A dozen cookbooks perfect for kids who love to cook, and some for picky eaters, too
If you have a child in your life who loves to cook, is a picky eater, enjoys digging in the garden, or just likes to giggle, I have the perfect book for you. There are cookbooks, picture books and books that blur those categories. They're part of a kids' library I've been building over the years, mostly picked up at used book sales at libraries. Most independent bookstores either have copies or can order them for you. Chicago Parent published a list of "Awesome Chicagoland Bookstores to Visit with Kids," and I've listed the suburban entries in the sidebar. Like local newspapers, independent neighborhood bookstores need our support. I encourage you to check them out first.
A few on this list have gone out of print; you'd need to track down a used copy. Beyond library sales, several online marketplaces (besides Amazon) specialize in used books. I use a few to score great deals on like-new copies from bookstores across the country. Just put the title of the book and "used" into an internet search and you will be able to compare prices from different sellers.
I've organized these by age, but the age breaks are approximate and overlap. It depends on the child, as some are drawn to books for older kids (if an adult can read to them), and others find comfort in books geared to little ones.
Books for ages 3-8
"The Ugly Vegetables" by Grace Lin (Tailwinds/Charlesbridge, 2001)
The first children's book by the prolific and award-winning Grace Lin, "The Ugly Vegetables," is about a little girl who enthusiastically helps her mother plant a garden. Soon after, she becomes embarrassed by the ripening Chinese vegetables that are so different from the neighbors' flower gardens. But when her mom makes vegetable soup, the delicious aroma lures the whole neighborhood, and the girl learns to appreciate "ugly" vegetables. There are many good lessons here about being different, trying new things and hidden beauty.
A recipe for the soup is included in the book, and Lin provides a pronunciation guide for unfamiliar Chinese vegetables like Jeou Tsay (joe zai) or Chinese leeks.
Head to an Asian supermarket (bring the book along for reference) and try making Ugly Vegetable Soup with the kids in your life. They may discover, as our protagonist describes, that the flavors will dance in their mouths and laugh all the way down to their stomachs.
"I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato" by Lauren Child (Candlewick, 2003)
I have read this book approximately 6,000 times, or at least it seems like it. It never fails to delight the young students at my cooking school, and it's persuaded a few stubborn ones to try a bite of something they proclaim to hate.
U.K.-based Lauren Child created a series of books featuring siblings Charlie and Lola using a combination of photos and illustrations (crayon, watercolor, ink) to bring the funny stories to life. The collages are captivating and invite one to pause on each page.
In this story, little sister Lola is a fussy eater, yet Charlie must feed her dinner. She announces the 17 things she will not eat, but then Charlie plays "a good trick on her." The imaginative wordplay has my students calling tomatoes "moonsquirters" and carrots "twiglets from Jupiter." Bonus points for reading aloud in a British accent.
"Duck Soup" by Jackie Urbanovic (HarperCollins, 2008)
Drama, comedy, tragedy -- this book has them all when our duck hero, Max, tries to perfect his soup recipe. His well-meaning friends inadvertently dash those dreams, mistaking various vegetables for duck body parts as they try to "save" Max.
We made our duck soup in class, using carrots for feet, bay leaves for feathers and cocktail onions for eyeballs. Don't underestimate a 4-year-old's penchant for black humor. When it was time to add the potato (head), I told them we'd use just one to stand in for Max's head. One kid piped up that "we could add more and pretend they are his ducklings." We did that with glee, and every kid enjoyed a big bowl of vegetable soup that day.
"Vegetables in Underwear" by Jared Chapman (Abrams Appleseed/Abrams, 2017)
The title says it all -- this is a board book featuring anthropomorphized vegetables in underwear. The illustrations are laugh-out-loud funny, and young kids lose it when an adult reads about undies, briefs and drawers. There is a surprise at the end, and you'll enjoy identifying the vegetables -- broccoli, eggplant, mushrooms and more -- as you go.
"Tops & Bottoms" by Janet Stevens (Harcourt, 1995)
One cool thing about this book is that it opens vertically, emphasizing the tops and bottoms theme. Here, tops and bottoms refer to different parts of edible plants. The story is based on a folk tale about a rich and lazy bear and a clever hare. With gorgeous, detailed illustrations, we follow as Hare strikes deals with Bear about who gets the tops or bottoms of each subsequent crop. This engaging picture book holds kids' attention right to the end.
This story is an excellent way to teach young kids about plant parts and how the food we eat might be a root, stem, leaf, flower, fruit or seed. Try making a plant-parts salad after reading this book, with the kids figuring out if the ingredients are tops, bottoms or middles.
Cookbooks for young cooks ages 7 to 13: Recipes in these books put more of the cooking into the hands of young cooks.
- Courtesy of Leslie Meredith
Books for ages 7-13
"The Silver Spoon for Children: Favorite Italian Recipes" adapted and written by Amanda Grant; illustrated by Harriet Russell (Phaidon, 2019)
"The Silver Spoon" was first published in Italy in 1950 and has sold over a million copies since then. You'll find it in most Italian kitchens. Amanda Grant, a children's nutrition specialist, took 40 traditional Italian recipes from that cookbook and adapted them for children. Whimsical illustrations by Harriet Russell accompany each written instruction to help visual learners "read" the recipes.
The book includes instructions on techniques, like how to crack an egg or use the "claw" or "bridge" when using knives. There is also help with pronunciation (gnocchi = "nee-ockee.") You'll find classics like fresh pasta and pizzas, but also more complex dishes like risotto, beef stew and hazelnut cake.
"Blue Potatoes, Orange Tomatoes" by Rosalind Creasy; illustrated by Ruth Heller (Sierra Club Books for Children, 2000)
Rosalind Creasy is a leading expert on organic gardening and has written many books for adults. This children's book shows readers how to grow a rainbow garden and has a recipe for each featured crop. The vivid, colorful illustrations show off many familiar fruits and veggies but in a surprising array of colors.
Beyond the title's blue potatoes and orange tomatoes, you'll find purple beans, yellow watermelon and red popcorn. Creasy shows how to plant and tend each of them, then use them to make things like Confetti Bean Salad and Sunshine Zucchini Muffins.
"Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child's Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes" by Alice Waters with Bob Carrau and Patricia Curtan, illustrated by Ann Arnold (Harper Perennial/Harper 1997)
Alice Waters founded the famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971. She's credited with starting the farm-to-table movement and continues to advocate for local, sustainable and healthy food systems. She's also one of my heroes for founding the nonprofit Edible Schoolyard Project, which aims to create organic school gardens, kitchens and cafeterias as interactive classrooms for all academic subjects with the goal of providing a free, nutritious, organic lunch for every student in America.
This book begins with stories by her then-7-year-old daughter, Fanny, about life at the restaurant. These behind-the-scenes anecdotes are accompanied by charming watercolor illustrations and may be even more interesting to adults.
There are 42 recipes in the book, organized by ingredient, with Fanny's short but sweet introductions to each section. The recipes are easy and use simple techniques, but the results can be surprisingly sophisticated. Kids (and adults) will learn to make things like Gremolata, Halibut Baked on a Fig Leaf and Blackberry Ice Cream. But there are plenty of basics, too, such as Vinaigrette, Pizza Dough and Guacamole.
"Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes," illustrated by Quentin Blake with photos by Jan Baldwin (Puffin/Penguin 1997)
"Roald Dahl's Even More Revolting Recipes," illustrated by Quentin Blake with photos by Jan Baldwin (Viking Juvenile 2001)
These books fascinate kids, with wildly inventive recipes for foods mentioned in or inspired by beloved author Roald Dahl's books. The mixed-media approach using Blake's instantly recognizable illustrations with Baldwin's photos must have inspired Lauren Child, the Charlie and Lola creator.
If you read carefully, you will find amusing Easter eggs. For instance, The Strawberry-Flavored Chocolate-Coated Fudge recipe from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" makes enough for "10 greedy children."
Kids will have a blast making Stink Bugs' Eggs from "James and the Giant Peach" -- a gross/fun take on deviled eggs. Or perhaps Snozzcumbers from "The BFG," which are tuna-stuffed cucumbers with poppy seed stripes and cheesy popcorn warts. Hopefully, this will inspire kids to read or reread some of the 21 children's books that Dahl wrote.
One niggle is the note preceding the final recipe in the first book, "For moms to make only." Surely 1997 wasn't that long ago.
Cookbooks for adults to use along with children: These books are as much for adults as they are for kids.
- Courtesy of Leslie Meredith
Books for adults to use with children
"Peas and Thank You: Simple Meatless Meals the Whole Family Will Love" by Sarah Matheny (Harlequin, 2011)
"More Peas and Thank You" by Sarah Matheny (Harlequin, 2013)
Peas and Thank You began life as a popular blog by Sarah Matheny, a former attorney turned stay-at-home mom. Her recipes are plant-based, healthful and realistic for busy families. Though the books are written for adults cooking for kids, many are simple enough to be prepared by kids (with supervision and a helping hand from a grown-up.)
The mouthwatering photos will tempt you, and her funny asides and anecdotes will make you smile. There are helpful serving suggestions and tips ("pea points") on substitutions and techniques. Matheny includes a pantry section listing unusual ingredients to have on hand, what they are and where you could find them. The list consists of things like tahini, a sesame-seed paste used in hummus, dressings, and sauces that are typically next to the nut butters or the ethnic aisle of most supermarkets.
You'll find better-for-you versions of family favorites like cinnamon rolls, lasagna and brownies alongside unique recipes for things like Chipotle-Lime Tempeh Tacos, Vegetarian Pad Thai, and Pea Daddy's Jambalaya.
"Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes" by Mollie Katzen and Ann Henderson (Tricycle Press, 1994)
Mollie Katzen is the author of the seminal "Moosewood Cookbook," and Ann Henderson is an educator. Together they've created a book that flips the roles of kids and adults in the kitchen. In these recipes, the kids are the chefs, and the adults are there to assist.
Like Katzen's 1974 classic and the still-open Moosewood restaurant in upstate New York, these recipes are plant-based. Each is written twice -- once in a standard format and again in pictures demonstrating each numbered step. Kids who've tested these recipes provide tips and reactions such as "No fingers in the blender" and "While I was eating the soup, my tooth fell out."
I've recently had a group of 4-year-olds make the Pretend Soup from the title and something called Noodle Pudding. The pictorial format helped them follow the recipes and give me my instructions. Both got rave reviews, and I am looking forward to working our way through the book.
• Leslie Meredith is the winner of the 2019 Cook of the Week Challenge and teaches people how to grow and cook "real" food. She runs Farmhouse School on a historic homestead in Campton Hills. See the school's Facebook or Instagram pages @FarmhouseSchool or contact Leslie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow the illustrations to make this Noodle Pudding from "Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes" by Mollie Katzen and Ann Henderson.
- Courtesy of Leslie Meredith
Note: All amounts are entirely flexible
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
8 ounces uncooked flat egg noodles (half of a 1-pound package)
About 1 teaspoon butter
1 cup cottage cheese
A handful of raisins
Put on a medium-sized pot of water to boil.
Combine the cinnamon and sugar in a small bowl.
Cook the noodles until tender. Drain well.
Immediately transfer the noodles to a bowl. Add butter and mix well.
Add cottage cheese and raisins and mix. (Younger children might need a guiding hand to help them mix. A fork works best.)
Transfer to individual serving bowls, sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar, and eat!
Makes 3 or 4 small servings
From "Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes" by Mollie Katzen and Ann Henderson
Suburban book stores
30 N. Williams St., Unit A, Crystal Lake, (815) 893-6653, abalabixbooks.com
123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville, (630) 355-2665, and 5112 Main St., Downers Grove, (630) 963-2665, andersonsbookshop.com/
Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg, (224) 520-8489; Hawthorn Mall, Vernon Hills, (847) 549-7550; and Yorktown Mall, Lombard, (224) 520-8489; barbarasbookstore.com
1151 Church St., Northbrook, (847) 498-4999, bookbinnorthbrook.indielite.org/
506 Main St., Evanston, (847) 868-8047, booked-evanston.myshopify.com/
Bookends & Beginnings
1712 Sherman Ave., Alley #1, Evanston, (224) 999-7722, bookendsandbeginnings.com/
216 James St., Geneva, (630) 232-2991, harveystales.com/
Lake Forest Book Store
662 N. Western Ave., Lake Forest, (847) 234-4420, lakeforestbookstore.com
Read Between the Lynes
111 E. Van Buren St., Woodstock, (815) 206-5967, readbetweenthelynes.com/
The Book Stall
811 Elm St., Winnetka, (847) 446-8880, thebookstall.com
The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn
475 N. Main St., Glen Ellyn, (630) 469-2891, bookstoreofge.com/
Town House Books
105 N. 2nd St., St. Charles, (630) 584-8600, townhousebooks.com