Book out now!

“Becoming a parent can be confusing and overwhelming. Just when you think you’ve mastered it, your baby moves on to another phase, and you’re lost again. If you have another child, at least it feels like going back into familiar territory, but now you have to work out how to apply all the lessons you learnt first time, while simultaneously taking care of an older child.”

I’ve made lots of mistakes and wrong turnings over the years, and I make no claim to have it all sorted now (my children would certainly tell you otherwise), but I have a lot more experience, knowledge and confidence now that I wish I’d had right from the start. So I’m doing the next best thing: I’ve written it all down so that other people can have it. I’ve collected together all the ideas and information that has helped me, and other families, through everything from pregnancy and babyhood right into older childhood. Not all of it will work for you, but I promise you’ll find something you’ve never read before that makes parenting just a little bit easier.

Available now in paperback and ebook on Amazon. Please read and review, and contact me with any comments!

Cookbooks for older children

Following my last post about cookbooks for young children, I wanted to follow up with some for older children. Except… we don’t have many. We have two “family” cookbooks and one aimed at teenagers, but in practice they’re used by adults more than children in this house; maybe that will change as the children get a bit older. I’ll tell you about them anyway, because I think they’re good books.

The River Cottage Family Cookbook claims that it’s for “anyone in the family” to use, and that children aged 10-12 and upwards (isn’t that the same as 10 and upwards?) should be able to cook from it without help. The recipes are divided onto rough groups by main ingredient – flour, milk, meat, sugar etc – and there are some useful basics in there like soda bread, pizza dough, Victoria sponge, to name just a few from the Flour chapter. Personally I think my children might be more inspired to cook from it if there were pictures for each recipe and a bit less chat in between, but as they get older they might be more inclined to sit down and read the whole thing until they find something that interests them.

The Family Cooks is aimed at parents, but I’m including it here because it’s all about food that children might realistically eat at normal mealtimes, and plenty of the recipes are extremely simple because they’re designed to be put on a weekday dinner table within ten minutes of walking in the door. Each recipe has one clear photo of the finished product, and a set of tips at the foot of the page on how you could vary the recipe and on which bits of the process are best for involving younger children. It’s very much focused on cooking from scratch using wholefood ingredients, and has been helpful for coming up with new ways to eat vegetables that we get tired of (cauliflower popcorn, kneaded kale, and sweet potato soup with miso are some recipes we’ve loved).

Cooking Up A Storm is endorsed by Jamie Oliver and has some of the same “wotcha, geezer” style to it, which grates a bit. The recipes themselves are good, though, clearly explained and realistically cookable and eatable by the target audience. There are plenty of pictures but, one of my bugbears in cookbooks, I’d rather see more photos of the finished dishes and fewer of the chef having a laugh with his mates, or juggling oranges, or dressing up for a party. Is it weird that I want all the pictures in a cookbook to at least have some food in them? Also I’m fighting the urge to go through the book with a permanent marker and cross out all the stupid banter about “girls’ food” and mums fussing about and all the rest, leaving only the perfectly serviceable recipes.

In practice, when my oldest daughter (nearly 12) wants to cook, one of three things happens. One, she decides what she wants to make and we find a recipe on the internet. Two, she wants to make one of the things that we regularly cook and eat at home, so she asks me to stay with her and give instructions, and makes me promise not to interfere. Three, she uses something from the collection of written-out recipes that she’s been collecting since she did her Cook badge at Brownies four years ago. I know there are many more high-tech ways of collecting recipes, but an A5 sized ringbinder of bits of paper with recipes handwritten on them works fine for her (and for me; I’ve got my own very similar folder, though the recipes in it are a bit different). It’s been really useful for her to have some basics written out in detail – white sauce, vegetable soup, even how to make a cup of tea. Her collection is the kind of things that I can now make without a recipe, and that I use all the time. Maybe she should compile them into a cookbook…

Cookbooks for young children

I’m cross-posting this with my other blog, Lick The Plate, where I write about food. I haven’t posted here much recently because I’ve been writing a Have The Fourth One First book, so all my best ideas were going straight into there, but I’m on my final proofread so hopefully I can get back to posting on this blog more regularly soon. If you’re interested in simple, practical cookery, particularly cooking from scratch and reducing food waste, you can follow the other blog and get nearly-weekly blog posts delivered straight to your inbox.

I’ve always been keen to get my children involved in cooking, both to get them engaged with food and to get some extra help in the kitchen, though it takes a few years of not-very-helpful help to get to the point when they’re actually helpful. Mostly they join in with whatever I’m doing, but as they’ve got older they’ve wanted to use recipes and cook more independently. Ordinary cookbooks often don’t give enough detail for anyone who isn’t used to cooking – when I’ve tried writing recipes down for them, it’s really shocking how long it takes to spell out the steps involved in doing something like “heat the stock” or “dice the onion”.

Rrally good children’s cookbooks are hard to come by. The recipes are too simple, or too complex, or not well explained, or heavy on cupcakes with little everyday food in them. I’ve picked out a few that have really worked for us: the ones I’m listing here are great for young children just starting to cook, and next week I’ll suggest a few for older children.

The Usborne First Cookbook

Our copy of this is the one I had as a small child, now in tatters and still in regular use. By the age of 12 I had cooked basically everything in it. I love how it has really simple recipes (suggestions for sandwich fillings, ice cream sundaes, stuffed jacket potatoes) sitting alongside things that even adults find a bit intimidating (soufflé, profiteroles, pizza from scratch), without any flashing warning signs that we’re now Doing Something Difficult. There are some useful basic recipes in there, and it’s still my go-to source for chocolate brownies, chocolate mousse and the aforementioned profiteroles. It has line drawings rather than photos, showing all the intermediate steps. It does use some cookbook jargon but has a glossary, so older children (maybe 8+ if they have some cooking experience) can use it independently.

Pretend Soup and Salad People

These are aimed at very young children (4+) cooking under adult supervision. Every recipe is written twice: first as a regular recipe, then over the page a children’s version, with each step simply explained and illustrated with a drawing. You do need to look through the adult version first to get some of the specifics, but once that’s done and the ingredients and equipment are ready, a child who can read can follow the steps unaided. The recipes are a useful mix of main dishes, vegetable sides, puddings and drinks, though this often means that my daughter (recently six) wants to cook four different recipes simultaneously to make a full meal, which complicates things a bit. Still, to get a really young child to feel they’ve cooked some proper food, which other people actually want to eat. As a UK reader I do sometimes have to translate the US terms and swap ingredients for what’s available here.

Honest Pretzels

Another book by the same author, aimed at slightly older children. This is my nine-year-old’s preferred cookbook, and the style is the same: full recipe on one double page, followed by a step-by-step illustrated version on the next double page. The recipes are more ambitious, for example quite a few variations on making bread dough.

How To Cook In Ten Easy Lessons

This is such a great idea, and would work really well for anyone starting to cook, child or adult. Each chapter introduces a new cookery technique – chapter one is “using knives”, chapter two is “peeling and grating” and so on. The technique is introduced with photos and drawings and text explanations – so for example “using knives” tells you about safety, and shows in detail how to chop and dice and julienne. Then there are a few recipes using the new technique to make some sensible everyday things, like minestrone, hummus or pavlova.

Children’s World Cookbook

This is less of a “what’s for dinner?” cookbook and more of a “let’s have an adventure”, though no worse for that. It takes one country at a time, tells the reader a little bit about the place and its food, then for each country there is one simple recipe. It works well when children are doing projects on other countries, or when the World Cup or the Olympics has got them interested, and could be a great starting point for finding out more about a particular place. The individual steps are illustrated with drawings, and there are wonderful bright photos of the finished dishes and of each country’s landscape and culture. Unfortunately it’s wildly northern hemisphere-centric, and I have a huge issue with “Africa” being a single entry, and “the Middle East” another, when for example Sweden and Norway get an entry each. The recipe element is good, despite the problematic geopolitics.

Bedtime stories

Some of our books are due for a little holiday.

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I really don’t have anything against any of these – in fact I really like The Troll, and I enjoy how Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book comes full circle, and the details in the illustrations. But my two-year-old has been on a Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler binge for a fortnight now, and I have to call time. He loves Pip and Posy – really, really loves. To a toddler, it seems there’s nothing quite so compelling as an exaggerated drawing of a sad face, and on that front Pip and Posy deliver every time. So I read the books again, and again, because I can put up with a bit of boredom in exchange for my son’s pleasure in telling me, with his mouth turned down at the corners, “Pip sad. Pip SAAAD. Pip cry, cry, cry!”.

But there comes a point where, even to indulge this slightly disturbing delight in other people’s suffering (totally developmentally normal, honest), I just can’t do it again. So all of these are sneaking out of the pile of bedtime books – just back onto the ordinary bookshelf where they’re a bit less conspicuous – and in their place will go some books that don’t make my heart sink. How is it that some books I find it tedious to repeat, and others I have honestly never felt bored with? Some of these books I’ve been reading for ten years now and I still enjoy them even though I am word-perfect without looking at the pages. The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig can make me laugh out loud even the hundredth time around.

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(There Are Cats In This Book by Viviane Schwarz, Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, Kipper’s Birthday by Mick Inkpen, Clip-Clop by Nicola Smee, Olivia by Ian Falconer, The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr).

These are my old friends: some of them I discovered as a parent, some were stories I listened to as a child, though most of my own books have fallen to bits and been replaced (because they were “very old and broken like Mummy”, as I try not to say too often).

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(Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards, Full Full Full of Love by Trish Cooke, Mog the Forgetful Cat and Mog and the Baby by Judith Kerr, Duck in the Truck by Jez Alborough, Penguin by Polly Dunbar, I’m Not Cute by Jonathan Allen, Please Baby Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee).

I’m always looking for new books to read, and despite having more books than we really have space for, we borrow half a dozen from the library every week. Very occasionally, one of them will hit that magic spot where I know I could read it again and again without getting tired of it – I can’t put my finger on what it is about these books, but to get me through the “More! Again! MORE!” toddler months, I cling to them.

Other options to deal with tedious repetition: my daughter wanted Rapunzel read to her every night for what felt like a decade; I found as many different versions of the story as I could get hold of in libraries and second hand book shops and in fairytale collections that we already owned, so there was at least a little variety in our nightly reading. And when another daughter went through a Gruffalo phase, I was happy to read it as long as she’d let me do different accents for each character; I was entertained by the terribleness of my voices and had to concentrate enough to keep track of which voice was whose, and she got her story, so we were both happy. Usually. If she was tired or grumpy she would demand that I “read it in Eng-er-lish”.

See more book ideas here.

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