If you browse the food shelves at a bookstore or local library, you’ll probably find an important selection of cookbooks, memoirs, and journalistic investigations into our food system. Maybe you’ll recognize the names of the authors. One thing stands out: Many of these books are geared toward adults — and we need to include children in the conversation about how we grow, produce, and consume food, too.
Introducing children to the diversity of our food system is a key part of encouraging healthy and sustainable habits for life. The books on this list can help eaters of all ages — including and especially young people, the future of our food system — understand the power of agricultural diversity and cultural food traditions. This week, Food Tank is spotlighting 15 books that can help young eaters and innovators understand how food can inspire us, nourish us, and connect us across the globe: Before We Eat: From Farm to Table by Pat Brisson, illustrated by Mary Azarian; Can You Eat? by Joshua David Stein, illustrated by Julia Rothman; Everyone Eats! by Julia Kuo; Farm Anatomy, Nature Anatomy, and Food Anatomy by Julia Rothman; Farming by Gail Gibbons; Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal; Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Rafael López; My Food, Your Food by Lisa Bullard, illustrated by Christine M. Schneider; Pancakes to Parathas: Breakfasts Around the World by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Tomoko Suzuki; Right This Very Minute by Lisl H. Detlefsen, illustrated by Renee Kurilla; See What We Eat!: A First Book of Healthy Eating by Scot Ritchie; The Good Egg by Jory John and Pete Oswald; The Popcorn Book by Tomie dePaola; We Are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines; and What’s On Your Plate?: Exploring the World of Food by Whitney Stewart, illustrated by Christiane Engel.
Contributing Author: Katherine Walla
As the holiday season ramps up for many across the world, Food Tank is highlighting 15 children’s books that will introduce young eaters, growers, and innovators to the world of food and agriculture. Authors and organizations are working to show children the importance — and fun — of eating healthy, nutritious, and delicious food, growing their own produce, and giving food to others in need.
The books on this list show that food provides more than calories — it also connects people across cultures, countries, and culinary traditions. From these books, children and adults alike can learn that even non-perfect foods can be tasty and that diverse people, like diverse vegetables in a garden, can make the world a beautiful place.
Food Tank is highlighting 15 children’s books that show how food, nutrition, and agriculture are springboards to connecting with one another this holiday season:
1. Before We Eat: From Farm to Table by Pat Brisson, illustrated by Mary Azarian
Adopted by the USDA’s Agriculture in the Classroom program, Before We Eat shows that before the food gets to the table, many people work hard to make our plates full. The book reminds readers that nourishing one person involves a team of fishers, farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers to enrich our food system. The expanded edition includes features about school gardens and the farm-to-school movement for budding activists and community leaders ready to make a change.
2. Can You Eat? by Joshua David Stein, illustrated by Julia Rothman
Food critic Joshua David Stein rhymes through familiar foods and other goofy, common items for a simple and fun exploration of what can — and cannot — be eaten. Through laughter and smiles, children will see how fun it is to have variety in their diet and explore the abundance of biodiversity in the edible world.
3. Everyone Eats! by Julia Kuo
Everyone Eats explores a diversity of eaters: the cute animals and critters that make up our ecosystem. Kuo features each animal and the foods they eat that are familiar, edible, and even nutritious to readers. Each page will show toddlers how to be fearless in eating these healthy snacks and also that humans and animals are more alike than they thought — therefore, it is important to protect their habitats.
4. Farm Anatomy, Nature Anatomy, and Food Anatomy by Julia Rothman
This collection of books from Julia Rothman joins intricate illustrations with entertaining facts and guides about the food world. Covering topics from life on a farm and the natural world to global kitchens and cuisines, Rothman shows how food, farms, and nature intersect to create a delicate — but exciting — system. Readers of all ages will be able to add to their knowledge of history, practical skills, and understanding of the food system and ecosystem.
5. Farming by Gail Gibbons
Gibbons’ introduction to farming shows that farming is a busy practice throughout the year. Not only are animals born, fields tended, and crops harvested, but farmers are also incorporating new technologies and adapting to the forces of nature. The newest edition of Farming uses the same bright colours and simple illustrations, with added expertise on agricultural science and updated farming procedures.
6. Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Fry Bread tells the story of a modern Native American family through the role fry bread plays in their family and community. The powerful poetry shows that even a staple food can say so much about family, history, memory, and community. In the end, Maillard shows how the bread serves as a tool to promote connectivity between communities and among nations.
7. Just Ask! By Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Rafael López
Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor joins with López on a book that celebrates not only diversity in a garden, but also diversity in mankind. In Just Ask, children can celebrate the different abilities that kids have by reading about children starting a community garden. In building the garden, the kids ask each other often-ignored questions to encourage readers to do the same: This book shows children that when encountering someone different than them, it is best to just ask and celebrate everyone’s unique abilities. In the end, Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor hopes children realize that, just like in a garden, diversity makes the world more vibrant and wonderful.
8. My Food, Your Food by Lisa Bullard, illustrated by Christine M. Schneider
In My Food, Your Food, leading character Manuel enjoys food week in class. As each child reminisces about a special meal their family cooks and eats — and special ways they eat them — Manuel realizes that food across cultures is incredibly different. But by enjoying the diverse food traditions, eating with chopsticks, forks, and hands, Manuel realizes that eaters across cultures are actually surprisingly alike.
9. Pancakes to Parathas: Breakfasts Around the World by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Tomoko Suzuki
Pancakes to Parathas explores unique breakfasts from country to country. Although the breakfasts differ across the twelve countries, like Australia, India, Japan, and Brazil, readers will find that the meal joins eaters at dawn to get their day started. The bold illustrations help children imagine breakfasts like soured soybeans and coffee — with lots of milk — as they explore what children around the world feast on in the morning.
10. Right This Very Minute by Lisl H. Detlefsen, illustrated by Renee Kurilla
Detlefsen offers children a look at where food comes from before they see it in stores and restaurants. Whenever a child says they’re hungry right this very minute, this book will remind them of food’s incredible journey, from farmer to plate. Showing the variety of farmers involved in making different meals — including orchardists, beekeepers, and livestock, grain, and vegetable farmers — the book reminds children that the supply chain connects them to farmers all around the world.
11. See What We Eat!: A First Book of Healthy Eating by Scot Ritchie
In See What We Eat, character Yulee and her four friends take a tour of her aunt’s farm, pick apples, and make apple crisp for a potluck dinner. Each stop on the tour helps the children understand more about an important component of a balanced meal: fields of grain, gardens of vegetables, hen houses and the barn for dairy and protein, and an orchard of fruit. Finally, the characters come together with a multicultural group of neighbours for a big potluck meal.
12. The Good Egg by Jory John and Pete Oswald
In The Good Egg, an extremely good egg finds it hard to keep being good when the other eggs are being rotten. In his dozen, the other 11 eggs behave badly, so the good egg attempts to take charge to perfect the bunch. However, the pressure starts to wear its shell; the good egg self-reflects and eventually realizes that not everyone can be perfect and it is important to be good to others — no matter if they have brief moments of rottenness.
13. The Popcorn Book by Tomie dePaola
Twins Tony and Tiny in The Popcorn Book love popcorn — but don’t know how or where it is made. The twins join together to cook and learn about their favourite snack, exploring what exactly it is, how it is stored, and its cultural significance in legends and stories from North America and Europe. In this 40th anniversary edition, however, dePaola joins with experts to present expanded historical facts, highlighting the role popcorn historically played in Native American communities and how they prepared the snack.
14. We Are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines
In We Are the Gardeners, Gaines and her children describe their experience starting their family garden, from challenges and hurdles to new wisdom they hope to share. The family details their experience starting with a single fern plant, joining together to protect pollinators and soil dwellers, and standing up to the face of adversity: the faces of pesky rabbits who gnaw at their vegetables.Throughout the book, readers can learn how challenging — yet rewarding — starting a garden can be.
15. What’s On Your Plate?: Exploring the World of Food by Whitney Stewart, illustrated by Christiane Engel
Stewart takes readers on a tour through the food traditions of 14 countries, highlighting that plates around the world are incredibly diverse. Exploring Brazil, Spain, Morocco, India, China, and more, Stewart explores the people, cooking practices, food, and ways of thinking that make each place unique. And with easy recipes, readers will be able to try the meals that are connecting them to families around the globe.
(Danielle Nierenberg is President of Food Tank and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She has written extensively on gender and population, the spread of factory farming in the developing world and innovations in sustainable agriculture.)