What Makes a Great Kids' Cookbook?
Plus: 12 children's cookbooks we love.
Howdy cookbook fans!
One of the most frequent questions I get asked about cookbooks is: what are some really great cookbooks for kids? I can recommend all kinds of cookbooks, from baking to cocktails to hey-my-sister-in-law-is-really-into-citrus-but-hates-sweets, but kids cookbooks? Not my forte. Thankfully, writer Marah Eakin not only has some suggestions for cookbooks kids will love cooking from, but some insights into what makes a good kids’ cookbooks really great. Start ‘em young, I say! Here’s Marah:
Embrace the Mess: What Makes a Great Kids’ Cookbook?
By Marah Eakin
My first cookbook was Barbara Walker’s The Little House Cookbook. I remember poring over the recipes inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House book series for hours. But what makes a cookbook like that connect with a kid, especially when there are so many available in the marketplace? What makes a great kids’ cookbook stand out from a merely serviceable one, and what makes a kids’ cookbook different from one meant for adults? (Don’t say food cut into fun shapes.)
For cookbook author Danielle Kartes (My Very First Cookbook, Mom And Me Cooking Together, Rustic Joyful Food), any kids’ cookbook should be about getting excited to do something new. “If you get your kids involved in dinner, they have a broader palate,” she says. “I don't have unrealistic expectations where it's like, ‘My kids prefer to eat spinach smoothies with almond milk and manuka honey.’ I’m just letting them know that there's more food out there than pizza, chicken nuggets, fries, and butter noodles. My kids love all those things, too. Heck, I love all those things. But it's nice to introduce your kids to other food and have them love it. If they like butter noodles, then maybe let’s add ground turkey and broccoli and make it fun, like an inside out shells pasta, instead.”
Kelly Barrales-Saylor, Kartes’ editor at Sourcebooks Explore, says all her favorite kids’ cookbooks give kids a sense of agency. “Kids really enjoy figuring out how to do things on their own,” she explains. “They like having autonomy. They like being in charge and not feeling like they're being talked down to.” Great kids’ cookbooks acknowledge that, yes, some things in the kitchen are hard. Some, like knives and stovetops, can even be a little dangerous. But maybe with some help (or not!), a child can make something that they’ll be thrilled to eat—and share with you.
The very best kids’ cookbooks, Barrales-Saylor says, treat kids like they’re smart and capable. They share recipes for food that kids would love in a way they can understand, rather than just “kiddifying it,” as she describes it, like just throwing a funny face made out of fruit on a rice cake and calling it a day. “I don't like it when a cookbook tries to make something kid friendly just by cutting things into fun shapes,” she says. “I think that's fussy work and it's unnecessary. Plus, you're making it seem like kids wouldn't eat that thing unless you cut it into the shape of a flower.”
Instead, good kids’ cookbooks show kids can and should get excited by cooking for other reasons: because they love to eat, or because they love to make messes. They can get into baking because they like art, or maybe as part of a STEM lesson. There’s a science to what goes on in the oven, and good cookbooks can use their text and illustrations not just to relay recipes, but to explain how and why these recipes work.
Great kids’ cookbooks also know their audience. Kartes has written books for preschoolers and she’s written books for elementary-aged kids. She says the way these books approach the material is very different, and is something authors and publishers should be aware of. “Sometimes a picture of food doesn't necessarily get a 4- or 5-year-old excited, but a cartoon does,” she explains.
Calling out The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook by Dinah Bucholz as a great example of a cookbook that works for tweens, Kartes says “My 12 year old niece was super into it and she was all excited, but also there's an aptitude there because when you're 12 years old, you can pretty much get anything done and you understand a lot.” She says it’s easy for grown-ups to think of 12 year olds as absolute children, but in reality a publisher will benefit if they acknowledge the skills and confidence of their target audience. That’s what’s going to make them pick up a book again and again, and actually spend time with the recipes.
Teach kids resourcefulness and options, too. If you don’t have blueberries in the house when you’re trying to make muffins, all is not lost. Chop up some strawberries instead. That doesn’t just teach maneuverability, but also fiscal responsibility. “We’ve all gone through a time in our lives where we thought ‘groceries are so expensive,’” explains Kartes. “We might be transitioning from one job to a different job and money's tight. You think, ‘I want to make a recipe, but it calls for X, Y, and Z, so how can I be creative and make it work with what I have?’ If you teach those skills young, that can only help.” The more knowledge kids get when they’re young, the better.
The best part about kids’ cookbooks? There’s always room for more. “I had heard for quite some time that cookbooks for kids don't work, but we proved that wrong with the sales that we've been able to achieve,” says Barrales-Saylor. “I hope more people make kids cookbooks. There's room for variety. There's room for other approaches. There’s more opportunity for kids to find themselves in those books and say, ‘This looks like something I actually want to do.’”
12 Great Cookbooks for Kids!
My Very First Cookbook: Joyful Recipes to Make Together! by Danielle Kartes: This book is aimed at younger kids, and its recipes are fun and simple. It’s a great way to begin your kid’s cooking adventure.
The Super Easy Teen Cookbook by Christina Hitchcock: As the title suggests, this book skews toward older kids, meaning its recipes is also a little more advanced. It’s a great bridge between kids’ cookbooks and ones meant for adults, and is full of delicious sounding recipes for things like deconstructed spicy-tangy elote salad and make-at-home poke bowls.
Pretend Soup, Honest Pretzels, and Salad People by Mollie Katzen: Legendary children’s cookbooks from the author of The Moosewood Cookbook, Pretend Soup, Honest Pretzels, and Salad People are full of charmingly illustrated recipes for preschoolers and elementary-aged children. Each recipe comes with detailed instructions, as well as a series of reviews from actual kids.
Baking Class by Deanna F. Cook: A helpfully spiral-bound cookbook, Baking Class should help any kid become the hit of their school bake sale. Each recipe has helpful sidebar tips, and there are good descriptions of baking terms like “crimp” at the front of the book.
The Forest Feast for Kids by Erin Gleeson: A vegetarian cookbook that’s beautifully crafted but also simple enough for elementary-aged kids to understand. The Forest Feast For Kids is a great option for kids who have made the choice to live meat-free—or just kids who love a good vegetable.
Super Good Baking for Kids by Duff Goldman: If your kid’s into cooking, then they’ve probably watched one of Duff Goldman’s Food Network shows, like Kids Baking Championship. Goldman understands both what’s exciting about food for kids and the kinds of occasionally ridiculous things kids want to make, like a cake that, for some reason, looks like a bison. Super Good Baking trusts that kids might want to figure out upper level baking maneuvers like pâte à choux and tarts, and contains helpful tips to help them get there.
The Silver Spoon for Children by Amanda Grant: This cookbook was released by Phaidon, a publisher that has made some of the most stunning cookbooks of all time. The Silver Spoon For Children isn’t quite El Bulli: 2005-2011, but its approach to illustrated recipes and concepts makes it an entertaining read. Pick this one up if your kid calls themselves “a foodie.”
The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs by America’s Test Kitchen: The Complete Cookbook For Young Chefs is a comprehensive approach to learning your way around the kitchen. Chapters include “Getting Started In the Kitchen,” “Conversions And Equivalents,” and both “Cooking For You” and “Cooking For Family & Friends.”
American Girl Garden To Table by Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen: Lifestyle doll manufacturer American Girl has gone whole-hog into cookbooks and some parents swear by them. I could go either way, frankly, but I do like Garden To Table, which could be a nice companion lesson for a kid who’s learning how to garden. It’s always great for kids to learn where their food comes from, and if they’re both growing and cooking it themselves, that can only serve to make them more proud.
Milk Bar: Kids Only by Christina Tosi: For a lot of kids, baking is a great way into the world of cooking. After all, who doesn’t like sweets? Milk Bar Bakery owner Christina Tosi blends the fun of coyly designed baked goods with great lessons about using what you have (brown bananas, anyone?) and learning to cook seasonally throughout the year. Kids will love this book, and adults will want to use it too.
Marah Eakin is a longtime writer and editor who's written stories for Vulture, The Strategist, The Ringer, Wired, Netflix, Input, and more. Her grandparents owned a restaurant for 50 years, and her mother is a restaurant and hospitality writer in Cleveland. She lives in Pasadena, California with her husband, twin 4-year-olds, and many beloved cookbooks. You can find her @marahe on your social media platform of choice.