"Your recipes just don't dance across my taste buds." A harsh line from a restaurant review? No, that indictment came from a child — the son of my hairdresser, Linda Pacheco.
Parents worry plenty about kids and their relationship to food. Are they eating too little? Too much? Are they getting enough vegetables, or an excess of junk? Parents negotiate precise counts of peas and carrots in exchange for coveted cookies, all the while trying to model good manners and healthy practices.
Turns out parents are food critics, too. "I don't love cooking, especially for this finicky group I live with," says Pacheco, "and I'm tired of the same old, same old."
Even the most creative cooks can find themselves in a rut caused by the daily routines of feeding family. Thankfully, a good cookbook can really help.
Here is a list of some standouts.
Healthy Cooking with Young Kids
The Whole Family Cookbook:
Celebrate the Goodness of Locally Grown Foods
Michelle Stern, Adams Media, $17.95
Michelle Stern is from the San Francisco area, but her eat-local and cook-from-scratch ethos fits the values of many Vermont parents. Her cookbook opens with an introduction called "Raising Little Locavores" and provides enthusiastic help, teaching parents how to shop for, cook with and train the palates of young children. She offers lists of equipment for cooking with kids, along with down-to-earth advice. For the parent considering a cooking project with a toddler, she says, "If you woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, reconsider this activity. Have a glass of wine and a good night's sleep — and try again tomorrow." Her recipes are child friendly and combine ambitious flavors in unthreatening presentations. Try Breakfast Anytime Pizza with olives, tomatoes, cheese and ham, Corny Raspberry Muffins, or Acorn Squash and Wild Rice Bowls.
Cooking With Your Bookworm
Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook for Young Readers & Eaters
Jane Yolen, Crocodile Books, $20
Full of fairy tales, folksy illustrations and simple recipes, Jane Yolen's collection connects two terrific rainy-afternoon activities: cooking and reading. Zander, my 6-year-old, thinks that the oatmeal we make from the recipe accompanying the "Magic Pot of Porridge" story is the very best. I'm not sure why he feels it stands out, but I like his enthusiasm for reading and cooking, so why challenge him? The book includes some lesser-known folk tales, such as "The Magic Pear Tree" and "The Great Turnip," alongside usual suspects "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Cinderella." At your next story time, try Very French Toast or Runaway Pancakes.
Vegan With a Vengeance: Over 150 Delicious, Cheap, Animal-Free Recipes That Rock
Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Marlowe & Company, $17.95
"I cook because I love to eat," says author Isa Chandra Moskowitz. And she brings that simple enthusiasm to the table in this collection of recipes gathered from 16 years of life as a committed vegan — a vegetarian who does not consume dairy, eggs or other animal products. While telling compelling stories of growing up in Manhattan, Moskowitz shares recipes such as Coconut Pancakes With Pineapple Sauce, Parsnip-Scallion Pancakes, Pizza Dough, and an amazing and easy recipe for homemade seitan.
Baking for Special Diets
BabyCakes: Vegan, (Mostly) Gluten-Free, and (Mostly) Sugar-Free Recipes From New York's Most Talked-About Bakery
Erin McKenna, Clarkson Potter, $24
Packed with celebrity endorsements and glossy full-page photos, BabyCakes inspires the belief that it's possible to create delicious treats for the vegan, the food intolerant and the omnivorous alike. Erin McKenna tempts with an incredible lineup of sweets available for snacks, breakfast and dessert at the BabyCakes NYC bakery: Chocolate Shortbread Scones With Caramelized Bananas, Red Velvet Cupcakes, Strawberry Rhubarb Pie and dozens of other recipes. The friend who lent me the cookbook recommends the Carrot Cake — it's one of her son's favorites.
Baking Bible for Busy Parents
The Weekend Baker: Irresistible Recipes, Simple Techniques, and Stress-Free Strategies for Busy People
Abigail Johnson Dodge, W.W. Norton, $24.95
A French-trained pastry chef, Abigail Johnson Dodge caters to busy cooks and parents by organizing recipes according to the amount of time required to complete them. Got a bake-sale obligation on a busy weeknight? Try a selection from the "Baker's Express" section such as Warm Cinnamon-Spiced Blueberry Cake or Emergency Blender Cupcakes. Have a larger window of time? Consult the "Baking in Stages" pages for make-ahead sweets, such as Coconut-Crusted Pudding Tart or Crumble-Topped Pear-Rum Raisin Pie. When you've got extra time on your hands, go for a showstopper from the "Productions" chapter, such as Chocolate-Dipped Macadamia Brittle or Nut-Crusted Chocolate-Banana Swirl Cake.
Breaking the Food Rut Without Breaking the Bank
EatingWell on a Budget
Jessie Price, Countryman Press, $18.95
Every family needs a source of new dinner ideas when they're bored with the usual ones. This book, produced in Vermont by the staff of EatingWell magazine, offers flavorful and easily prepared options, all priced $3 or less per individual serving. While not specifically a family cookbook, there's plenty for most kids to enjoy, from Grilled Black Bean Nacho Pizza with homemade crust to Spaghetti Frittata and Sweet & Sour Chicken Drumsticks. The book also offers more sophisticated options for parents. Try Sweet Potato and Tofu Red Curry, Barley Risotto With Fennel, or Maple-Chili Glazed Pork Medallions for your next stay-at-home date night.
Homemade for Babies and Toddlers
Organic Baby & Toddler Cookbook
Lizzie Vann, DK Publishing, $15
One of the first gifts I received as a new mom, this beautifully colored book is filled with easy purées for babies sampling their first solid foods. It also includes recipes the whole family can appreciate, such as Corn and Potato Mash With Herbs and Vegetable Korma. The fruit mashes and pasta recipes are easy to make, and my first son enjoyed them through toddlerhood. Though he lost his adventurous taste buds around age 3, this book encouraged us to experiment with flavors and ingredients atypical for most American families with young kids.