With their penchant for throwing hissy fits and random items of kitchen equipment, childish behaviour comes naturally to most chefs. This perhaps goes some way to explain why the average age of Britain's newest foodies is plummeting. Children as young as two years old are moving quickly from smearing food around their plates to prove their gourmet credentials, inspired by television programmes and a range of specialist classes, according to cookery experts.
A clutch of cookbooks aimed at children has helped to inspire interest. The latest, a child-friendly version of the bestselling Italian food bible, The Silver Spoon, comes out tomorrow. Its recipes go from simple pasta dishes such as spaghetti with tomato sauce to more elaborate ones including baked cod with vegetables or roast leg of lamb in a herb crust with stuffed tomatoes.
Amanda Grant, a food writer who adapted the recipes in The Silver Spoon for Children, said: "More children are becoming involved on a variety of levels." This includes not only cooking recipes but also shopping for specialist food items, such as unusual types of mushroom or particular cuts of meat, according to shopkeepers and farmers' market stallholders.
Nathan Mills, the manager of the Ginger Pig butcher in Borough Market, south London, said that the age of his customers was falling. "We had a couple of young girls come in recently who were able to tell me I was cutting up chuck steak and that it was 'very good for stewing'. I was quite impressed they knew that, because they must have only been nine."
Stefan Gates, who presents the BBC's Gastronuts programme, which is aimed at eight- to 12-year-olds, said there was an "extraordinary and palpable sense of reawakening among kids – an idea that food is perhaps allowed to be fun and that experimenting with food can be exciting and cool".
Cooking courses for children now start at ages two and up and are multiplying fast, with holiday-time classes regularly oversubscribed.
Annabel Karmel, who has created a mini children's food empire spanning cookbooks, ready meals and eating utensils, said the courses she ran for Haven Holidays had up to 150 kids at each session.
"The classes are 90 minutes, but you can't get them out after two hour. because they're loving it so much," she said. "Cooking appeals because children like to be part of the adult world. Plus, parents like getting children cooking because it can help with fussy eaters."
Britain's best-known young cook is Sam Stern, who published his first recipe book aged 14 with the help of his mother. He has since turned himself into a media sensation, recently publishing one written for students.
What's cooking, kids? Making pasta? It's child's play
Spaghetti with tomato sauce Makes enough for four people
400g tin chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon light brown
1-2 garlic cloves, depending
on how much garlic you like
10 fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Put the tin of tomatoes into a saucepan and add the sugar.
2. Squash the cloves of garlic slightly with a rolling pin, then peel the garlic and add to the tomatoes.
3. Bring the tomatoes up to a gentle simmer, cover and cook very gently over a very low heat for about 40 minutes. Stir the tomatoes occasionally with a wooden spoon.
4. When your sauce is nearly ready, bring a large pan of water to the boil and cook the spaghetti. Then drain the spaghetti – ask an adult to help you – and put it back into the pan.
5. Take the tomato sauce off the heat, tear the basil leaves into small pieces and add to the sauce, together with the oil.
6. Carefully pour or ladle the sauce over the spaghetti, mix together and serve immediately.