If you’ve ever tried looking for kid-friendly recipes online, you know how hard it can be to find recipes for kids to make that everyone in the family will actually enjoy eating, yet are simple enough for a child to help make. And though there are plenty of them out there, most kids’ cookbooks aren’t very helpful either. They can be gimmicky, with stunt foods rather than real food, or recipes that are so oversimplified that they’re confusing even for an adult who’s got a handle on the basics.
That’s why I asked chefs with children to share the cookbooks they use in their own kitchens when making meals as a family, along with the titles their own kids like reading. So whether you’ve got a child or teenager in your life who’s interested in cooking and wants to learn more, a burgeoning little foodie in a high chair who needs a gift, or you’re just in desperate need of easy dinner recipes for kids that you can make together as a family, here are 17 chef-approved children’s cookbooks.
“Every kid loves pizza, and ours is no exception,” says Vanessa Palazio, executive chef and co-owner of the recently opened Chicha Cafetín and Cocktails in Bushwick, which she owns with her husband, Adam Schneider. But their 2-year-old son Luca is too young to really cook, so they’ll read Pizza!: An Interactive Recipe Book, which lets him pretend to do a lot of the heavy lifting. “Each step has different textures and actions that mimic making real pizza, like mixing the dry ingredients, the pliable dough, and the cut segments at the end,” explains Palazio. It’s like letting a toddler cook, but without the mess.
The author of Pizza! also wrote Tacos!, which goes step-by-step into making chicken tacos.
If your toddler is more of a breakfast person, there’s also Pancakes!
If you’re trying to make an edible pizza with your toddler, chef Dave Warner, at JRDN at Tower 23 Hotel in San Diego, California, likes reading Little Belly Monster with his 4- and 2-year-old sons. The book goes step-by-step, giving his young ones a chance to actually cook if they want and teaching them the importance of using what Warner calls “wholesome” ingredients — though it can also be enjoyed as a stand-alone picture book.
Anthony Falco, the pizza consultant at Bocce Union Square, has kids who are also obsessed with pizza, so he and his wife read them books about pizza when they tuck them in for the night. “We’ve recently been into a fun one called Tony and the Pizza Champions, by Tony Gemignani.” And though it’s more of a bedtime book than a proper cookbook, it’s still got “some killer recipes and pizza-making illustrations.”
“My kids and I love The Silver Spoon for Children: Favorite Italian Recipes,” says P.J. Calapa, owner and executive chef at Scampi in New York City. “We love how they combine real photos with illustrations; it really gets my kids excited about each specific recipe.” Where this cookbook really excels, though, according to Calapa and his children, is “the drawings of the knife cuts. They show my 5-year-old just why exactly we cut things the way we do and why it is so important to have even cuts.” It makes pasta-making approachable, even for a young kid.
If your child is old enough to start using a knife on their own, Jake Strang, executive chef of L27 Rooftop Lounge at the Westin Nashville, recommends two titles that his own 9-year-old daughter likes to use. “The first one is Complete Children’s Cookbook, and I really like this one because it focuses on all the basics, such as how to properly hold a knife, names of equipment and utensils, and more.”
Strang’s daughter also likes the MasterChef Junior Cookbook, based on the TV show. It’s a title also recommended by chef Darryl Harmon of the Lure Group in New York City. His daughter Alyssa, now 16, has been in cooking classes for the last two years, and he got her MasterChef Junior Cookbook “because kids want to feel like they’re learning to cook like a real pro.” Now, he jokes, he’s got some “serious competition!”
“My daughter Elena loves reading this cookbook as it really gave her the fundamentals for cooking and continues to serve as a great reference for proper techniques,” says chef Antonio Mora of Quality Meats. This book was written with Jacques Pépin’s granddaughter Shorey in mind, so it’s both kid-friendly and filled with professional chef-level techniques. “Pépin is the master, and his book is one I should probably read more often myself.”
“I never made it past the first Harry Potter movie, but there is something very magical about anything Harry Potter,” admits Christian Petroni, chef and co-owner of Fortina who will be competing on the upcoming season of Food Network Star. “I have had a lot of fun exploring the different recipes in this book with my nephews,” which includes recipes for the fictional foods from the series, like cauldron cakes and treacle, and is a fun way to get kids interested in Harry Potter also interested in food.
For a much older kid — say, one who’s in their mid-to-late teens or about to go to college and has already got a handle on chopping and sautéing — Albert Di Meglio, executive chef at Barano in Brooklyn, suggests Culinary Artistry, which is more of a reference guide than a cookbook with recipes. “I think what is more important than following and learning a recipe is to understand what flavors go together. A recipe is only as good as a cook,” he says. This book “breaks down food by season as well as which foods go well with one another. From there, you can create a recipe that is personal and based on your taste, which can be extremely valuable during their college years.”
“Cooking is more about testing, whereas baking has formulas that can be easier to follow,” notes Ralph Scamardella, chef and partner for Tao Group, whose daughter Natalie loves to bake. That means it can be a little less intimidating for kids who are following recipes for the first time, though it doesn’t have to be totally by the book. “You can also use your more creative talents while decorating at the end.” He recommends this book by Pat Sinclair, which has easy-to-follow recipes for classic desserts.
Nicholas Elmi, chef and partner at several restaurants in Philadelphia, including Royal Boucherie and Laurel, has an 8-year-old daughter Grace who, since the age of 3, has been obsessed with an American Girl doll with the same name. “Her backstory is that she loves to bake, and after a trip to Paris, Grace falls in love with Parisian bakeries and helps save her family’s bakery.” The doll’s story was so compelling that Elmi’s daughter has decided that she wants to become a baker herself. “She dresses up as Grace the baker every Halloween and wants to go to Paris so that she can bake bread and eat macarons,” he says, which is why he bought her this baking cookbook from American Girl, to go along with her obsession.