On Cooking with Kids (With a Few Recommended Books)

I recently got into a conversation about the notion that "cooking with kids" is hokey and doesn't belong in a tasteful food publication. I hear the point, but I think it's because so much of what's presented as children's cooking is exactly that: Hokey.

We live in a time like no other, when the odds of growing into a healthy adult with healthy attitudes about food and an ability to cook well are stacked against most kids. I think it's wonderful that there is so much more attention being given to this topic than ever before — books, blogs, cooking classes for kids, little white toques and aprons ("cooking robes" as my daughter would say) — but what all of these things are replacing is the good old fashioned practice of cooking together as a family. Having a grandma in the house and passing down recipes through the generations feels like an increasingly rare concept. Having the whole family around the table for dinner every night is very rare.

These days life is more complicated. Many of us live thousands of miles from our elders, we work — some have the kids in daycare, not standing around rolling gnocchi all day. You can reclaim that time though, even if just in little bits.

I'm not a fan of disguising healthy things, or tricking kids into eating things. I'm also not big on making sugar the centerpiece of a child's cooking experience. Below are some books that should inspire just about anyone — parent, aunt, neighbor, babysitter, friend — to kick back with a child, and get their hands into the food. It's the best step in the direction of making sure the children of today take care of their bodies, their earth, and their happiness by cooking and eating well. Remember, the most helpful tool for connecting kids and cooking in a meaningful way is taking time and exploring ingredients, whether or not you have a book to guide you.

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The Silver Spoon for Children: Favorite Italian Recipes by Editors of Phaidon Press (Phaidon Press) - If you haven't checked out the Silver Spoon series yet, start here with this Nonna-in-a-book. It contains all the big hits of the Italian culinary tradition (Pizza Margherita, Polenta Gnocchi, Tuscan Minestrone Soup) presented in both illustrated and photographic form with easy-to-follow instructions. It doesn't avoid ingredients like prosciutto, but it doesn't come off a even a bit snooty. Check out a recent review from Carrie at our kids' site, Ohdeedoh.com. (Amazon.com & Powells.com)

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Get Cooking: 150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen by Mollie Katzen (Harper Studio) - The celebrated Moosewood Cookbook author's latest work isn't necessarily aimed at children the way her Salad People, Honest Pretzels and Pretend Soup are. Instead, it's the every-recipe-you-always-wanted-to-know-but-were-afraid-to-ask-how-to-make book. The recipes in Get Cooking are simple and inexpensive to prepare. We're starting to see a lot of recession-friendly cookbooks, but this one is a stand-out for the Mollie-factor. It's family friendly, with a good crunchy warm vibe. (Amazon.com & Powells.com)

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Baking Kids Love by Cindy Mushet (Andrews McMeel Publishing) - If you have to go the sugar-coated-cupcake route to get your kids to cook, I'd start with this title, part of the Sur La Table series. It has the basics like chocolate chip cookies, but also some more "mature" recipes like Rustic Apple Pie, Pumpkin Gingerbread and Focaccia. (Amazon.com & Powells.com)

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The Gastrokid Cookbook: Feeding a Foodie Family in a Fast-Food World by Hugh Garvey (Wiley) - The authors start out with their 10 Gastrokid Rules, including: "Never Call a Kid a Picky Eater," (It just gives him an excuse to refuse stuff.), "Don't Take It Personally That Your Kids Despise Your Cooking," and "When In Doubt, Add Salt, Fat, and Acid." The authors take a very freehand approach to cooking (measuring spoons are just an extra thing to wash). So their recipes are very, very short and simple sketches of quick dishes to make on short notice, like quick pasta dishes, crispy cod, grilled Japanese eggplant, and Tuscan steak for toddlers. Read our full review here. (Amazon.com & Powells.com)

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Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child's Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes by Alice Waters (William Morrow Cookbooks) - Told from the perspective of Waters's daughter, Fanny, this is a cookbook for families who are okay with Crouton and Gremolata and Mirepoix being part of their kids' vocabularies. (Hint: if they're cooking with these items, you will win. Why wouldn't you encourage your own mini Chez Panisse chef?!) I also think her Edible Schoolyard is a wonderful source of inspiration for children to see how food is grown, and how kids themselves can grow, harvest and eat it. (Amazon.com & Powells.com)

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Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys by Lucinda Scala Quinn (Artisan) - This is a knock-out book from the woman whose hand is in much of the culinary programming at Martha Stewart. She's the mother of three boys, and the sister of three brothers. Don't expect the "boy" slant to translate to corndogs and chili. This is a beautifully thoughtful book on satisfying hungry bellies and keeping anyone with the xy chromosomes interested enough in eating that they actually want to cook as well. And it's not just for boys: my daughter would devour anything in here. (Amazon.com & Powells.com)

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Knead It, Punch It, Bake It!: The Ultimate Breadmaking Book for Parents and Kids by Judith Jones (Houghton Mifflin Company) - This is a classic book for children, written by the deeply knowledgeable and charming Judith Jones who was Julia Child's editor. She understands what children need to stay interested in cooking and these recipes will captivate. If you see a copy, snap it up. (Amazon.com & Powells.com)

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More-With-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre (Herald Press) - Originally published in 1976, this is a title that made a big impact on Faith. She wrote a piece about it that is worth a read. It is not aimed specifically at kids, but if Faith is any evidence, it could make a deep impression on a young person with its focus on healthy, conscientious cooking. (Amazon.com & Powells.com)

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The Family Kitchen Garden: How to Plant, Grow, and Cook Together by Karen Liebreich (Timber Press) - This is a very informative book that covers eating from backyard to table, including all ages at every step of the way. With just a few recipes, this is more of a gardening textbook than cookbook, but I don't see how anyone could use this book and not come out with scads of cooking ideas. Being able to interact with food at every step of its life-cycle is an experience every child should have, even if it's just in a little window-sill box. (Amazon.com & Powells.com)

For more cookbook action, check out our archive of reviews.

A version of this post was originally sent to our email subscribers yesterday. To receive Sara Kate's weekly email, sign up in the column to the left or click here. Something tasty will arrive in your inbox every Thursday.

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Sara Kate is the founding editor of The Kitchn. She co-founded the site in 2005 and has since written three cookbooks. She is most recently the co-author of The Kitchn Cookbook, to be published in October 2014 by Clarkson Potter.

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