The children set out to make coffee pancakes, which would have been a noble pursuit since the majority of the 12 adults in the household did not hide their passion for coffee.
Had they chosen to use leftover liquid coffee in place of some of the water or milk in a pancake recipe, the experiment may have been successful.
What the children didn’t understand, however, is that coffee grounds are not really food. No one eats coffee grounds!
In case you’re curious, coffee grounds make rather crunchy, distasteful pancakes. The bulk of them were tossed into the trash, but that didn’t stifle the children’s creativity.
As my oldest son Paul finished fifth grade later that month in May 2016, his teacher gave him a certificate: Most Likely to Be an Author. He was an avid reader and a great writer, so it was an apt award to give him.
Even so, it’s not the kind of thing one expects to come true, particularly before leaving middle school.
Can Kids Really Write a Cookbook?
But that week in 2016, five families had come together to talk business; and two heroic nannies took care of the 19 children all in one very busy, very large Airbnb.
As we observed the older children’s unfettered creativity in the kitchen, a curious question began to be tossed around: “What if the kids wrote a cookbook? That might be interesting.”
Since most of the kids were homeschooled, and one of the moms was already a published cookbook author, this felt like a realistic possibility. What we didn’t know was whether the kids’ interest in cooking would extend once they A) were not with each other anymore and B) had to keep going longer than a week.
Six months later, when we all got together again for another mastermind–where the adults would help one another improve our businesses, and the kids would run wild (a little too close to the Lord of the Flies at times for our liking)–the idea of the cookbook was still floating about.
The kids, with our heroic nannies, spent some time in the kitchen, but I for one wasn’t sure that they were altogether passionate about the idea.
When they had our host country Canada’s iconic dish, poutine, the Americans all raved about it, and I’m certain I heard someone say, “We need to put a recipe for poutine in the cookbook.”
It seemed that the more “the cookbook” was spoken of, the more our words became weighted with reality. Would this really happen? Could kids ages 9 to 12 write a real cookbook?
Let’s Write a Cookbook for Kids!
You may recognize the mom who was a cookbook author, Katie Wells of Wellness Mama. When she gets an idea, if it’s meant to be it’s going to happen. She reached out to some literary agents, and the process was underway to see if a publisher would be interested in the idea of a real food cookbook written by kids for kids. In each of our homes, The Cookbook was becoming a topic of conversation.
Then there was an email, a Zoom meeting to schedule. Someone out there thought it might be viable. Each of the five potential authors, along with at least one parent, gathered on Zoom. The Californian was a bit late. The Canadian quickly took a leadership role.
It didn’t feel like much had gotten done when, before the end of the scheduled hour, the Floridians cut off as their phones had overheated on the beach. It felt exciting, and we were all heady with the idea that our kids might be real authors. On the other hand, it also seemed an inauspicious start.
Suddenly, there was a contract to sign. A book with 100 recipes was decided upon. Shared Google documents were created, and the kids had to start brainstorming 20 recipes each.
How Chef Junior Was Created
Each of the authors was the oldest child in their family, and at this point, they ranged in age from just 9 up to 12. My son Paul, now an 11-year-old sixth grader, knew his way around the kitchen with competence. He had been learning to cook since we created the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse a few years before when he was 10.
As the mom, I had been writing online, publishing recipes, and even digital cookbooks since 2009. But I was never one of those people to just make up an entire recipe out of my head. My style was more about starting with someone else’s framework and making it my own, or mixing up a few different recipes so that it was customized. The anxiety was real.
I knew that Paul was talented, but I wasn’t sure he had what it took to come up with 20 unique recipes. I wasn’t sure if I had the experience to help him either. On top of that, I couldn’t find the page in the parenting handbook that explained how I was supposed to play a role in my son becoming a cookbook author and yet not take over the process!
Turns out the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. For most of his recipes in the Chef Junior cookbook, Paul started with my recipes that our family loves and made improvements or personalization.
As the five authors worked through the process, there were some complicated moments. Somehow three of them thought they were going to make a chocolate peanut butter smoothie, and at least two had a version of French toast on their list. Paul and Abby both had a nearly identical recipe for Paleo banana pancakes on their list, and the kids really had to do some problem-solving to figure out how to keep it fair.
Then there was the issue of photography. A cookbook for kids in particular will never sell if there aren’t beautiful pictures of the food. Kids eat with their eyes first, you know. Some of the moms were decent at food photography; others, like me, were mediocre; and others had little to no experience.
We discussed how it would go if the kids took their own photographs, and ultimately decided not only was there too much risk of things looking unappetizing but to have five different styles in one cookbook might feel disjointed. The kids then had to make a collective decision to hire a professional photographer. Food photography can be extremely expensive; and although they were receiving a rare advance in the world of publishing, it began to feel like the entire thing might go to the photographs.
In the end, we loved working with the Chef Junior cookbook photographer Chellie Schmitz, who happens to live in our hometown. She was more affordable than our other option, and the kids ended up having to spend about half of their advance to get the book to market.
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In the meantime, each of the authors was busy in their own kitchen, creating, testing, and perfecting their set of 20 recipes.
In our household, sometimes that meant Paul couldn’t go out to play on a beautiful summer day, or had to squeeze homework and saxophone playing and cooking all into one afternoon after school.
We felt it was very important that other people’s palates got a chance to taste his recipes, and other people’s kids got a chance to run his instructions through the gauntlet to make sure they were explicitly clear. I put out a call to the Kitchen Stewardship® audience asking for recipe testers, and over 400 families responded. A few of the authors shared the list, and I believe we worked with around 30 families to test Paul’s recipes.
This was entirely another real-life experience for my young potential author, as he learned about the percentage of adults who return emails and how families meet or miss their deadlines. We also had many delightful testing families who sent us extremely detailed feedback. They often got a second recipe to test if they were willing because we appreciated them so much.
Once all the recipes were tested, they were sent to the photographer, which in a way was another layer of testing that we appreciated. She caught a few mistakes–and even so, there are still a few errors in the first edition of the cookbook. A few of the other moms took on the task of the first pass of editing the book, and then everything was sent off to the publisher.
A Cookbook for Kids, Written by Kids
In the world of book publishing, that is the waiting phase. It felt like it took forever from the time that the deep work was finished until we got to hear any news at all. It was so exciting to see that first digital proof; and when the hard copy came in the mail, it was almost like having another baby.
Publication was pushed off a few times, until April 2020 was the projected date. You all know what happened a month before that! So this poor cookbook, Chef Junior, not only had to be pushed another month to May 2020 but also it was launched in the midst of a global pandemic when events were not being held.
The kid cookbook authors did not get to fly to a common location to do a book launch party or take group author photos. They did not get to autograph books in their hometown Barnes and Noble. They did not get to go sit in TV studios and do exciting in-person interviews.
They did get to experience the pandemic via Zoom, as did so many of us. They conducted podcasts and TV interviews virtually, and we parents did our best with our online audiences to get the book out there.
Now, three years later, as I write their story, it feels like another lifetime when all of that happened. Two of the authors have graduated high school with another to come next year. And The Cookbook, with over 500 reviews on Amazon, continues to sell. It’s nothing that will fund anyone’s college education, but it makes for a whale of a line item on a resume.
And that, my friends, is the making of the only cookbook written by kids for kids, that started with a seed of an idea at a huge Airbnb in Colorado, some terrible pancakes, and some creative and dedicated kids.
Does your family have Chef Junior yet?