretend Soup
by Mollie Katzen

Pretend Soup is designed for use by the very youngest cook. This collection of vegetarian recipes was assembled by Mollie Katzen, author of the well-known Moosewood Cookbook among others, and pre-school teacher Ann Henderson. Each recipe has been tested by groups of pre-schoolers (and many of their comments are featured in the text). What makes this book special is that each recipe is given in picture form with perhaps a few simple instructions, and in traditional "recipe form" for the grown-ups who will assist the junior chefs. It is intended to give young children the maximum possible independence in the kitchen. Don't think the child must be a vegetarian to enjoy this book. Instead, prepare to enjoy the French toast your child proudly brings for Mothers' Day breakfast.

Kids Cooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual
by the editors of Klutz Press

This book grabs kids' attention with cartoon illustrations of potato-peeling beavers and spaghetti-slurping bears. Every recipe represents the kind of food that kids already know and like, such as muffins, chocolate-chip cookies, baked potatoes, and such. Some of the dishes introduce kids to home-made versions of store-bought favorites, like applesauce or fish sticks. Others make liberal use of prepared foods, such as packaged biscuit dough for the hidden hot dogs or bouillon cubes in the vegetable soup. This book would be improved with the use of more whole foods -- it's not hard to make vegetable soup without bouillon cubes -- and more of the real skill and fun of cooking from scratch. One appealing feature of this book is the last section of non-edible recipes, including soap bubbles, dog biscuits, and the like. For kids who enjoy the act of mixing and measuring but don't require the rigor of real cooking, these ideas will be a boon.

Age: Seven to 11

Marion Cunningham has observed that children this age feel most confident cutting with a large serrated knife. They can learn to knead dough, test for doneness of baked goods, use a knife with supervision (but don't scare them to death with too many cautions!) and work at the stove. They're ready for bigger culinary adventures.

Cooking With Children: 15 Lessons for Children, Age 7 and Up, Who Really Want to Learn to Cook
by Marion Cunningham

Having participated in the culinary education of legions of adults with her revision of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and The Breakfast Book, among others, Marion Cunningham has turned her attention to the next generation. Cunningham's book has a seriousness of purpose that shows her profound respect for young children. She doesn't try to tempt reluctant kids with silly recipe names or fall back on food decorating tricks like making faces on a pizza with the toppings. She teaches children, "Who Really Want To Learn to Cook" as the subtitle says, to make real food that is good. Her curriculum is challenging, but her experience of teaching has taught her that children can learn to prepare well-made versions of good food from vegetable soup to birthday cake. While all the children pictured in the illustrations appear to be in the seven-to-11-year-old range, this book would be a good choice for a slightly older child who is a beginner.

Children's Quick and Easy Cookbook
by Angela Wilkes

Wilkes' book features a large format stuffed with appealing photographs of tools, raw ingredients, preparation steps, and finished recipes. There are over 50 recipes, about half of which are food decorating ideas that require no real cooking, such as making skewers of meat, cheese, and other foods as a snack. Some of the recipes, such as the snack skewers, could appeal to a pre-school audience while others introduce one-dish meals appropriate for older kids, such as fish stew, making this a book your family could be using for many years.

Fanny at Chez Panisse
by Alice Waters

Part cookbook and part story-book, Fanny at Chez Panisse is thoroughly lovable. Fanny is a little girl who loves plum ice cream and halibut baked in fig leaves but hates "fat on meat or capers on anything." As she grows up in her mother's famous Berkeley restaurant, Fanny observes everything in her world -- the cooks, the customers, but most of all the food. Some of the 46 recipes seem exotic, like cucumber raita or risotto, while others are guaranteed kid-pleasers, such as pizza. All the recipes are simple enough for a young child to manage and interesting enough to be worth the effort. While waiting for the peach crisp to bake, you and your children will enjoy reading Fanny's adventures, illustrated with whimsical watercolors by Berkeley artist Ann Arnold. Cooks younger than seven will love the story, and if like Fanny they've grown up in a food-loving place, they'll want to make the recipes, too, but they'll need plenty of adult help.

The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories
by Barbara Walker

Based on beloved children's stories, this book has been in print for an amazing 17 years. Its endurance stems from the popularity of the Little House books and from author Barbara Walker's rich text. The recipes are preceded by an excerpt from one of the books and Walker's explanation of the methods and ingredients likely to have been used by Laura and Ma Wilder. From "Rye'n'injun" (the precursor of Boston brown bread) to stewed jack rabbit, Walker spent years researching recipes for the foods mentioned in the Little House books. Her extensive work has resulted in a book that will prove deeply satisfying to fans of the stories and budding cooks alike.

The Penny Whistle Lunch Box Book
by Meredith Brokaw and Annie Gilbar

This book was written for parents who want to make something for their child's lunch box besides the 800th peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. As such, it is full of recipes children will like, and an effective way to teach a child to cook is by teaching them to make what they like to eat. This book has plenty of what kids like to eat. Because the book was intended for adult cooks, there are no color illustrations to help a child along. The recipes are written for cooks who already know why the muffin tin needs to be greased or how to hard-boil an egg, so be prepared to lend a hand at recipe interpretation if your junior chef is inexperienced. Still, the 100 recipes in this book, including such delectables as lemon squares and cherry tomatoes stuffed with salmon salad, can be a boon for young cooks searching for new and interesting dishes to make.

Silly Snacks
by Better Homes and Gardens

Fifty-two yummy snacks designed to appeal to 7 to 12-year-olds who are just learning to cook are contained in this whimsically designed and delightfully illustrated cookbook. The book's practical lay-flat design makes it easy to use for even the youngest cooks. Each recipe is displayed with numbered, step-by-step, simple instructions and features a photograph of the finished dish. Ingredients are clearly listed and grouped together and the needed utensils are also clearly described. Preparation times, cooking times and nutrition facts are included with every recipe.

Sunset Best Kids Cook Book
by the Sunset editors

Unfortunately no longer in print, this book is still worth looking up in your library. The book contains an inspiring collection of recipes complete with sumptuous color photographs, so you have a visual image of the final product. Many basic cooking terms and techniques are defined, and cooking equipment from mixing bowls to cherry pitter are clearly illustrated. Entertaining tips on how to set a table (including a fancy napkin fold) precede menu ideas for breakfast in bed, an anniversary party, or Chinese New Year. The illustrations include boys and girls of various races and sizes while recipes include a variety of flavors and ethnic heritages, so everyone feels included. From start to finish this book is a winner.


Age: 12 to 15

Older cooks are ready for the challenge of planning an entire menu and learning the skill of getting several dishes to the table at the same time. Some preteens will want to plan party menus for entertaining friends.

The Fannie Farmer Junior Cookbook
by Joan Scobey

Here is a book which appeals especially to pre-teen girls. The 130 recipes cover the range of basic fare for beginners from Apple Crisp or Winter Pasta Salad, with extensive discussions of ingredients, equipment, kitchen safety, and menu planning to interest the older cook. The recipes use few ingredients and rely on basic preparation methods, making this a challenging yet fun resource for beginners. In fact, this book is such a good source of basic cooking knowledge that I would heartily recommend it to adults who want to learn the essentials of meal and menu preparation.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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