Inspiring kids to eat healthy and learn to cook is my passion. I hope with my Kids Cook Real Food eCourse I’m helping parents do just that every day! But we can always use a few new ideas, too, and when Becca told me her daughter’s love of this salad, I knew she had to share it with you all!
For my fifth birthday, Aunt Emily gave me a copy of The Fun Food Factory by Nanette Newman, illustrated by Alan Cracknell. This book presents 20 practical, whole-foods recipes with irresistibly charming illustrations of smiling spoons, sweaty ovens, and icicle-mustached freezers helping to do the work. It also has instructions for kitchen safety and how to sprout seeds, as well as basic information about nutrients and their sources.
I’m not recommending this specific book–published in England in 1977, it’s now out of print, and some of the nutritional ideas are outdated–but I recommend having at least one cookbook for young children just to inspire them to think of cooking as a fun thing they can do!
None of the recipes in The Fun Food Factory turned into favorites that I made regularly, and some of them are genuinely weird (homemade ice cream with toast crumbs mixed in?!), yet I loved paging through the book thinking about the many ways of combining foods and the many interesting skills of food preparation.
Seeing my interest in this cookbook, my mother brought out one from her childhood: Miss B’s First Cookbook by Peggy Hoffman. Again, it’s not that this was an especially excellent cookbook but that it presented a child cooking food from scratch.
This one is illustrated with black-and-white photos of a 7-year-old girl in 1950, and although her clothing and kitchen looked like olden times, those pictures inspired me to feel confident that I could mix dough in a big bowl, measure ingredients accurately, squeeze frosting into designs…. It helped me to move from “helping Mama cook” to “cooking” with less and less supervision.
Mom stuck The Fun Food Factory into a package she sent us at some point after my son was a bit too old to appreciate it fully–although he did skim through the recipes and ask to try Supper Bake. (Once. “It has texture issues. Oh! It’s Cheesy Vegetable Bread Pudding without the bread; that’s the problem!” It was a learning experience!)
My daughter Lydia, though, latched onto The Fun Food Factory and loved the pictures. She asked us to read it to her. Have you ever tried to read a cookbook as a bedtime story? This one starts with an introduction and Factory Rules (get permission to use a kitchen, be careful, don’t waste food, and, “Clear up after you.”), but then suddenly you’re reading a gazpacho recipe with 13 ingredients!
It lacks narrative flow.
So Lydia has asked us to do various things–read only the directions, read the ingredients and she’ll point them out in the picture, or just chat about what we see in the pictures–and she rarely wants to do it with all of the recipes.
At some point, we skip ahead to the page where 5 vitamins, protein, and carbohydrate explain what they do for your body and some foods in which each nutrient is found, and the page with measurement conversions and 8 random kitchen tips. Lydia soaks up this information in this cute format.
It’s not that I want my kid to memorize, “Vitamin E is found in sunflower oil, eggs, and whole wheat,” and be ready to recite facts. I want her to feel comfortable with the basic idea that we think about what to eat, how to make it, and how it helps our bodies. When we want new ideas for our meals, we look in a cookbook.
She sees this modeled all the time in our family, as we refer to 10 cookbooks and our homemade recipe binder. Having a children’s cookbook makes it easier for her to do it, too.
Kid-Friendly Smiling Salads
One day earlier this summer, 4-year-old Lydia began paging through The Fun Food Factory, announcing, “I will decide what we have for dinner tomorrow!”
Ten minutes later, she said, “We will have Artist’s Salad!”
This is one of the recipes that had most intrigued her when we were reading aloud, because it’s all about arrangement, with no cooking at all: Get a lot of vegetables, seeds, and sprouts. Give everyone a plate. Each person makes her salad form a picture.
There’s a wonderful illustration of salad arranged into a portrait of a man with a goatee of grated carrot, wearing a beret of sunflower seeds.
I asked Lydia a few questions and learned that she wanted Daddy to make a “salad face” for each family member. (He is our usual weeknight dinner chef.) It was important to her that all the salads depict faces. She didn’t care if we had the specific array of ingredients shown in the picture, as long as we had a variety.
It’s important to ask about the details of how a child envisions following a recipe. A different kid might have insisted on having exactly 2 carrots, 2 tomatoes, 3 sticks of celery, etc., as listed in the recipe. Another might have chosen this recipe specifically for the experience of deciding what kind of picture to make with his salad, so he’d be upset if someone else got to make all the salads or if anyone acted like the salads are supposed to be faces just because of the picture of one example salad.
I want to make it easy for you to teach your preschooler REAL kitchen skills.
My 4 kids and I created the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse to teach kids how to cook and to help bring real food and independence to families all over. Over 10,000 kids have joined us and we want to make it as easy as possible for you to get your preschooler into the kitchen and start learning real cooking skills right away.
It doesn’t have to be complicated – just thoughtful. For example, would you believe there are 4 steps to teaching your 2 to 5-year-olds how to carry a plate? I have a quick video for you (and a free gift to empower those little ones to really help out with snack):
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Lydia also wanted to try the Artist’s Dressing recipe. I remembered that I didn’t like it as a child, and looking at the ingredients I wasn’t sure any of us would like it now, so I asked Daniel to make a half batch. That was a good call! All of us preferred a simple vinaigrette of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Real Salt.
We came home the next day to smiling salads, a different one for each person! Daniel used a relatively small amount of vegetables in each salad to encourage the kids to finish all of what they’d been served, which included some veggies they might not have chosen to put on their plates.
Then they could have more of whatever they wanted. This was somewhat effective, and a reasonable total volume of vegetables was consumed by each family member.
Lydia had insisted that the smiling salads would be a full meal. The book certainly doesn’t suggest otherwise. So we ate salad until nobody wanted any more salad, and then by the end of the evening, each of us ate some kind of easy-to-fix protein, like a scrambled egg or peanut butter sandwich!
After that, we made smiling salads as the first course for a few meals, we mentioned smiling salad as an option when Lydia wanted a snack, and I even set up a smiling hot-food plate for her to increase the appeal of Creamy Lentil Coconut Curry. (She did eat some of it.) She was particularly amused by salads made using our smiley-face plate as a guide.
But then one day, she shrieked, “No more salad faces!” and wouldn’t touch it.
Since then, almost any time we’re discussing food, she’s mentioned that she does not want salad faces. That’s fine. Putting in the extra work to arrange the food is worthwhile only if she enjoys and eats it!
Sometimes, gimmicks like this are very appealing just for a short time, and then kids suddenly rebel. Maybe we were making salad faces too often since we had so many fresh vegetables, and if we give it a rest we’ll be able to revive the idea next summer.
It might work out differently for your family. Maybe smiling salads will become your kids’ favorite tradition! It’s certainly worth a try.
Now, wait: How is having Daddy make her a salad an example of empowering kids in the kitchen? Well, she’s learning about the planning part of making a meal.
For other meals, she’s helped with washing produce, mixing ingredients, assembling food, decorating food, washing dishes, or putting away leftovers–but not all at once.
Kids in the Kitchen: It’s Not All or Nothing
Katie has this great ecourse about teaching kids to cook! Involving kids in food preparation from an early age is so important in building skills they can use all their lives.
But that doesn’t mean you have to rearrange your busy life so that your kids can help with every step of the process, from growing food to stirring the pot to washing dishes! Kitchen skill practice fits naturally into everyday life when a child peels the carrots and sets the table today, greases the pans and helps make soup tomorrow.
Short sub-tasks of meal prep and cleanup are easy to fit in amid playing and homework. Parents can spend a few minutes patiently working with kids, then send them off to play and finish making the meal at adult speed. Delegating even one task to an older child makes the parent’s work go faster.
I’ve had different experiences with my two kids as preschoolers. Your individual child’s temperament makes a difference when you’re deciding which kitchen tasks to share at what age.
Nicholas wanted to be involved in whatever I was doing. He has a great attention span and really would stick around through most of the steps of a complex cooking project. His physical coordination was excellent, so I could trust him to use a paring knife without hurting himself or me, put an ingredient into the pot without spilling it, and slosh dishes in soapy water without breaking them–all before he turned 3!
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Soon he was confident of his ability to do even unfamiliar kitchen tasks. He was heavily involved in almost all my cooking from age 2 to 6, and both the specific skills and the general sense of competence have stuck with him. (He’s 13 now and can cook a complete meal on his own.)
Lydia is more independent. She often has her own ideas for what to do while Mama is busy. As long as she’s constructively occupied, I don’t insist that she come and help me. But when she does show an interest, I try to give her a role right away and keep her involved as long as she’s interested. Her coordination is typical for a 4-year-old, so I’m introducing challenges more slowly than I did with Nicholas.
One task Lydia has learned to do well is shucking corn. When she was 2 and 3 years old, I’d say, “Let’s go sit on the front steps and shuck the corn,” and Nicholas and I would do it, while Lydia would fumble with an ear, maybe pull off a leaf, and then wander into the yard to eat some mint. I let her go each time, but every time I shucked corn I brought her outside and talked about how we do it.
This summer, Lydia worked on the corn throughout our first shucking session of the summer. She wanted to pull off too many leaves at once and got frustrated when she couldn’t, but eventually, she accepted that I was right about pulling off one layer at a time.
Last night, I set up the pile of corn, a bag for carrying the leaves to the compost bin, and a bag for the cleaned corn. I pulled off a leaf and reminded Lydia about doing one at a time. Then I went into the house to put the water on to boil and also put the rest of our CSA produce in the refrigerator or fruit basket.
When I came back outside a few minutes later, Lydia was playing with cornsilk, trying to float it away on the breeze–but she had almost all the leaves stripped from her ear of corn, and she’d put most of the discarded leaves in the correct bag! She got back on task, and ultimately she shucked 3 ears while I did the other 5. My helper!
What Is the Best Cookbook for Kids?
I have no idea! I haven’t looked at recently published kids’ cookbooks because we happen to have The Fun Food Factory and also a book with teddy bears baking–which has several recipes Nicholas made with minimal supervision when he was 7-10 years old. Just having any cookbook that appeals to your kids may be enough to stoke their interest in the general idea that cooking is fun and interesting.
Would an ebook do? Although ebooks and websites can be great sources of recipes, I think that kids do better with a physical book they can page through. It’s less abstract–and it’s not the same device they use to watch shows, play games, or other distractions!
Considerations When Buying a Kids Cookbook
- The illustrations should be either realistic depictions of kids near my child’s age really cooking, or something that’s fun and engaging yet relates closely to the recipes. (For example, the fantasy world of The Fun Food Factory is populated by kitchen tools and nutrients that just happen to have cute faces. The food itself is drawn realistically.)
- Most of the recipes should be healthy foods–not all desserts, all cheesy carbs with no veggies, or using a lot of processed ingredients.
- Recipes should be written with the measuring units we use in our kitchen. One of the downsides of The Fun Food Factory is its Britishness–we Americans have to do arithmetic and get out the scale for some of those recipes! That’s so complicated that it could easily lead to a disappointing error.
- At a glance, it should include some recipes that sound tasty and use familiar ingredients.
- It should not be too heavy on “get an adult to do the tricky part” instructions. Of course, there are safety concerns when you’re working with heat, oil, and sharp blades–but if you try too hard to protect the kids, they can’t learn how to protect themselves! A good cookbook explains how to do things safely.
- Anise Loves GREEN Food – a kid’s picture book about a little boy who loves to draw and his sister who loves to cook, so perfect for Kids Cook Real Food! Leah has made almost every recipe in the book, we love it so much!
- My First Kitchen Binder for Kids – Perfect for helping little cooks-in-training get started in the kitchen. Your child will not only have a helpful tool but a treasured keepsake to enjoy for years to come.
- Real Food Nutrition & Health curriculum – A textbook that is written at a high school level that teaches nutrition and health based on WAPF (Weston A Price) principles.
- Kid Chef: The Foodie Kids Cookbook – looks a little more gourmet than my family is used to, but also gorgeous!
- The International Cookbook for Kids – stepping up to some harder recipes for ages 8+, but all made from scratch
- Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking – for the more advanced students. When you know a culinary ratio, it’s not like knowing a single recipe, it’s instantly knowing a thousand.
- New Favorites for New Cooks: This cookbook is written by a food educator local to one of our team members, who was very impressed by her in-person classes. I love that there are 50 recipes, all whole foods!!
- A recommendation from a reader: Fix it and Forget it: Cooking with Kids, a slow cooker cookbook that is probably not 100% real food but looks like it has some good options.
- Cookbooks Kids Cook Real Food Members Love:
- Honest Pretzels: And 64 Other Amazing Recipes for Cooks Ages 8 & Up
- Salad People and More Real Recipes: A New Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up
- Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up
- Start to Cook an Usborne book
- Junk Food Dude’s Yummy Healthy Recipes
- The Forest Feast for Kids: Colorful Vegetarian Recipes That Are Simple to Make
- The Cookbook for Kids (Williams-Sonoma): Great Recipes for Kids Who Love to Cook a Williams Sonoma book
- Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child’s Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes
- Chop Chop: The Kids’ Guide to Cooking Real Food With Your Family
- The Silver Spoon for Children: Favorite Italian Recipes
- Grow It, Cook It
- The Nourishing Traditions Cookbook for Children: Teaching Children to Cook the Nourishing Traditions Way
Making Your Own Cookbook
In some ways, the best cookbook can be one you make yourself! My partner Daniel’s attitude toward cooking got a big boost from his home ec class in a Philadelphia public school. The recipes they learned were not elaborate, but each one established a basic pattern for preparing and combining ingredients that gave him a starting point for inspiration.
He brought home a folder of recipes, and over time he adapted some of them to better suit his taste. His parents welcomed his new recipes and respected his making them so that these were dishes only he was making for the family–a nice ego boost. Gosh, I’m glad he learned to cook at an early age!
Make it even easier and try this My First Kitchen Binder for Kids that Katie recommends!
Does kid-oriented food have to be cute?
No. It’s fun to make a smiling salad sometimes, but kids can enjoy all kinds of food without special arrangements. My goal is to balance fun, flavor, health, and using what we have. I think that all of those values come across to my kids, and the healthy eating habits they learn early in life will help them lean toward choosing mostly wholesome food as they gradually take more control of what they eat.