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. 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).
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.
The biggest hit with my daughters 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 baby sitter 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.
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 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.
Baked White Beans and Sausage With Sage
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 1 hour
4 sweet Italian pork sausages (about 1 pound)
2 whole garlic cloves (do not peel)
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 fresh sage leaves
2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
3/4 cup unsweetened apple juice
Kosher salt and black pepper
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a roasting pan or 9-by-13-inch baking dish, prick the sausages all over with a fork. Add the garlic, drizzle with the olive oil and toss to coat. Bake until the sausages start to brown on top, 20 to 25 minutes.
2. Put on your oven mitts, take the roasting pan out of the oven and set it on a heatproof surface. Using tongs, carefully turn the sausages over. (The sausages will brown on the other side when they go back into the oven.)
3. Tear the sage leaves into little pieces and add them to the sausages along with the drained beans and apple juice. Give the bean mixture a stir.
4. Wearing your oven mitts, put the roasting pan back in the oven and bake until the bean mixture is warmed, about 20 minutes.
5. Put on your oven mitts one last time to remove the roasting pan from the oven. To serve, carefully stir everything together using a wooden spoon, and add a little salt and pepper to taste.
Made-in-the-Pan Chocolate Cake
Yield: 9 to 12 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar or white vinegar
2 tablespoons semisweet or vegan chocolate chips (optional)
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting on top (optional)
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Add the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt to an 8-by-8-inch square glass or metal baking dish. Whisk the mixture together until uniform in color. Use your fingers to break apart any lumps.
2. Add 1 cup water along with the oil, vanilla extract and vinegar. Stir slowly with a fork or a whisk in small circles to blend. Mash, scrape and stir with a fork and spoon until the mixture becomes a smooth and uniform batter.
3. Scrape the sides of the baking dish with a rubber spatula and spread the batter in an even layer. Sprinkle with chocolate chips, if using.
4. Use a damp paper towel to wipe the edges of the baking dish clean. Carefully transfer the dish to the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the batter comes out mostly clean, 28 to 33 minutes. (Instead of looking like you dipped the toothpick in chocolate frosting, it should look like it has some chocolate cake crumbs clinging to it.)
5. Remove from the oven, let cool, then cut the cake into squares. If you’re feeling fancy, this tastes good (and looks pretty) with some confectioners’ sugar dusted on top.
Yield: About 24 dumplings
Total time: 1 hour
For the dipping sauce:
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil (optional)
For the dumplings:
2 scallions, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
6 teaspoons canola oil, plus more as needed
1 cup finely shredded green cabbage
1/2 cup finely chopped cremini mushrooms
1/3 cup peeled and shredded carrot
Pinch of salt
Cornstarch, for dusting
24 round or square wonton wrappers
1. Make the dipping sauce: In a small bowl, whisk the soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, ginger and sesame oil (if using) until the sugar dissolves. Cover and set aside.
2. Make the filling for the dumplings: In another small bowl, stir together the scallions, soy sauce, hoisin sauce and ginger. Add 2 teaspoons canola oil to a large nonstick frying pan. Turn the heat to medium and warm up the oil for 2 minutes. Carefully add the cabbage, mushrooms and carrot and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the scallion mixture and stir to combine. Transfer the dumpling filling to a medium bowl and let cool to room temperature. Wipe out the pan or clean it if necessary.
3. Once the filling has cooled, assemble the dumplings: Put 1 cup water in a medium bowl. Sprinkle a large rimmed baking sheet with 2 to 3 tablespoons cornstarch, using your fingers to evenly distribute it.
4. Lay 1 wonton wrapper on a clean work surface. Spoon 1 teaspoon of the dumpling filling in the center of the wrapper. Dip your fingers in the water and lightly moisten the edges of the wrapper. Fold the wrapper in half (if using squares, fold the wrapper in half diagonally to form a triangle) and press the edges together to seal. Place the dumpling on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with additional wrappers and the remaining filling until you’ve used up all the filling. (At this point, you can freeze some of the dumplings in a single layer on the baking sheet. Once they are frozen, transfer them to a resealable plastic bag and freeze for up to 3 months. Don’t thaw them before cooking, but add a few minutes to the cooking time.)
5. Cook the dumplings: Brush the same frying pan with 2 teaspoons canola oil, set the pan over medium heat and warm up the oil for 2 minutes. Adding one dumpling at a time but working quickly, dust off excess cornstarch and add as many dumplings as will comfortably fit in a single layer in the pan (don’t crowd them or they won’t cook evenly). Let cook (no stirring!) until browned on the bottom, 2 to 3 minutes. Using tongs, gently flip the dumplings. Carefully pour about 1/2 cup water into the pan (it will bubble up and steam!). Cover and cook until the water is mostly absorbed, about 4 minutes.
6. Transfer the dumplings to a serving platter and cover lightly with aluminum foil to keep warm. Repeat to cook the remaining dumplings, brushing the pan with 2 teaspoons canola oil before each batch.
7. Serve dumplings warm, with the dipping sauce.
Chocolate Mug Cake
Yield: 1 serving
Total time: 5 minutes
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
A few drops vanilla extract
3 to 4 tablespoons granulated sugar, to taste
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
A pinch of kosher salt
1 teaspoon semisweet chocolate chips (optional)
Confectioners’ sugar or vanilla ice cream (optional)
1. Microwave the butter in a microwave-safe mug in 10-second increments until melted, 20 to 30 seconds. Crack the egg into a small bowl; add the vanilla and whisk to combine using a small whisk or fork. Pour the egg mixture into the mug over the butter and whisk to combine.
2. Add the sugar, cocoa powder and salt and whisk until mostly smooth (a few lumps are OK). Scrape down the sides the best you can with a spoon or a small silicone spatula. Sprinkle with mini chocolate chips, if desired.
3. Cook in the microwave on high for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out mostly clean. Sift a little confectioners’ sugar on top or serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if desired. Dig in with a spoon.