Head chef in a prestigious London restaurant, Henry Harris is also a dad keen to impart his skills to his daughter. Do children’s cookery books help to educate and enthuse young cooks?
Now that home economics is disappearing from the curriculum in most schools, parents are having to fill the gap. And cooking teaches so much. It is physics, chemistry, logic and manual dexterity lessons rolled into one. Cookery also teaches history, geography and religious knowledge. It is our culture and our heritage. The family recipe for a cake handed down from generation to generation is not dissimilar to a folk tale, in that it keeps us in touch with our past.
I do not know a child who does not like to cook with their parents. There is nothing better than a rainy afternoon wearing an apron, small kids standing on chairs brandishing wooden spoons whilst leaving small traces of chocolate about the kitchen. When I asked my seven year old daughter, Georgia, about why she enjoyed cooking, she told me that fun was not the main issue but rather spending time with dad! What impressed me the most, however, was that she said cooking gave her the chance to be creative and to make something that she could give to other people. If you compare this to adults’ motives for entertaining at home, the end goals are not that different.
Cookery books and cooking are, of course, about far more than the mere provision of sustenance. So if children are to be encouraged to cook, this needs to be done carefully. There is a danger that potential love for the art could be buried under a mountain of crisp packets.
Most of the children’s cookery books discussed here achieve this aim very well. And if you are a parent who feels that your ability in the kitchen is limited, then a family cooking session following recipes from some of these books will help to expand your own culinary repertoire.
For the very young
Paul Dowling’s Beans on toast isn’t a cookery book at all but rather an enjoyable introduction to the origin of a popular food. Lively illustrations guide the young reader from the bean growing on a stalk, through the factory process, on to the shops and eventually on toast at tea time. Children are taught very little about the origins of the food that they eat and a simple story such as this will help stimulate a wish to learn more about food. The book contains support notes which give good pointers towards taking a discussion on the subject further.
I liked Gwenda Turner’s Pat-a-cake a lot as a first introduction to cooking for the very young. Large illustrations and a brief text tell how a group of children and their teacher make a chocolate sponge. The fun that can be had from cooking really comes across in this attractive picture book. The sponge cake recipe is on a card glued inside the back cover so it is easy to remove and prop on the work surface whilst making the cake. This is a lot easier than trying to prop open a large format paperback!
Dorling Kindersley’s Kids First Cookbook is a large format book with simple recipes for small children but it is let down by its overuse of sweet ingredients. Of approximately thirty-five recipes only three or four are savoury. I know that children love making cakes and sweets but balance is all important and it is missing here. I wouldn’t want to use this book with young cooks.
Mr Wolf’s Pancakes by Jan Fearnley turned out to be our family favourite and it will enchant small children. Mr Wolf wants to make pancakes and he goes to various folk tale and nursery rhyme characters for help with all the tasks involved in making them, from reading the recipe to counting out money, shopping etc. The three little pigs, et al, are naturally reticent about assisting the wily wolf and so leave him to work out the tasks for himself. The parallels with a small child are quite obvious hence their natural fascination with this engaging story. But when the neighbours smell the pancakes, they forget their fears and pay Mr Wolf a visit with predictable consequences… A recipe card is attached.
Judy Bastyra’s Pizza Fun contains ten recipes for novelty pizzas. But I doubt that a small child could make the pizzas come out as they do in the book. I also have a problem with books that suggest attempting to make food look funny or weird. Some parents try it as a way to get children to eat food that they don’t want or like. It doesn’t work, as once a bite has been taken the novelty effect is messed up. In a nutshell, this one wasn’t for me.
Cookies is one type of food where you can get carried away and in Cookie Fun by the same author we are shown how to make and decorate an assortment of cookies. This book is aimed at quite young children and written as if you can leave them to do some of the stages on their own. A little chef symbol denotes at what stages the child should ask for adult help. However, when I tested this book out at home, it proved not to be practical. Why not just invest in an assortment of cookie cutters which would provide plenty of after school entertainment.
Bastyra’s Parties for Kids is, however, a very useful book. Themes from the Wild West to Underwater show how to make inexpensive costumes. The accompanying recipes are fresh, simple and the kind of things that three to seven year olds will love to make and eat. You are shown how to make invitations, given ideas about where to hold the party and, most importantly of all, how to make a birthday cake (even if you don’t want to bake the sponge bits yourself). My wife helped Georgia make the Princess castle cake and the result looked identical to the photograph in the book. As Georgia’s guests arrived at the party they all made a beeline to the cake to admire it, as did most of the Mums. At £7.99 this book is highly recommended.
For older children
Judy Bastyra writes in a variety of styles and I admire Cooking with Dad. The recipes range from the straightforward to the highly ambitious. I can see that there are some fathers and children who would relish the challenge of feeding the family and friends with a hungi. This is a Maori form of barbecue pit and takes the whole day to prepare. In contrast to this, an oversized hero sandwich is a great bit of assembly that is far simpler and quicker to prepare. This book has a very masculine slant to it and is well annotated with useful tips and observations. Safety issues are well covered in this book, acting as a good guide for the father who rarely ventures into the kitchen.
Gruesome Grub and Disgusting Dishes is a fun book for boys of a ghoulish nature. If you want to make a severed hand from jelly then this will show you how. Playing with food in this way does have its place but this book fails in a very important area. Cooking books for young children give us the chance to educate our kids about fresh and nutritional food but with recipe titles such as Snot Surfers or Sick on Toast I think that this book goes too far in the wrong direction.
Claire Freedman’s An Ark Full of Recipes contains some good old testament bible stories with suitable recipes. It explains the Jewish Seder – the special feast served at Passover – and what the different dishes represent. This is one of the few children’s cookery books to be published recently that brings in an aspect of our cultural heritage. The recipes vary from turning baked potatoes into Noah’s Ark to some traditional Jewish dishes. This book is well worth giving to a keen young cook.
Poems about Food has been compiled by Brian Moses. It is a collection of poems by a variety of children’s writers, school teachers and Catherine Garnett (aged 11). There are no recipes in this book but the poems are very engaging and a great way of bringing food into a conversation. There are some very good notes for adults at the back of the book with a list of different ways of using the poems for activities at home and as a way of providing support for The National Literacy Strategy.
Cooking with Herb the Vegetarian Dragon has a nice, soft style that doesn’t politicise the vegetarian message. This is a book that your children will want to cook from as the text and illustrations make the recipes sound quite enticing, even the bizarrely named Grand-Ma-Ma-Flora’s Spaghetti Sandwich.
The Kids’ Round the World Cookbook has lots of anecdotes about food from around the world. An inquiring child will want to do some cooking from this book but some of the recipes are quite intensive and will need adult help rather than supervision.
From Usborne ‘Cookery School for Beginners’ series, Cakes and Cookies and Vegetarian Cooking are simple and very well laid out books. If you follow the recipes the finished results will look just like they do in the books’ photographs. The recipes are decent and Georgia and I will certainly use some of the cake and cookie recipes at her next children’s party. The vegetarian book has some vegan recipes in it as well. It uses a good range of ingredients, and correctly. A recipe for tofu skewers reflects the heritage of the ingredients rather than attempting to find meat substitutes, though by way of contrast, there is a recipe using vegetarian sausages which is a pity.
As a professional cook I am very impressed with the majority of these books. They are well laid out and provide recipes that should be part of domestic life. They are easy to follow and all of the authors take the risks of working in the kitchen seriously with sensible and practical safety advice well laid out.
Henry Harris is the chef at Hush in Brook Street, London and the author of The Fifth Floor Cookbook.
Details of books discussed:
Beans on toast, Paul Dowling, Walker ‘Reading Together’, 0 7445 4882 9, £2.50 pbk
Pat-a-cake, Gwenda Turner, Puffin, 0 14 056364 4, £4.99 pbk
Kids First Cookbook, Dorling Kindersley, 0 7513 6633 1, £9.99 hbk
Mr Wolf’s Pancakes, Jan Fearnley, Mammoth, 0 7497 3559 7, £4.99 pbk
Pizza Fun, Judy Bastyra, Kingfisher, 0 7534 0112 6, £6.99 board
Cookie Fun, Judy Bastyra, Kingfisher, 0 7534 0113 4, £6.99 board
Parties for Kids, Judy Bastyra, Kingfisher, 0 7534 0347 1, £7.99 pbk
Cooking with Dad, Judy Bastyra, ill. Paul Daviz, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3270 2, £4.99 pbk
Gruesome Grub and Disgusting Dishes, Susan Martineau, ill. Martin Ursell, b small publishing, 1 874735 45 X, £3.50 pbk
An Ark Full of Recipes, Claire Freedman, Marshall Pickering, 0 551 03200 6, £7.99 pbk
Poems about Food, compiled by Brian Moses, Wayland, 0 7502 2442 8, £4.99 pbk
Cooking with Herb the Vegetarian Dragon, Jules Bass, ill. Debbie Harter, Barefoot, 1 84148 040 1, £6.99 pbk
The Kids’ Round the World Cookbook, Deri Robins, ill. Charlotte Stowell, Kingfisher, 0 7534 0274 2, £4.99 pbk
Cakes and Cookies, Fiona Watt, ill. Kim Lane, Usborne, 0 7460 2810 5, £4.99 pbk
Vegetarian Cooking, Fiona Watt, ill. Kim Lane, Usborne, 0 7460 3038 X, £4.99 pbk