When I was a kid, whipping up a batch of Toll House chocolate chip cookies was considered the pinnacle of kids' cooking. Once you polished off half the raw dough and used the rest to bake actual cookies, you could pat yourself on the back and declare yourself a regular chef. If you had a bagel pizza in your repertoire, then you might as well have graduated right from junior high to culinary school. But now we live in the age of the wunderkind chef. Where plucky, preternaturally talented 9-year-olds are poaching pears and searing veal chops on shows like MasterChef Junior. It's inspiring and just a little bit intimidating when a baby-faced chef can whip up a hollandaise sauce better than you, but why not embrace this phenomenon?
If you're lucky enough to have a junior Julia Child in your midst, then think of all the meals you can have them make for you and the rest of the family! And, luckily, there's a genre of children's cookbooks that caters just to the kid culinary set. From those who are just getting comfortable at the stove, to the kid who asked for a sous vide for his birthday, here's a roundup of some of the best classics and new titles to add to their library.
1. For the Beginner Who'll Be Making Dinner in No Time
Ages: Elementary through middle school
From the rigorous testers behind America's Test Kitchen comes a more joyfully presented, but no less foolproof, guide to mastering basic techniques and recipes. With lots of step-by-step photos, illustrations and tips, the book presents itself as a fun beginner's guide. Chapters are organized by theme rather than ingredient—Snacks & Beverages, Cooking for Family & Friends—and include lots of invaluable advice on cooking skills that even adults need a reminder about, like How to Measure, How to Chop an Onion, and How to Plate Like a Pro. We love how basic recipes like homemade Tortilla Snack Chips are accompanied with variations (Ranch Chips, Cinnamon-Sugar Chips, Pizza Chips) and that there's a variety of dishes, from plain old classics like Best-Ever Pasta with Butter and Parmesan Cheese, to more trendy dishes like Rice and Bean Bowls with Corn and Avocado Crema.
Fave Recipes: Pesto Turkey Meatballs with Marinara Sauce; Stir-Fried Tofu with Green Beans; Crispy Veggie Burgers
2. For the Experimenter
Ages: Tween and teen
Chances are that your kids have watched in awe the viral Tasty cooking videos of junk food mash-ups like Mozzarella Stick Onion Rings and Chili Dog Bread Ring, which have spawned a generation of wannabe video-cooking stars. So it's a bit of a surprise that their cookbook spin-off also contains plenty of simple, dare-we-say healthful recipes for dishes like Chopped Mediterranean Salad with Avocado & Chickpeas and Whole-Wheat Pasta with Caramelized Lemon, Mushrooms & Thyme. The layout is clean and accessible, with most recipes fitting on one page and accompanied by a vibrant full-page photo. Many of the recipes are doable enough for a tween, but there are also several multistep preparations for the more ambitious teen, like Cheese-Stuffed Mushroom & Herb Frittata and Baked Falafel in Pita Sandwiches. We particularly appreciate the many riffs on international dishes, like Faux Pho for One and Bibimbap.
Fave Recipes: Baked Buffalo Chicken Wings; One-Pan Teriyaki Chicken; Baked Avocado Eggs
3. For the Future Pastry Chef Who Has a Thing for Funfetti
Ages: Tween and teen
Famous for their towering rainbow-speckled birthday cake confections, Milk Bar and its founder, Christina Tosi (also known as one of the co-hosts of MasterChef Junior), have become a national phenomenon for their retro-style pies, cookies and bars. But in her latest book, Tosi devotes all her energy to just cakes, an item she admits to not having had much affinity for when she was a baking-crazed kid who guzzled cereal milk. Over time, however, she came up with the brilliant idea to leave her cakes unfrosted on the sides—and the rest is layer-cake history. Although many of the recipes within are labor- and step-intensive, there are a few gems that can be whipped up after school when comfort food is in order. For the more expert tween-to-teen baker (and there are many), there are some projects worth tackling that will win them many accolades and devotion (three words: Birthday Cake Truffles).
Fave Recipes: Pretzel Pound Cake; Mint Chocolate Chip Molten Microwave Mug Cake; Banana-Chocolate-Peanut Butter Crock-Pot Cake
4. For the Kid Who Has the Force in the Kitchen
Ages: All ages
We have to admit that the Star Wars franchise and cooking were not two things that we immediately thought went together; but alas, on further investigation, we discovered that a love of Jedis and weekend pancakes go hand in hand (or lightsaber in lightsaber). The Star Wars cookbook series offers light entertainment and kitschy charm for the cooking family that can't get enough of the never-ending saga, with cleverly named recipes like Admiral Ackbars (homemade granola bars) and Luke Skywaffles (which incorporate yellow cornmeal into the batter—nice touch!). New to the series is Han Sandwiches, which is a sandwich- and snack-devoted cookbook that includes your very own Wookiee and Millennium Falcon sandwich cutters. Bonus: Most of the recipes are accompanied by a photo vignette featuring your favorite action figures posed among the finished dish, which is very odd but appeals to the picky eater who might get some needed encouragement while browsing the book's pages.
Fave Recipes: BB-8 Energy Balls; Cockpit Pitas; Vitamin C-3PO Smoothie
5. For the Kid Whose Cooking Can Even Impress Gordon Ramsey
Ages: All ages
Warning: This book is not for amateurs. Its many culinary school-worthy recipes are meant for kids who're already pretty impressive with their cooking skills and techniques (Braised Pork Belly? No problem!). But honestly, even if your small aspiring cook hasn't yet mastered their mincing and searing, if they're a devoted fan of the competition show, then they will be thrilled to study its pages. The book contains not only the best recipes from the first five seasons (including some finale winners), but also advice from the contestants, on-set photos and behind-the-scenes anecdotes about Mystery Box Challenges. There are also simple, well-done tutorials for elemental recipes like making fresh pasta dough by hand (used in Tommy from Season 1's sublime Pumpkin Ravioli) and a few easier gems among the more challenging Beef Wellingtons, like Salmon with Asparagus Three Ways and Summer Strawberry Salad.
Fave Recipes: Fish Tacos with Guacamole; Pan-Seared Chicken; Lemon Risotto
6. For the Kid Who Dreams of Croque Monsieur
Ages: Elementary through middle school
This book will immediately lure you in with its beautiful, naturally lit photography of flour-dusted worktops and sunny French bakeries. But it will win your heart with authentic but still approachable recipes for beloved French dishes like Crème Brûlée and Omelette. Inspired by the cooking school Michels founded for boys, her book is organized by the meals of the day—Le Petit Déjeuner, Le Goûter (afternoon snack)—and emphasizes traditional dishes that can be prepared together as a family. If you can't make it to France anytime soon, then this is the next best thing ... and who doesn't need a perfect Mousse au Chocolat in their repertoire?
Fave Recipes: Quick Croissants; Creamy Vegetable Soup; Upside-Down Apple Tartlets (Mini Tartes Tatin)
7. For the Little Green Thumb Cook
Ages: Elementary school
As important as it is for kids to acquire basic cooking knowledge, it's also a benefit when they learn that many of the best ingredients come from the ground and not their fridge. In this beautifully homespun book, recipes are combined with gardening projects so that children can see how sowing a seed for a kale plant can then become a delicious Kale Pesto Pasta. The practical information—like "What Is Garden Compost?" and "How to Sow Seeds Indoors"—will appeal to the future farmer, but there are also universal tips worth knowing, like identifying friends from foes in the garden (Worms and ladybugs: Yes! Slugs and snails: No!). The reward from absorbing all that earthly knowledge is the addition of tasty little recipes, like turning all those pole beans into Bean and Bacon Spaghetti.
Fave Recipes: Beet Chocolate Cake; Pea Gnocchi; Lettuce Scoops
8. For the Lover of Classics That Should Be on Every Cookbook Shelf
Ages: Preschoolers and up
This classic children's cookbook from Mollie Katzen (author of arguably the most iconic vegetarian cookbook, Moosewood Cookbook) should be the inspiration for all others (hopefully) that follow. Besides the wholesome recipes and iconic illustrations, it's Katzen's breezy, no-fuss, "who cares if they make a little mess?" tone that makes the book so winning and worthy of the classic banner. The layouts appeal both to parents (each recipe is preceded by a note "to the grown-up" offering some clues to what's ahead) and to children, with recipes that are written simply, but also illustrated in easy-to-follow blocks in case they're still working on their reading skills. Luckily for all of us, there are also follow-up titles—Salad People and Honest Pretzels—for when you've mastered Oatmeal Surprise and Number Salad.
Fave Recipes: Carrot Pennies; Popovers; Homemade Lemon-Lime Soda Pop
9. For the Culinary Bookworm
Ages: Tweens and teens
The "Unofficial Cookbook" series (besides Harry Potter, there is also a Narnia edition) is a truly brilliant idea that combines a beloved children's literary classic with an old-fashioned recipe book. For anyone familiar with either J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis's timeless fantasies, you'll know that tasty dishes both sublime (Treacle Tart!) and wicked (we're looking at you, Turkish Delight!) are woven temptingly throughout the stories. These text-driven books are not packed with glossy photos, but are designed to look and feel more like a literary companion with excerpts from the books providing context for each recipe (like for soft-boiled eggs and tea cake that were served to Lucy by Tumnus the Faun in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Best of all, your little wizard will be able to serve up a pint of freshly made pumpkin juice, then imagine he's sitting down to a feast in the Hogwarts dining hall (at the Gryffindor table, naturally).
Fave Recipes: Cinnamon Pull-Apart Breakfast Rolls; Pumpkin Juice; Sweet Orange Marmalade