Maryland Morning
7:26 am
Tue March 11, 2014

How to Make the Meatballs from "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs"

Paula Willey's son Milo tests out a recipe.
Tom Hall speaks with book critic Paula Willey about the best cookbooks for kids.

Children's librarian and book critic Paula Willey--and her sons Milo and Ezra--are testing out cookbooks aimed at kids.  She says they’ve come a long way since the Betty Crocker cookbook she used as a child.

Here, you can read all of Paula's notes on cooking with the younger set.

Chemistry. Geography. Counting and measuring. Vocabulary. Independence, self-esteem, and creativity. You may not realize it, but every time you prepare food each of these elements comes into play. We want these intellectual, physical, and psychological rewards for our kids, too. In addition, introducing children to cooking gives us a chance to talk about nutrition, economics, and cleanliness (wash those hands!) without sounding preachy. Picky eaters may gain a degree of boldness once they are given a degree of control over food production.

My family has field-tested an astonishing number of kid-friendly cookbooks over the past couple of years, and here are some of the winners:

PRESCHOOL CHEFS

For the tiniest chefs, look for books that match objects and ingredients to pictures. Part of the process of cooking with little kids is teaching them their way around the kitchen. Pointing to a picture of a whisk sure beats explaining what one looks like!

Grandpa's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs Cookbook by Judi Barrett, Ron Barrett

There’s nothing earthshattering in here – kid-friendly recipes for pancakes, tuna fish, broccoli salad – but the whole book is illustrated with big, funny original drawings that will delight fans of the authors’ picture books (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Pickles to Pittsburgh, The Marshmallow Incident). It’s all great fun, and Foggy Pea Soup is actually super yummy.

Mommy & Me Start Cooking by DK Publishing

Dads who cook – like our Maryland Morning host Tom Hall – have every right to feel a little burned by the title of this book. But it might be worth duct-taping over the cover for the recipes and information inside. I like the double page spreads introducing and explaining key ingredients – 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. The recipes that follow definitely require an adult hand, but include kid-friendly steps like mashing, kneading, rolling and stirring.

Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up by Mollie Katzen, Ann Henderson

Simple, clear illustrations give this book and its companion volume, Salad People, enduring popularity. Recipes are very easy, with little use of the stove and no meat (Mollie Katzen is the author of the famed Moosewood Cookbook, a pioneer volume celebrating health-conscious cooking).

BOOKS FOR ELEMENTARY COOKS

Make an end run around the occasional bad habit that school-age kids pick up by keeping them engaged in the kitchen. Making lunches, weekend breakfast, and even simple weeknight meals gives children the opportunity to make their own food choices and to contribute to the most basic mechanics of family life. Pro tip: the lunch is less likely to come home uneaten if the kid made it himself!

ChopChop: The Essential Cookbook for Kids and Their Parents by Sally Sampson

ChopChop is a quarterly food magazine for families. This cookbook is notable for its attractive photos of tons of diverse kids in action, stirring, pouring, grating, frying, and - most importantly – eating food. This is a terrific collection of recipes including staples like spaghetti sauce and mashed potatoes, with some new traditional foods, like ginger-garlic tofu and fish tacos. Lots of suggested variations show kids how to make any recipe their own.

Cookbook for Girls, by Denise Smart, Howard Shooter

As the mother of boys – boys who like pink lemonade, chocolate truffles, and baked eggs as much as any girl – a title like this is a little hard to take. HOWEVER, great close-up photos of finished food, good process photos, and recipes that hit the sweet spot between “too basic to be very appetizing” and “delicious but way too much trouble” have made it a keeper at our house.

Cool World Cooking: Fun and Tasty Recipes for Kids! by Lisa Wagner

My son Ezra, who is ten, welcomed a new baby to our neighborhood with a batch of Crunchy Almond Cookies from the China section of this cookbook. They were delicious and very nearly foolproof – a winning combination, especially for kids. The six regions represented in this cookbook are Mexico, France, Italy, Africa, the Middle East, and China & Japan. Nothing too challenging here, and what a bonus it would be to add carrot salad or tabbouleh to a family’s weeknight repertoire (especially if the kid can make it!).

My Cookbook of Cakes by Laura Tilli, Jess Tilli

The recipes in this book and its companion volume, My Cookbook of Baking, are rated “Easy-peasy” to “Super chef,” which helps junior bakers chart their progress. Steps are illustrated with drawings instead of photos, which isn’t always perfect, and recipes do not use electric mixers. Be sure to step in before your kid tries to cream a stick and half of butter and a cup and a half of sugar by hand.

Ezra was 9 when he made a four-layer birthday cake for his brother using a recipe in this book. He then iced it using a frosting recipe also in this book, and decorated it with Swedish fish and candy LEGO. It was beautiful, blindingly colorful, and just what his big bro wanted!

One World Kids Cookbook: Easy, Healthy, and Affordable Family Meals by Sean Mendez

Our twelve-year-old son Milo made the Sweet and Tangy Chilli Beef Salad from this cookbook for a potluck at our house and it was a great success, not only because it tasted good but because he got a taste of how sweet it is to be praised for your cooking! This book has good instructions and very helpful process photos showing the kids doing the cooking. Every recipe is from a different country – jambalaya from the United States and jollof rice from Ghana, heavy on the grains and vegetables, light on red meat.

Our School Garden! by Rick Swann, Christy Hale 

School gardens are proliferating across Baltimore, thanks in part to organizations such as Gather Baltimore. This book of poems celebrates and explores the sensations and revelations that a garden can offer a kid – holding a handful of compost, eating a leaf, watching a bug. Lively mixed-media illustrations offer readers lots to look at.

BOOKS FOR OLDER KIDS

Older kids and 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 grownups 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 – I’ve also reviewed a few books about the skills and science that surround food and cooking.

How to Cook by Maggie Mayhew

This book has gotten a lot of play in our house, in part because it offers so many choices of recipes. My sons have made the Lamb tagine and Empanadas, both of which were flat-out fantastic, and Chocolate mousse and Profiteroles, neither of which were quite as successful. The techniques in those cases – folding egg whites into chocolate, beating yolks into pastry dough – required more finesse and by-eye judgment than a young cook can learn from a book. Don’t let that stop you from considering this cookbook though. Once I took over that profiterole dough, those little cream puffs made our family Oscars watching party truly fancy.

Cooking With Meat and fish by Claire Llewellyn and Clare O’Shea

Part of a series called Cooking Healthy, this book follows beef, lamb, pork, poultry, and fish from breeding, production, and processing to putting it on a plate. Adult cooks could probably learn a thing or two from these unusually informative skinny little books. I know I did. And the recipes aren’t bad either – we tried Fish Pot Pie and Chicken Soup (you can tell a lot about a cookbook by its chicken soup recipe) and were pleased with the results.

Starting From Scratch: What You Should Know about Food and Cooking by Sarah Elton

How to shop, what heat does to food, how to substitute ingredients – there’s lots in this informative book that even adult cooks probably don’t know. Abundant illustrations keep the pages turning.

You can read all of Paula's book reviews on her blog, Pink Me