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 spatulatta.com.
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
Comments: This British book isn't where a cook would think to look for recipes for a classic Italian pasta and an American bar cookie, and neither recipe we tried came out tasting or looking particularly authentic. The fresh thyme in the pasta sauce tasted "not very Italian," according to our oldest chef. And the brownies came out of the oven looking pale and bumpy, "like bird poop," another chef noted.
Despite the look of the dishes, the recipes were fun and the kids snarfed their food. Older chefs loved chopping carrots and celery and using the can opener for the tomatoes for the pasta. And when the brownies crumbled and stuck to the pan, we plopped them in a bowl with a scoop of ice cream and called it "Brownie Pudding." The kids asked when they could make it again.
Our kid chefs say: Mama, this is good.
Yum-O! The Family Cookbook by Rachael Ray
The recipe: Sorta-Soba Noodle Bowls
Hands-on factor: 5 out of 5 points (Ray breaks out tasks for "itty bittys" in the kitchen)
Comments: Nicholas Smith, 10, who loves Japanese manga, picked this shrimp and vegetable noodle stir-fry recipe and had a good time dumping the ingredients into the sizzling pan and mixing the sauce. "I didn't know we were having sea slugs," he said, peering into the bowl of raw shrimp. Euw!
Aside from the fact that the recipe called for 1/2 cup of orange marmalade, which made the noodles taste too sweet, and it could have used more hot sauce and a dash of sesame oil, he wants to make it again.
Our kid chefs say: Slamming garlic on the cutting board is fun.
Post your favorite recipes to make with kids on our parenting blog at baltimoresun.com/charmcitymoms
Find a recipe for Seaweed Slaw at baltimoresun.com/taste
Peanut Butter Globe Globs
Makes 12 balls
1 cup crisp rice cereal or Cheerios
1/2 cup nonfat dry milk
1/4 cup creamy or chunky peanut butter
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup quick-cooking oats
Crush the cereal in a zip-top bag using a mallet, and set aside.
Place the milk, peanut butter, honey and oats and 1/2 cup of the crushed cereal in a bowl and mix well. Form the mixture into 1-inch balls. Add the balls to the bag with the remaining cereal. Shake and squeeze gently, coating them thoroughly with the mixture.
Serve immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 5 days or in the freezer indefinitely.
Variations: Roll the balls in coconut, cocoa powder, or crushed nuts or sesame seeds.
From "The Toddler Cafe," by Jennifer Carden
Per ball: 77 calories, 3 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 11 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, trace cholesterol, 57 milligrams sodium
Serves 4 to 6
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil (divided use)
18 ounces minced beef or lamb
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped or crushed
1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons chopped leek
1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs or oregano
1 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme
1 stock cube (chicken or vegetable)
2 teaspoons tomato puree
two 14-ounce cans chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt plus more to taste (divided use)
freshly ground pepper
11 ounces spaghetti or other pasta shapes
grated parmesan or cheddar cheese (optional) for serving
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add meat to the pan and cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until browned, stirring occasionally and breaking down the meat with a wooden spoon. Add the onion, celery, garlic, carrot and leek to the pan along with the dried herbs and thyme. Crumble the stock cube into the pan and stir well. Cook 2 to 3 minutes more.
Add the tomato puree and cook for 1 minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and stir. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and cook 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, fill a large deep saucepan 3/4 full with water. Add 1 teaspoon salt and the remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil and bring to a boil. Carefully place spaghetti into the pan. The spaghetti will begin to bend with the heat of the water so it will all be covered by the water. Cook for about 10 to 12 minutes, or according to package instructions. Spaghetti should be soft but still have some bite. When the spaghetti is cooked, drain using a colander.
Serve spaghetti topped with some of the bolognaise sauce and sprinkle with cheese, if using.
From "Little Cooks," by Fiona Hamilton-Fairley and the Kids' Cookery School
Per serving (based on 6 servings): 379 calories, 23 grams protein, 9 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 51 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 807 milligrams sodium
Sorta-Soba Noodle Bowls
1 pound whole-wheat spaghetti
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails off
4 scallions, green and white parts, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 handfuls of string beans, about 1/2 pound, trimmed and cut lengthwise into strips
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cup orange marmalade
1/4 cup tamari or soy sauce
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons hot sauce
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds for garnish (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat for the pasta. Once it reaches a boil, add salt and the spaghetti and cook al dente.
Place a large skillet over high heat and add the canola oil. When hot, add the shrimp and vegetables and stir-fry for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the shrimp are pink and firm.
While the vegetables are cooking, in a medium mixing bowl whisk together the marmalade, tamari, chicken stock, hot sauce and some freshly ground black pepper.
Drain the pasta and toss it with all the ingredients in the skillet. Pour the sauce over the contents of the pan and toss to combine. Taste for seasoning and adjust flavors as needed: You can add a splash more stock, tamari, or hot sauce to taste. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds, if desired.
From "Yum-O! The Family Cookbook," by Rachael Ray
Per serving: 717 calories, 44 grams protein, 11 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 119 grams carbohydrate, 18 grams fiber, 172 milligrams cholesterol, 1,369 milligrams sodium