Children don’t really need cookbooks that are written just for them. They can learn at your elbow the way children have for hundreds of years.
But cookbooks can be a great way to give kids a taste of ownership in the kitchen, normally a grown-up’s domain. And for those adults who may not naturally involve their children in the kitchen, or who don’t spend much time there themselves, handing your kid a cookbook of his or her very own can provide a nudge in that direction.
Also, many cookbooks for kids are just plain fun.
The list of children’s cookbooks is long (and keeps growing), so I set off to find some of the best. A few books that rose to the top are classics that have been around for years. Others are newer to the landscape, but impressed me with their design and recipes that, while easy enough for a child to make, can be enjoyed by eaters of all ages.
Ask seasoned cooks about their favorite cookbooks for children, and Mollie Katzen’s name is bound to come up. Ms. Katzen, a chef and author best known for “The Moosewood Cookbook,” wrote three delightful ones: “Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers & Up” (written with Ann Henderson, a teacher, and published by Tricycle in 1994); “Salad People and More Real Recipes: A New Cookbook for Preschoolers & Up” (Tricycle, 2005); and “Honest Pretzels: And 64 Other Amazing Recipes for Kids Who Love to Cook” (Tricycle, 2009).
Ms. Katzen’s goal with “Pretend Soup,” she wrote, was to empower young children to take the lead in the kitchen with limited guidance from an adult. Throughout the three books, wholesome recipes with clever names like Salad People, Polka Dot Rice and Tiny Tacos share the pages with more sophisticated numbers, like cucumber soup, focaccia and mango-honey lassi. Each recipe is accompanied by simple, colorful step-by-step illustrations that make it easy for even the youngest cooks to follow along.
On one snowy day, my daughters and I made Counting Soup, a choose-your-own-adventure recipe from “Salad People.” My 6-year-old helped me warm the vegetable broth on the stove while my 4-year-old helped me prepare the other ingredients, thawing frozen peas and corn, steaming green beans, grating carrots, cutting tofu into cubes and boiling stelline, the tiny star-shaped pasta. We laid them all out on the table like a buffet, and the girls counted as they dropped spoonfuls of ingredients into their bowls of warm broth.
The biggest hit was made-in-the-pan chocolate cake from “Honest Pretzels”: a one-pan vegan chocolate cake that’s both stirred together and baked in an 8-by-8-inch baking pan. My younger daughter loved making this, and it was surprisingly moist and tender for such a bare-bones recipe.
For the pasta-loving kid, there’s “The Silver Spoon for Children: Favorite Italian Recipes,” written by Amanda Grant and illustrated by Harriet Russell (Phaidon, 2009). It features more than 40 traditional recipes like risotto and minestrone, all adapted from “The Silver Spoon,” a cookbook that appears in many Italian home kitchens. The book is written for children ages 9 and up, but my 6-year-old loved it, filled as it is with “grown-up food” that she can cook (mostly) by herself. When I handed it to her, she almost immediately started flagging recipes with Post-it notes.
We loved the book’s sausage and beans, a simple dish of canned white beans, sweet Italian sausage, garlic cloves, fresh sage and apple juice that’s baked in the oven. “Apple juice!?” my oldest daughter cried in disgust. They were both delighted when it worked, hitting all the right notes — salty, sweet and creamy. It was delicious with crusty buttered rolls. My daughters made it again a few days later with their babysitter standing by. Bookmarked by little fingers for another day: hazelnut cake, homemade pasta and pizza Napoletana.
“Cooking Class: 57 Fun Recipes Kids Will Love to Make (and Eat!)” (Storey, 2015) and “Baking Class: 50 Fun Recipes Kids Will Love to Bake!” (Storey, 2017), both by Deanna F. Cook, offer recipes for a wide range of ages and abilities. Spiral-bound, with glossy, easy-to-clean covers, these cookbooks are bright and colorful, with recipes that range in difficulty from very easy (mug cake, salad dressing) to more complicated (crepes, spring rolls). They are perfect for children who want a thorough introduction to the kitchen, including basic rules for safety, vocabulary, setting a table and — you’re going to love this, parents — cleaning up. They are written for children ages 8 to 12, but again, younger ones will find something for them here, too.
“Mama! Cake! In a mug!” my 6-year-old exclaimed. I was not excited about this recipe in “Baking Class,” but cake baked in a cup in the microwave is tough for little ones to resist, so try it they did, and it worked like a charm. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s real cake. They made it themselves (I helped measure out the dry ingredients), and they loved watching it rise through the microwave window.
Some of the recipes skew cutesy, but these are kids’ cookbooks, after all. When the weather turns warmer, the girls are looking forward to trying the Dig-in-the-Dirt Cake, from “Baking Class,” a chocolate ice cream cake made to look like a garden, with chocolate-cookie-crumb “dirt” and “flowers” made of berries and mint leaves. There are plenty of practical recipes too, like omelets, biscuits and California rolls. If you buy both books, you’ll find a few repeat dishes, but it didn’t bother anyone in my house.
Both Sam Sifton, the food editor of The New York Times, and I are big fans of the American Girl cookbooks. The recipes are easy for children to follow, but worthy of the family dinner table — dishes like turkey chili, rosemary roast chicken and sautéed green beans with almonds. There are eight books in the series (which Weldon Owen began publishing in 2016), many produced in partnership with Williams Sonoma; they include “Cooking: Recipes for Delicious Snacks, Meals & More” and, coming later this year, “Cupcakes: Delicious Treats to Bake & Share.” My girls loved filling and folding the vegetable dumplings from “Around the World Cookbook: Delicious Dishes from Across the Globe,” which was like a craft and a cooking project in one.
There are fewer step-by-step instructions and photos in these books, so readers will need a bit more experience, or adults will need to provide more hands-on help. But they are loaded with excellent recipes that are not dumbed down for children, which means that grown-ups will want to eat them, too. It’s disappointing that the books are marketed solely to girls, because everyone could find something to love in them.
When your children are done cleaning up the kitchen (ha!), here are four books — more memoirs with recipes than cookbooks — they can sink their teeth into.
Two cookbooks by the chef Alice Waters — “Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child’s Restaurant Adventures With 46 Recipes” (William Morrow Cookbooks, 1997) and “Fanny in France: Travel Adventures of a Chef’s Daughter, With Recipes” (Viking, 2016) — are full of classic recipes, beautiful watercolor illustrations and charming stories told from her daughter’s point of view.
Laura Ingalls Wilder fans love “The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories” by Barbara M. Walker (Harper Collins, 1979). First published in 1979 (a revamped 40th anniversary edition was published in 2018), it contains more than 100 recipes, like pulled molasses candy and corn dodgers, alongside excerpts from the “Little House” “novels.
Older kids might enjoy “Relish: My Life in the Kitchen” (First Second, 2013), a funny and touching graphic memoir by Lucy Knisley, a cartoonist raised by a chef and a food lover. She recounts important moments in her life by what she was eating at the time.
Each chapter ends with an illustrated recipe, like spaghetti carbonara, that just might inspire your kids to head into the kitchen and make memories of their own.