Summer is glorious, and we love it. Totally. But real talk, fellow parents, guardians, and caregivers of all kinds: for us, the season is not all hammocks and mojitos. Keeping vacay’ing kids busy, safe, and healthy can be an odyssey. Camp drop-offs. Playdates. Sunscreen. Fortnite and YouTube gatekeeping. It’s a lot!
Meanwhile, what’s going on in their growing brains? We’ve all read spooky stories about summer learning loss. Research into the specifics varies, but a broad consensus points to summertime declines in reading and math, specifically. Some worry kids lose months of progress, and the phenomenon appears to hit lower-income kids especially hard.
Fortunately, an antidote is at hand: reading. One study suggests that giving free books to kids at the beginning of summer boosts their learning skills when school resumes. (How awesome are books? Other researchers conclude that just owning books helps kids’ educational attainment.)
And to help kids keep reading, we recommend an overlooked tool: cookbooks. No disrespect to novels, graphic novels, and nonfiction tomes, but sometimes more mouth-watering material can help lure younger readers to the page. A great cookbook engages the imagination in a multisensory way, teaching lessons about practical science and culture while prompting kids to keep turning the page.
I saw this power first-hand—in a situation that also taught me something about how kids really want to engage with reading. When my daughter was in second grade, her teacher told me that she was falling behind in reading. I—well, I panicked. Her class had transitioned from picture books to chapter books, and she wasn’t keen on giving up all the pictures. (Who could blame her?) To remedy this, I invited her to write a cookbook with me. Her eyes lit up, and off we went.
I bought a bunch of kid-oriented cookbooks for inspiration, but her interest in them was noticeably fleeting. They were too cutesy. Bryce and I had been cooking together for years, and she was used to making and eating “grown-up” food. She wasn’t interested in being talked down to on the page, either.
Then my copy of Mindy Segal’s (adult) cookbook Cookie Love arrived, and Bryce became acutely focused on it. She took it to bed with her and dog-eared all the recipes she wanted to make, walking me through all of her favorite pages each night for weeks. She did the same with other adult cookbooks, which helped her transition to chapter books at school and at home. By offering her a challenge and letting her follow her curiosity, I helped Bryce feel empowered. She charted her own path to aptitude.
[Looking for summer projects to engage your kids’ brains? Check out these 10 ideas.]
I’ll always be grateful to Mindy Segal for turning my kid into a reader, and even more of an advanced cook at the age of 7. What’s more, that experience inspired the creation of Little Sous. If you’re curious, it was her Brownie Krinkle cookie recipe that started it all. (Keep reading.)
Looking for tips on starting your kids’ culinary library? This New York Times list leans toward books conceived for kids, but does a nice job bridging kid-friendly approaches with more sophisticated content. (This Epicurious list overlaps a bit with the Times selection, but is worth a look to hear more about Alice Waters’ insta-classic Fanny at Chez Panisse.) A list from New York Magazine spans very young to older kids ready to rock, say, a trendy Thai recipe.
Finally, you can always turn ‘em loose in our deep well of kid-friendly recipes. This is, after all, what we’re here for.