For several years, grown-up alarm over childhood obesity rates has led to changes in school lunch menus, physical activity programs, and even classic Sesame Street songs. A cookie, sadly, is now “a sometime food.” There is evidence that these measures have had some success, and nowadays schools and other organizations are encouraging children to be active participants in this conversation. Cooking clubs and school gardens teach nutrition, economics, math skills, and even hygiene (wash those hands!) in a concrete, unpreachy way, with intellectual, physical, and psychological benefits that include improved vocabulary, self-esteem, and creativity.
There are a lot of terrific food and cooking books available right now for kids. Many of them have rich tie-ins to history, math, culture, and science. What’s more, they offer sweet—and savory—rewards. I think you’ll find these titles well worth stocking on library shelves.
Cookbooks and food concept books teach numeracy, color, and volume, as well as vocabulary to very young children. Cooking with little kids is often an exercise in sensory learning, and listening to them find words for what they are experiencing—“sticky,” “soft,” “crunchy,” “sweet”—is part of the fun.
BARRETT, Judi. Grandpa’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs Cookbook. illus. by Ron Barrett. S. & S. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442444751; ebk. $12.99. ISBN 9781442444768.
PreS-Gr 4 –Kid-friendly recipes for pancakes, tuna fish, broccoli salad, and other familiar foods are accompanied by big, funny original drawings that will delight fans of the duo’s picture books: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (1978); Pickles to Pittsburgh (1997, both S. & S.); and The Marshmallow Incident (Scholastic, 2009). It’s all great fun, and Foggy Pea Soup is actually super yummy.
FILLION, Susan. Pizza in Pienza. illus. by author. Godine. 2013. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781567924596.
PreS-Gr 2 –A little girl shows readers around her village while she talks about her favorite food in this bilingual (English/Italian) picture book. Bold, sunny paintings make the link between the warm landscapes and the colors and flavors of pizza. Plenty of history (and additional resources at the end) fleshes out this read-aloud charmer.
KATZEN, Mollie & Ann Henderson. Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up. illus. by Mollie Katzen. Ten Speed. 1994. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781883672065.
PreS-Gr 2– Recipes that preschoolers can execute all by themselves are rare, and that’s why this classic is included here. (Also, see its companion, Salad People and More Real Recipes, 2005.) Prereaders can work through the illustrated step-by-step instructions for making dishes like Fruit Dip, Number Salad, Bagel Faces, and 16 other recipes with little or no help.
Mommy & Me Start Cooking: Cook and Learn Together. DK. 2014. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781465416902.
PreS-Gr 2– Double-page spreads introduce and explain key ingredients.‒For example, 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. Recipes (e.g., chicken risotto, fishcakes) definitely require an adult hand but include kid-friendly steps like mashing, kneading, rolling, and stirring.
PAGE, Stefan. We’re Going to the Farmers’ Market. illus. by author. Chronicle. 2014. Board $7.99. ISBN 9781452118345; ebk. 5.99. ISBN 9781452136394.
PreS-Gr 1– Fruits, vegetables, fish, dairy products, and fungi—all the things you’ll see at the farmers’ market—are depicted in big, satisfying shapes and a palette of dazzling oranges and greens. Rhyming text will take a back seat as little kids point out familiar food items. A snazzy-looking board book for design fans.
SAYRE, April Pulley. Let’s Go Nuts: Seeds We Eat. photos by author. S. & S./Beach Lane. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781442467286; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781442467279.
PreS-Gr 2– Beans, seeds, grains, and spices are arranged in lush, quiltlike patterns that emphasize their varied sizes, shapes, and colors. Minimal text bops along with lots of internal rhymes and alliteration (“Boats of oats,” “Shell them. Share them!”). A smart photographic introduction to whole foods similar to the author’s Rah, Rah Radishes! (2011) and Go, Go Grapes! (2012, both S. & S.).
Books about the science and history of food serve facts in bite-size portions. Following a recipe helps kids understand the mechanics of process writing, while not following a recipe offers endless opportunities for trial and error experimentation. And they get to eat their mistakes!
BARLOW, Melissa. Noodlemania!: 50 Playful Pasta Recipes. photos by Zac Williams. illus. by Alison Oliver. Quirk. 2013. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781594746178; ebk. $15.95. ISBN 9781594746697.
Gr 1-4– Cute and silly edible projects include cherry tomato ladybugs and jellyfish made out of spaghetti noodles and hot dogs. On the recipe end, this book does not get high marks, calling for Alfredo sauce from a jar, goldfish crackers, and Mexicorn. Still, bright pictures and clean, modern design make it a fun flip-through.
DE LAURENTIIS, Giada. Naples! illus. by Francesca Gambatesa. (Recipe for Adventure). Penguin. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780448478531; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780448462561; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9780698152687.
Gr 3-6– Emilia and Alfie meet new friends and discover local food culture when they are magically transported to Naples, Italy. History, production, and tradition are emphasized as the siblings learn the difference between mass-produced processing and handmade food assembled from local ingredients. Includes two recipe cards. See also Paris! (2013) and Hong Kong! (2014).
EAMER, Claire. The World in Your Lunch Box: The Wacky History and Weird Science of Everyday Foods. illus. by Sa Boothroyd. Annick. 2012. Tr $22.95. ISBN 9781554513932; pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781554513925.
Gr 3-8– An assignment from the school cooking teacher prompts a boy to investigate the ingredients in his lunch—banana, watermelon, potato, tortilla, ice cream, etc. With a kid-friendly structure and super-goofy illustrations, this is probably the best book on the history and science of familiar foods to have been published for kids in recent years.
KID CHEF Eliana, with Dianne de Las Casas. Cool Kids Cook: Fresh & Fit. illus. by Soleil Lisette. Pelican. 2014. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9781455618927.
Gr 3-8– Kid Chef Eliana, a 13-year-old chef and host of the Cool Kids Cook radio show, presents 30+ healthy recipes that are interesting, not too difficult, and actually appealing to kids. Young cooks will learn new techniques as they grill chicken for satay, broil Brussels sprouts for salad, and use a pastry bag to make mini tarts. Try it!
KING, Kathleen. Tate’s Bake Shop Baking with Kids. St. Martin’s/Priddy. 2012. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9780312513962.
Gr 1-6– Sturdy moistureproof pages and a stand-up vertical binding signal that this is a cookbook meant to be used. Little bakers will experience a high degree of success due to exceptionally clear instructions and well-designed pages. Mostly cakes and cookies, with a few muffins and no-rise breads to round things out.
LEWIS, Sarah. Kids’ Baking: 60 Delicious Recipes for Children to Make. Octopus. 2013. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9780600625162.
Gr 1-8– Beautiful photos of kids pouring, mixing, tasting, and sometimes making a mess will assure young readers that baking cookies, cakes, and breads is well within their reach. The sharp, easy-to-read design stays out of the way of the unusually (and helpfully) detailed instructions.
MARTIN, Jacqueline Briggs. Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table. illus. by Eric Larkin. Readers to Eaters. 2013. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780983661535.
Gr 3-6– Martin shares the remarkable life story of former professional basketball player Will Allen, urban farmer and food educator. Straightforward prose and colorful illustrations done in muscular ink lines express the energy and confidence of the book’s subject as he works alongside smiling grownups and kids. Abundant back matter includes information about Allen’s work.
MEAD, Matthew. The Official DC Super Hero Cookbook: 50+ Simple, Tasty Recipes. Downtown Bookworks. 2013. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781935703914.
Gr 1-6– Super-cute pictures of action figures heroically hoisting sandwiches and clean, zingy styling with lots of Golden Age drop-in art give this book huge shelf appeal. Recipes range from simple assembly jobs (veggie sticks tied up with gold thread) to cooked dishes such as Power Ring Pasta (fusilli, spinach and kale, butter).
MENDEZ, Sean. One World Kids Cookbook: Easy, Healthy, and Affordable Family Meals. Interlink. 2011. Tr $20. ISBN 9781566568661.
Gr 3-8– Good instructions and very helpful process photos show a fabulously diverse cast of kids chopping, pouring, waiting, and eating. Every recipe is from a different country, for example, jambalaya from the United States and jollof rice from Ghana—heavy on the grains and vegetables, light on red meat.
SAMPSON, Sally. ChopChop: The Kids’ Guide to Cooking Real Food with Your Family. photos by Carl Tremblay. S. & S. 2013. pap. $19.99. ISBN 9781451685879; ebk. $14.56. ISBN 9781451685893.
Gr 3-8– Notable for its attractive photos of tons of diverse kids in action: stirring, pouring, grating, frying, and, most importantly, eating. Recipes include staples like spaghetti sauce and mashed potatoes along with some newly popular dishes like mango lassi and fish tacos. Lots of suggested variations show kids how to make any recipe their own.
SWANN, Rick. Our School Garden! illus. by Christy Hale. Readers to Eaters. 2012. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780983661504.
Gr 1-6– The garden at Michael’s new school is full of fresh sensations. Thirteen poems describe holding a handful of compost, eating a leaf, watching a bug, and more. Richly textured mixed-media illustrations in earthy tones follow a diverse class as they plan, plant, harvest, and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Notes and resources expand on the text.
TILLI, Laura & Jess Tilli. Cakes. (My Cookbook). QEB. 2012. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9781609922795.
Gr 3-8– The delicious recipes in this book and its companion volume, Baking (2012), are rated “Easy-peasy” to “Super chef,” which helps junior bakers chart their progress. Steps are illustrated with drawings instead of photos, which aren’t always perfect, and recipes do not use electric mixers.
TODD, Mark. Food Trucks! illus. by author. Houghton Harcourt. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544157842; ebk. $16.99. ISBN 9780544302501.
Gr 2-5– What’s got “shoots and roots and dried fruits, cucumbers, carrots, and croutons to boot”? Why it’s Mr. Cobb, the salad truck! A veritable vacant-lot-full of food trucks with personality parade through 16 piquant poems. Two-page spreads are spiced up with food facts and hearty illustrations full of fun details.
WAGNER, Lisa. Cool Game Day Parties: Beyond the Basics for Kids Who Cook. (Cool Young Chefs). ABDO. 2014. Tr $28.50. ISBN 9781624030888.
Gr 3-6– There are only nine recipes in this “beyond the basics” cookbook, but they include crowd-pleasers such as meatball sliders and chocolate lava cakes. The harmonious retro design keeps things gender neutral, as do pictures of ethnically diverse kids with their parents. Two or three process photos per recipe help ensure success. Other entries in the series are also worth considering.
WAGNER, Lisa. Cool World Cooking: Fun and Tasty Recipes for Kids! Scarletta. 2013. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781938063121; ebk. $11.95. ISBN 9781938063138.
Gr 4-8– Delicious and very nearly foolproof recipes from Mexico, France, Italy, Africa, the Middle East, and China & Japan. Attractive photos illustrate cooking processes like shredding, mashing, trussing a chicken, and checking for doneness. Foods like carrot salad or tabbouleh add diversity—and vegetarian options—to the recipe collection.
WILLIAMS, Zac. Little Monsters Cookbook. photos by author. Gibbs Smith. 2010. spiral $14.99. ISBN 9781423606000; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781423615088.
Gr 1-4– Creepy-kooky recipes like Vampire Bites and Coffin Crunchers are constructed using simple ingredients (apples, raisins) and prepared foods (canned frosting, frozen meatballs, refrigerated dough). Fun for seasonal classroom or club use, although not terribly healthy. Sharp, full-bleed color pictures offer styling suggestions, and the spiral binding lies flat for ease of use.
ZIMMERN, Andrew. Andrew Zimmern’s Field Guide to Exceptionally Weird, Wild, and Wonderful Foods: An Intrepid Eater’s Digest. Feiwel & Friends. 2012. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781250019295; pap. $14.99. ISBN 9780312606619; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781466827660.
Gr 3-8– Approachable, conversational language and cartoon line drawings do not diminish the authority of well-researched articles on foods like crayfish, foie gras, and head cheese. Packed with off-topic sidebars: (“Words for ‘fart’” will be a hit) and recipes for roasted rabbit, fake blood, and lung soup. Much more than another catalog of “Eww,” a winner in any library.
Middle Grade and Teen Books
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 grown-ups 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.
ALEXANDER, Reed. KewlBites: 100 Nutritious, Delicious, and Family-Friendly Dishes. Rodale. 2013. pap. $21.99. ISBN 9781609615109; ebk. $21.99. ISBN 9781609615116.
Gr 6 Up– The focus is on healthy ingredients in these rational and reasonably accessible recipes. Good photography (although no process photos) and lots of friendly, first-person jabber from your host (a former cast member from the TV show, iCarly) will make this an appealing choice for tweens and teens.
BAINES, Emily Ansara . The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook: From Lamb Stew to Grooslin—More than 150 Recipes Inspired by The Hunger Games Trilogy. (Unofficial Cookbook). Adams Media. 2011. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781440526589; ebk. $19.95. ISBN 9781440529627.
Gr 6 Up– Along with Katniss’s favorite Lamb Stew with Plums and Peeta’s baked goods, readers can learn to prepare forage foods such as milkweed and rock tripe (lichens) and wild game. References to the books are plentiful and authoritative; recipe instructions are clear. A few words of caution regarding wild plants would not have gone astray, but this is a fine addition.
BEDELL, J. M. So, You Want to Be a Chef?: How to Get Started in the World of Culinary Arts. Aladdin/Beyond Words. 2013. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781582704371; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781582704364; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781442488847.
Gr 6 Up– Interviews with working chefs and other food professionals constitute the bulk of this soup-to-nuts guide to careers in cooking. Readers learn about the long hours, years of toil, low-paid apprenticeships, and schooling that most cooks put in before attaining the rank of chef. Chapters on media and food science careers show kids where to look beyond the line.
ELTON, Sarah . Starting from Scratch: What You Should Know About Food and Cooking. illus. by Jeff Kulak. Owlkids. 2014. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781926973968.
Gr 6 Up– We know what we eat, but why do we eat it? How do taste, geography, and technology influence our culture’s cuisine? This abundantly illustrated book offers insight into areas that even adult cooks may take for granted: What exactly does heat do to food? A fascinating look at food from a different angle.
GOLD, Rozanne. Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs. photos by Phil Mansfield. Bloomsbury. 2009. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9781599902821; pap. $19.99. ISBN 9781599904450.
Gr 6 Up– 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 photos are appetizing and colorful.
LAIR, Cynthia, with Scott Murdoch . Feeding the Young Athlete: Sports Nutrition Made Easy for Players, Parents, and Coaches. Readers to Eaters. 2012. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9780983661528.
Gr 6 Up– This slender but info-dense book is packed with practical, concrete advice for fueling up, maintaining energy, and recovering from physical activity, backed up by research and explanations of physiological processes. Large sidebars and pull quotes get the point across—even to readers simply skimming the pages. Includes 33 appealing recipes.
LLEWELLYN, Claire and Clare O’Shea. Cooking With Meat and Fish. (Cooking Healthy). Rosen. 2012. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9781448848454.
Gr 6 Up– This series entry follows beef, lamb, pork, poultry, and fish from breeding, production, and processing to putting it on a plate. Unusually informative and full of great photos and diagrams. The recipes (three to six per food category) aren’t bad either.
STERN, Sam. Get Cooking. photos by Lorne Campbell. Candlewick. 2009. pap. $17.99. ISBN 9780763639266.
Gr 6 Up– The recipes here are not uncomplicated. Some of them use unfamiliar or hard-to-find ingredients (korma paste, ground lamb). But the book shows teen chef and author Sam and his friends having fun cooking and eating. Updated British cuisine like Top Sausage Yorkshires (individual Toad-in-the-Hole) and Shepherd’s Pie is delicious.
ChopChop. www.chopchopmag.org. ChopChop Kids. (Accessed 4/22/14).
Gr 1-6– ChopChop is a nonprofit that partners with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the USDA. The organization’s fun and appealing website offers the latest issue of their magazine and features nearly 250 recipes that are healthy, ethnically diverse, and economical, ranging in difficulty from fruit water to baked stuffed apples.
Fizzy’s Lunch Lab. pbskids.org/lunchlab. PBS Kids. (Accessed 4/22/14).
K-Gr 3– Nearly 100 healthy, delicious, and affordable recipes are available as downloadable or printable PDFs on this food-themed webcartoon’s site. Most are simple enough for very young children and/or suitable for classroom or club use. Games and songs (don’t miss “Ballad of Fiber”) reinforce nutrition concepts.
Spatulatta. www.spatulatta.com. Spatulatta LLC. (Accessed 4/22/14).
Gr 1-3– The girls who created the The Spatulatta Cookbook (Scholastic, 2007) have moved on with their lives, but their website remains an invaluable resource. In over 350 videos, Liv and Belle demonstrate recipes that any kid can make. The “Recipe Box” is a searchable database—just choose the meal, holiday, cuisine, or ingredient and hit search.
USDA Choose My Plate.gov. www.choosemyplate.gov. USDA. (Accessed 4/22/14).
All ages– Clear and well organized, this website explains each component of the MyPlate model for healthy eating and includes loads of important information: protein requirements, oil content of foods, dairy portions, and equivalents, and more, as well as recipes and physical activity recommendations. The kids’ section includes recipes, games, activity sheets, and videos.
For Teachers and Parents
Epicurious: Kids in the Kitchen. www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/everydaycooking/family/kids-in-the-kitchen. Condé Nast. (Accessed 4/22/14).
A few useful articles on cooking with kids—and witty menus based on children’s books—serve as a gateway to the vast and well-organized Epicurious recipe database. Page design is relatively uncluttered, and recipes print nicely.
The Six O’Clock Scramble. www.thescramble.com. The Six O’Clock Scramble, LLC. (Accessed 4/22/14).
This paid subscription service delivers seasonal menus, recipes, and grocery lists to the subscriber’s email inbox once a week. The weekly plan makes it easier to share cooking responsibilities among family members and offers tips for delegating tasks and meals. The emphasis is on balanced meals made from fresh ingredients.
Taking Action for Change
Budding food activists will find a lot of support for their cause online. The organizations listed below offer talking points, data, toolkits, and contact with other people who are passionate about improving the way we eat.
The Edible Schoolyard Project. edibleschoolyard.org. The Edible Schoolyard Project. (Accessed 4/22/14).
Why and how to start a school garden, including inspirational stories and photos.
Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
www.jamieoliver.com/us/foundation/jamies-food-revolution/home. Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. (Accessed 4/22/14).
Former teen chef Jamie Oliver describes his movement to reform school lunch, increase food education in schools, and eradicate flavored milk. Seriously, the guy just HATES flavored milk.
Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools. saladbars2schools.org. Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools. (Accessed 4/22/14).
Initiated in 2010, this fund-raising organization is dedicated to installing salad bars in school lunchrooms to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Basil: Smart Recipe Manager. Kyle Baxter. 2014. Version 2.0.3. iOS, requires 7.0 or later. Compatible with iPad. $2.99. basil-app.com. (Accessed 4/22/14).
Gr 5 Up– Once kids have learned to read and evaluate a recipe for themselves (or with help), they can look beyond the cookbook shelf. This app aids in recipe discovery by searching about a dozen cooking websites simultaneously, stripping out ads and other extraneous content. Users can save the recipes they find and record their own.
Fizzy’s Lunch Lab Fresh Pick. PBS Kids. 2013. Version 1.2.2. iOS, requires 4.3 or later. Compatible with iPad. Android, Version 1.2.1, requires 2.2 or later. Also available for Nook Tablet. Free. (Accessed 4/22/14).
K-Gr 3– Featuring some of the same content and characters as the PBS website, cute and silly food-themed games develop and test basic skills: arithmetic, spatial reasoning, directions, and more.
WeCookit. Mango Tree. 2014. Version 1.0.2. iOS, requires 7.0 or later. $2.99. www.we-cookit.com. (Accessed 4/22/14).
Gr 2 Up– Each recipe starts with a shopping list and an overhead photo of the tools needed. Sharp photos in lush colors illustrate every step of the cooking process. An integrated timer is a clever addition, but more experienced kids will be able to assess doneness just by comparing their food with the photo.
Publishers have responded to the surge of interest with food-themed fiction, nonfiction, and instructional books. We have reviewed (and tested! You can’t judge a cookbook without breaking some eggs!) food books of all types. When evaluating them—especially cookbooks—you should keep in mind the following:
- Look at the ingredient list. Too few ingredients and the meatloaf will be bland. Too many and they’ll never try making moussaka.
- Process photographs are good. A kids’ cookbook has to teach movement instruction: this is what your hands look like when you roll cookie dough into balls, this is the motion you use to whisk eggs.
- Design is important. One of my testers nearly botched a batch of cookies because the instructions weren’t laid out consistently.
- Age range is flexible. A third grader with some kitchen experience will enjoy cooking the more challenging recipes in “teen” books like Eat Fresh Food, while a 14-year-old cooking newbie may require the detailed step-by-step instructions in Kids’ Baking, a book that appears to be for younger kids.
- Pay attention to the publisher. DK sells a full line of cookbooks, but some readers find them to be irritatingly gender focused and hard to follow due to busy design. Specialty publishers such as Readers to Eaters produce books that combine food science, history, and recipes.