One of the most rewarding parts of parenthood is simultaneously revisiting classics and familiar stuff you loved as a kid while discovering new gems. Two areas where this experience rings true most intensely for me is food, obviously, and children’s books. And these two territories majorly overlap. Just like all things food and kid-related, the past few years have witnessed an explosion in the marketplace of food picture books, in addition to amazing ones that have been around for decades.
While it’s so hard to choose, here are the top 10 food-themed books we’ve read, loved and learned from the most, from the baby board book phase into pre-K territory. Another wonderful thing about the works on this list is how they bridge the age gap and appeal to different developmental phases. (But when it comes down to it, what kid doesn’t love a poop reference?) Lots of these will be familiar to many of you. So, what are your personal and/or family favorite food-oriented books?
10. Yummy Yucky, Leslie Patricelli
I once teased my friend that she seemed to be collecting the ouvre of Leslie Patricelli because her daughter had a shelf of these simply, boldly illustrated books. Yummy Yucky in particular is useful for its primitive gross out humor to introduce very young kids to the concept of opposites and broad emotional expressions, while cautioning them against ingesting boogers and worms. My kids especially get a kick out of the kitty litter illustration. Hey, whatever helps keep them away from it.
9. World Snacks series, Amy Wilson Sanger
Along with Goodnight Moon, Let’s Nosh!, Hola! Jalapeno, First Book of Sushi, Yum Yum Dim Sum, Mangia! Mangia! were the first books I put on my baby registry. The collage illustrations are super creative and the clever rhymes fun to read.
8. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle
An obvious choice and yes, it was co-opted into a Carter’s clothing line. But its standing in the canon can’t be denied. The tale of the increasingly hungry caterpillar who goes on a serious binge that ranges from leaves to lollipops, and unbeknownst to this creature, transforms into a butterfly. THAT’S why he was so hungry! For some basic matching fun that’s great for the car and airplanes, check out My Very First Book of Food.
7. If You Give… series, Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond
My mom turned us onto If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and has since given us a couple others because they proved so popular. Kids love the what-chaos-and-hilarity-might-ensue wackiness that these whirlwind crazycakes characters bring with them, and the precise drawings are lovely. Think of it as children’s literature featuring animals and food meets 1980s sitcom plotting.
6. Bread and Jam for Frances, Russell and Lillian Hoban
This story from the series about Frances the badger (a favorite in our household) smartly illustrates the pitfalls of narrow and picky eating habits. Any parent can relate to the battle of wills that plays out in this tale; these badgers are smart, since their hands-off but consistent strategy allows Frances to realize entirely on her own that she’s sick of bread and jam and really should eat the other delicious food her family keeps offering.
5. All for Pie, Pie for All, David Martin and Valeri Gorbachev
Yet another one of my mom’s excellent picks, since she and my mother-in-law are our de facto resident librarians. Grandma Cat bakes an apple pie, the cat family eats it, then the mouse family eats the leftover slice, and then the ant family divvies up the remaining crumbs. By the end — spoiler alert! — all three species ditch this food chain hierarchy in order to pitch in and help Grandma Mouse bake a kick ass blueberry pie. Both my kids are seriously into this book lately, so I better learn to make a decent pie crust already.
4. Blueberries for Sal, Robert McCloskey
A lesson in seasonal and local produce, food preserving before it became cool, with glimpses into America’s transition from rural to urban/suburban, post-industrial society, featuring a semi-androgynous protagonist. OK so the kids don’t care about that stuff and just want to read about Little Sal and the mix up with her mom and the bears on Blueberry Hill. A delightful read told and rendered in McCloskey’s distinctive style.
3. Anatole, Eve Titus
The direct ancestor and kindred spirit of Remy the rat, Paris-area resident Anatole finds a way to give back, instead of succumbing to the human accusation that “mice are a disgrace to France!” In the series’s first book, he sneaks into the Fromage Duval factory “in the business part of town” and drops brilliant tasting notes for the cheese tasters to find the following morning, while in his own unique way fighting for the dignity of his kind. In the book he stays anonymous, whereas in an awesome 1960 cartoon short adaptation (voiced by Carl Reiner, who knew?!) Anatole lands a fat cat VP Cheese Taster position and works openly right out of Messr. Duval’s office. If you want your kids to pick up really bad, exaggerated French accents, then read Anatole a lot. I might also take mine by the Chateau Duval apartments in Koreatown and tell them it’s the Duval cheese factory.
2. Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss
It’s Dr. Seuss. And I can scramble a mixture of pureed raw spinach into eggs and get my kids to eat greens. Another invaluable lesson in overcoming closed-mindedness that applies to every aspect of life. So THANK YOU again, Mr. Geisel, for this book along with the rest of your astoundingly genius literary legacy.
1. In the Night Kitchen, Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak’s book is just as trippy and bizarre as I remember it being when we read it as kids. And as full of magic and a powerful depiction of subconscious sensory experiences (and yup, still controversial!) that gets better and more complex with every read. No need to clue kids into the Holocaust/totalitarianism themes until they’re ready, though. But no matter, because Mickey, our hero, prevails! Don’t we all want to knead and punch and pull and pound bread dough into a prop plane, and navigate past an elevated subway made of bread loaves that rumbles through a city built from cooking and food supplies to evade a bunch of creepy menacing bakers but get them their darn milk already, and then return safely back to our own warm bed? Why yes, we certainly do.