Kids in the Kitchen

The fun factor's a key ingredient in books designed for young chefs

July 16, 2008|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,Special to the Sun

Cooking with children has lots of benefits. It can help make kids less picky about what they eat, steer them away from fatty, salty, overprocessed foods and toward fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and give them lifelong kitchen skills.

It's also really, really trendy.

Everyone, it seems, has a kids' cookbook out this summer. There are books for toddlers like The Toddler Cafe by Jennifer Carden, and for teenagers, such as Freshman in the Kitchen: From Clueless Cook to Creative Chef, by Eli and Max Sussman. Serious foodies, like Fine Cooking contributing editor Abigail Johnson Dodge, are publishing new cookbooks for kids (Around the World Cookbook), as are celebrity TV chefs like Rachael Ray (Yum- O! The Family Cookbook) and Paula Deen (Paula Deen's My First Cookbook, coming in October).

And kids who cook are publishing them, too. The Spatulatta Cookbook is by Isabella and Olivia Gerasole, 12 and 10, who show videos of real kids cooking real recipes on their James Beard Award-winning Web site

There's even a children's cookbook by British real-food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. It's called The River Cottage Family Cookbook and includes recipes for making sea salt and sausage from scratch. (Thanks, but no thanks, Hugh.)

"There's a renewed interest in children's cookbooks right now," said Jane Falla, a literary associate with the Lisa Ekus Group, which represents 80 cookbook authors. But producing a children's cookbook that will appeal to kids and grown-ups alike isn't child's play. "You have to have this delicate balance of making a book kids will love but also that parents want to buy," Falla said. And the book needs to be both simple enough for kids to follow, but ambitious enough to give a sense of adventure, too. "There's a problem if kids can't find some steps they can do independently."

Even the best children's cookbook can't make cooking with kids a success if the grown-ups in the bunch are too focused on perfection, said Lauren Bank Deen, a TV producer who spent more than five years with Martha Stewart Living Television and is the author of last year's Kitchen Playdates.

"You need to be flexible," Deen said. "What doesn't work is being really rigid and overly concerned [about] getting everything perfect."

But which of the new kids' cookbooks are winners and which are duds? With school out, nothing planned for lunch or dinner and a bunch of kids with nothing to do skulking about, we decided to find out.

I corralled my kids (ages 5 and 10) and my neighbor's kids (3 and 7), asked them to each pick a recipe (or two) out of a new children's cookbook, and we'd cook. Just like Tom Sawyer did, I'd convince them how much fun doing a chore would be, in a let's-whitewash-the-fence kind of way.

Somewhere in between the first soda spill and the toddler bailing out of cooking to play Legos, Deen's final words of advice were ringing in my ears. "What happens in the kitchen reflects what happens in the rest of life," she said. "You have to be flexible, keep a sense of humor and take cues from your kids. Whatever they can do and want to do is terrific. Just build on that and move forward."

Mermaid Cookbook by Barbara Beery

The recipes: Sea Foam Floats, Sweet Seaweed Slaw

Hands-on factor: (How much kids can do themselves) 4 out of 5 points

Comments: A cute book that didn't seem that exciting to the grown-ups held a lot of allure for the 5- and 7-year-old girls in our group. An ice-cream float constructed from raspberry sherbet, Sprite and canned whipped cream looked ho-hum on the page, but the kids made it themselves and pronounced it delicious. The sweet-and-sour coleslaw recipe, which punched up packaged coleslaw mix with sliced apples and pears and an apple-cider dressing, won points because the kids could make most of it on their own.

Our kid chefs say: Slurp. These are awesome!

The Toddler Cafe by Jennifer Carden

The recipe: Peanut Butter Globe Globs

Hands-on factor: 4.5 out of 5 points

Comments: Our 3-year-old chef could perform almost all of the steps in this no-bake peanut butter cookie recipe himself, although he did have some trouble rolling the sticky dough into balls. Older kids liked customizing their cookies by rolling them in nuts, cocoa powder and crushed cereal. The simple recipe held our toddler's interest, but he lasted in the kitchen for a total of only 30 minutes. Short, simple recipes, which abound in this attractive book, seem to be the key to cooking successfully with kids this age.

Our kid chefs say: Squishy but goooooood.

Little Cooks by Fiona Hamilton-Fairley and the Kids' Cookery School

The recipes: Spaghetti Bolognaise, Chocolate Brownies

Hands-on factor: 4 out of 5 points

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