It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

Cooking with kids

Food writer Anne Mendelson reviewed a number of cookbooks aimed at kids about two years ago. She passed the stack on to me, as I am in possession of an actual child. The stack included:

  • Fun Food, Williams-Sonoma, publisher
  • Children's Quick & Easy Cookbook, Angela Wilkes, DK Publishing
  • Children's Cookbook, Katharine Ibbs, DK Publishing
  • Grow It Cook It, DK Publishing
  • Cooking with Children, Marion Cunningham
  • Kitchen Playdates, Lauren Bank Deen
  • Salad People, Mollie Katzen
  • Real Food for Healthy Kids, Tracey Seaman and Tanya Wenman Steel, review copy
  • Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook, Brennan/Frankeny
  • The Family Kitchen, Debra Ponzek
  • Kids' Kitchen, Amanda Grant
  • The Toddler Cookbook, Annabel Karmel (my own)

They range from kids cooking alone (I'd put Marion Cunningham, Williams-Sonoma, and perhaps Kids' Kitchen here) to cooking for kids (Real Food for Healthy Kids and the Seuss), with the rest in the cooking with kids as helpers category, more or less, although the titles (with the exception of Cunningham) imply that the kids will be the main cooks in the kitchen. What the hell a kid is, I don't know. Jake's helped in the kitchen since he was 18 months old (and was more interested then than now). Most authors probably assumed a child old enough to read and reason, so at least seven or so, up through pre-teen, as a teen would probably cook from an adult cookbook.

I found Real Food for Healthy Kids irksome in its constant requirements for "whole-grain" and "organic." It's off-putting to parents unable to spend the extra money or go the (literal) extra mile. Any parent dedicated to whole grains and organic would naturally substitute. The authors also claim that freezing breast milk destroys the nutrients. I don't remember my son Jakob being malnourished from 3 months to 12 months of age, when half his calorie and nutrient intake was frozen milk I'd pumped two days before. That statement needs references to solid studies to back it up.

Green Eggs and Ham is a gimmick cookbook, and works about as well as you would expect a gimmick cookbook to work. I couldn't imagine eating anything from it.

Most were geared to experienced cooks, especially the lavishly photographed books from Dorling Kinderly (DK Publishing). DK produces some wonderfully photographed books for young children with lots of pictures and few words, but for a new cook, extensive and accurate directions are necessary, unless the authors expect an adult to interpret every step. Really, what is "gentle heat"? Cunningham and Fun Food both give thorough directions.

And then there is the knife and stove question. Cunningham, Kids' Kitchen and W-S expect their young cooks to wield a knife; most others expect an adult to step in for that task and anything involving heat. Kitchen Playdate and The Family Kitchen both have sidebars for super-simple steps the authors feel children can cope with. Perhaps they were written with a younger audience in mind. By 12 I was cooking unsupervised, and our teenaged exchange students both cooked and baked occasionally. But even Jake wants to be really involved now at five, no longer just doing simple tasks. He also wants to do what he wants to do, like zesting lemons and digging in the flour container.

Many of the recipes were attractive to me and my adult palate, but I can't imagine Jake now, or my nine-year-old self, wanting to cook anything outside a narrow list of likes (anything sweet or starchy, and tomatoes). Even older children have foods they absolutely won't eat or try. Lemon sole with creamy spinach and mushrooms (The Family Kitchen)? Jake's already far head of me at the same age in that he'll eat fish sticks and raw spinach, but he tolerates no sauce on anything. Fish is also difficult to cook properly, especially to saute. Even Annabel Karmel's The Toddler Cookbook was over optimistic; Jake has just started eating plain quesadillas, let alone anything with corn or beans in it!

Cunningham and W-S stuck to more standard fare. Kids' Kitchen was a bit more adventurous (sesame fish sticks), but still had things kids are known to eat or that they are likely to have seen at home. (I must confess a failing here: Jake refuses mac and cheese but gobbles up Kraft.) Mollie Katzen (Salad People) was decidedly on the edge here; I can imagine kids of vegetarians eating many of the dishes, but the kids of my more mainstream friends turning up their noses. And the eponymous salad people are not nearly as fun to eat as to look at or make. On the other hand, she does have testimonials from kids who tested the recipes for her.

I'd say Cunningham's Cooking with Children and Williams-Sonoma's Fun Food came out best, good books even for adult cooks with no skills, followed by Kids' Kitchen. It's a hard audience to write for: picky eaters with short attention spans and no skills in the kitchen.

My own advice is to start them young: Jake was 18 months when he first mashed bananas with his father to make banana bread. Lay down some safety rules (hands off the cutting board always, step away from the stove). Small kids can dump ingredients; at three Jake could measure badly, by four he could measure well, although he has a habit of packing the flour in. My girlfriend confessed she doesn't even tell her kids she's making something if she cares a lot how it comes out. Baking is easier than cooking. Be prepared for a mess, and make your helper help with the clean up. You will need to be very patient. Small kids can roll dough, use cookie cutters and cookie presses (aka, a spritz gun), decorate, spread, flip pancakes, put pans in the oven if wearing oven mitts, and probably do more than we think they can.

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