Pretend Soup by Mollie Katzen and Ann Henderson

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Most mornings, after my son (age 23 months) finishes his breakfast, he jumps out of his chair and runs to the kitchen stool, yelling, “Cook! Cook!” He climbs the stool and pounds the counter, a big smile on his face, for he knows I’ll probably give in and cook something with him. (I normally prepare a batch of breakfast granola twice a week, so I think that’s when this obsession started.)

I’ve been looking for something to nurture this interest, and then I recalled a book that months ago Eva mentioned her niece enjoyed: Pretend Soup by Mollie Katzen and Ann Henderson.

I didn’t realize how wonderful Pretend Soup was until I consulted another preschool cookbook and compared the two.

The second book had cooking activities, and each treat was either in a shape (such as fruit pudding decorated like a cat, bread shaped to look like a bear) or the treat itself was a sugary desert (chocolate dipped fruit, fruit tarts arranged in a pretty pattern). These recipes seemed far too artistic for my creative design talents, let alone those of my one-year-old (or even an older preschooler).

While Pretend Soup does include some “decorated” food (“Bagel Faces,” decorated with vegetables, for example), the emphasis in the entire book is different. Katzen and Henderson assert that for a preschooler, the fun part of cooking is the actual act of cooking. Watching my son, I believe it.

The introduction provides numerous safety ideas (such as mark the handle part of the bread knife with masking tape to remind the child where to hold it), as well as ideas to ease the stress of cooking with a child (such as keep a baking sheet under the mixing bowl, so clean ups will be as painless as putting the baking sheet in the sink). Cooking with children will certainly be messy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a no go.

Further, each recipe is written twice, once for the adult in words, and then illustrated in a two-page color spread so the child can “read” the recipe himself. My son is still too young for that aspect, but I’m sure three- and four-year-olds love being able to “read” along.

And then the “critics” (i.e., preschoolers) also provide hilarious reviews of the food they’ve created.

“I wish I could have two bunches of them!” says Nathan, liking his plate after the “Zucchini Moons”

“This is so good, I can’t even say a word.” says Matthew about the “French Toast”

“It tastes so good, I’m gonna eat it ALL UP!” says Jessica on the “Oatmeal Surprise”

“Good! Very good! So really very good!” says Sammy about the “Pizza!”

What I like best about Pretend Soup is not the recipes; the end results seem mediocre and ordinary. My son and I have so far cooked the “Zucchini Moons” (sautéed zucchini with salt, pepper, and cheese), the “Hide and Seek Muffins” (with a hidden strawberry inside each one), and the “Pizza” (which he loved putting cheese on, and then some more). My son wouldn’t eat much of any of these, probably because he’s getting teeth this week and not eating much anyway. I didn’t think they were the most original or most delicious meals either.

No, what I like most about Pretend Soup are the tips and ideas for making the process fun. Cooking doesn’t have to be intimidating, and Pretend Soup makes even the most basic dishes into a game. I think the kids praised the end results (even the pretty ordinary sautéed vegetable dishes) because they had made it themselves. It was their creation: of course they liked it.

I have a friend that doesn’t let her son cook with her because “he wants to help me crack the eggs.” Apparently, she doesn’t want him to get that “hands on.” It’s messy, and eggs are, well, raw eggs.

Oh, my. How can I explain to you the look of absolute delight on my son’s face when he helped me crack open those eggs? That’s worth any mess. He had a blast: one minute the egg was hard, the next minute it was all runny. Enter: delighted screeches, loud laughter, and a largest smile I’ve ever seen. Plus, a mess on his hands and the counter, but hey, who cares?

Of the three recipes we made together from this book, I think my son had the most fun with the “Hide and Seek Muffins.” We had to roll the strawberry in sugar and dip it inside the muffin dough. My son would eat a strawberry, and then remember to get another and put it in the muffin dough. He also had fun putting the papers in the muffin tin, cracking the eggs, mixing the mix, and putting the dough in the papers. Yeah, pretty much all of it. He didn’t have patience to wait the 15 minutes for the muffins to be done: he said, “Eat! Eat!” as soon as he saw the strawberries. So we ate strawberries while we waited for the muffins. Altogether, it was a fun morning.

I look forward to many more mornings cooking with my son. It may not be recipes from Pretend Soup, but it will certainly be with my son!

Do you cook with your kids?

What are your favorite “kids cooking” recipes?

P.S. I know I’ve written three kid-like posts in a row; I’ll get back to other stuff the rest of the week, I promise!

Cross-posted on Rebecca’s Cooking Journal

Reviewed on August 24, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I don’t have any kids (yet? maybe?), but I’m SO glad that my parents were willing to slow down, get messy & have fun with me when I was little. It made me feel so special and included to be allowed to “help” them with the cooking, the fence-building, even with the daily chores…I think all those dirty kitchens really helped me become a confident, caring adult. So good for you! It sounds like you are being a fantastic mom.

  • Our youngest son LOVES cooking with Dad. He’s been cooking with him since he was 3, almost every night. He says he wants to be a cook when he grows up.

  • Emily, oh sounds like a fun childhood! I remember playing with mud and leaves and “cooking” that way, but my folks weren’t cooking much themselves, so I guess that’s why I was never hands on in the kitchen with them.

    Kathy, it is a fun book!

    Amanda, that is so awesome! This book is geared for 3-5 year olds so it’s probably a little below his level, (he’s six right?) but it still so much fun to make the cooking the enjoyable part.

    Kim, I can’t imagine how mess peanut butter play dough would be. Wow, what a nanny you must have been!

  • What a wonderful post, on so many levels! This book sounds adorable, too.

    I’ve always had fun cooking with my kids. It’s not so much the actual recipe that’s important but the time spent together. And cooking is also about learning and discovering–great for kids AND adults.

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