Setting Up a Kid-Friendly Kitchen Encourages Autonomy

May 20, 2013 at 7:00 am (Cooking, General)

“Meeee! Do iiiiit! OWWWNNN!” This was the voice of my one-year-old son as he adamantly refused help from my husband in unloading silverware from the dishwasher. It had become pretty clear that our little man had entered the age of autonomy. He  knew what he could do himself and was absolutely going to do it himself!



Around age 1-2, children begin to develop a sense of capability and competence. They are aware of things they are able to do and decisions they can make for themselves, and they aim to “take charge” of their lives every day. The development of autonomy is internally driven; it arises naturally and never goes away. A sense of autonomy is a basic human need at any age. We need to know that we are capable and that we have power in our own lives.

This can become tricky for young children. They, too, have a need for autonomy and to be able to exert power over their lives, but  this often becomes overshadowed by our well-meaning and necessary efforts to navigate each day. Most tasks, most days, it’s just easier if we “do it own.” But this is what gives rise to defiance, power struggles, and the ever-popular, “NO!” from our children. This kind of belligerent behavior is an indication that kids are feeling powerless or helpless and have a need for more autonomy. When kids can have an ongoing sense of “I am capable; I can take charge of me,” they are much less likely to try to prove this by challenging a parent at every opportunity.

To help with this with our own kids, when they were about 1 and 2 years old, my husband and I designated a cabinet in the kitchen to be just for them. We filled it with some things they would need to help themselves on a regular basis and gain that much-needed sense of autonomy in the kitchen. The contents haven’t changed much over the last few years:


Here’s a closer look at what’s in there:

  1. Bowls. Necessary for getting their own cereal or a snack from the pantry. We keep a variety of styles and sizes of bowls that can be used for other things, too, like painting or for using outside. I love bamboo ones because they are unbreakable and technically “disposable” (biodegradable/ recyclable) but sturdy enough to last through several washings. I bought the ones here for less than a dollar a few years ago, and they still work just fine!
  2. Sports/ sippy/ travel cups. Always helpful when you’re out and about with kids, but it’s nice for “traveling” around the house, too. When kids are playing in another room and want to bring a drink in there, they can choose and fill one of their cups-with-lids. Just find a top that is easiest for your kids to attach and stock up on a few of those.
  3. Glasses. Probably the most used part of the kids’ cabinet. It is so nice for kids to be able to get their own drink whenever they want! We also have a stool in the kitchen that is easy to slide to the sink or to the fridge door to get water. We use short, wide glasses because they’re heavy and sturdy enough not to tip easily, and our kids like the feel of using a “real” glass. We mix and match some fun colors and styles from IKEA (also very inexpensive).
  4. Straws. Bendy, silly, crazy, or straight…straws are a fun addition to the self-serve process!
  5. Rags and towels. Probably the most important part of the kids’ cabinet! With kids and DIY kitchen tasks comes spills. It’ll happen and it’s OK. Spills are great opportunities for learning that mistakes are OK. Just teach them where the rags are and how to clean up a spill. It’s funny…no matter where we may be in the house, my kids will run to their kitchen cabinet to get a rag for a spill because they KNOW they’re there. We may have towels in the same room we’re in, but this has become their go-to spot! So, have a thick supply of easy-to-reach cloths available for  kids to clean up after themselves…wherever they may be.
  6. Plates. A few plates are helpful for getting snacks or making painting palates. We like fun, colorful ones for the kids’ cabinet.

Also keep in mind that this cabinet is useless if kids aren’t able to access the food and drink they’re looking for. S0 along with creating this kind of self-serve space, consider these other essentials for a kid-friendly kitchen:


Find a height-appropriate place to store snacks to which you’re OK with your kids helping themselves. For us, it’s fruit, vegetables, cheese sticks, jam for their toast, dip, dressing, and condiments (for…well, everything it seems!), and milk. I used to keep our milk on the very top shelf of the fridge only because that’s where I had always been accustomed to reaching for it. But I’ve since moved it to the lower shelf so my children can pour their own milk at mealtimes. I keep the juice up high because I prefer to decide when they get juice to drink.


Designate one child-high shelf for kids’ pantry snacks. Ours is at their eye level so they can easily see what is available.


We also have an air popper on this shelf because they love to make their own popcorn for a snack!


You can see the jars have labels…this was their idea and a great way to add even more ownership to their shelf. They enjoyed using our label maker to identify their snacks…things like…




…”dried mangoes.”

Having your children’s snacks and supplies doesn’t necessarily mean they will be snacking 24/7. It just means that when it is time for a snack or when they want something to drink, they are able to help themselves.

What if you don’t have a lot of space in your kitchen and pretty much need all of your cabinet space for storage? See what you can consolidate and possibly make room on just one shelf in one cabinet for their essential supplies. Any small space that’s “Their Own” will help give kids a sense of confidence and personal power in the kitchen, which will carry over into other areas of their lives. For limited space, narrow it down to the bare necessities: cups and rags. Kids at least need to be able to get themselves a drink without asking, and they need to be able to clean that drink up if it ends up on the floor. Any more than items that is beneficial, but that’s a great place to start.

Autonomy begins early in life, and strengthens only with opportunity. Adapting your kitchen to be kid-friendly is one way to give children that opportunity to feel confident and capable–to demonstrate that they can, indeed, “do it own!”


  1. Ariadne - Positive Parenting Connection said,

    Love your post and agree with the suggestions. I’m not surprised that our kitchens are set up so very similarly…right down to the cabinet having dish towels and rags in reach 🙂 I am in awe of your beautifully arranged pantry. I shall take it as inspiration.

  2. donamatthews said,

    delightful! so simple and powerful and creative an idea! I’ve posted it to Newsana:

  3. TrulyJaded said,

    Love this!! My just turned 3 year old wants to help in the kitchen. I think this is the way to go! Thank you x

  4. Jennifer said,

    Sooooo, we do this, except the snacks thing. My kids would eat nothing but snacks if we had that much food out. For example, ALL of those pistachios would be gone, then the whole jar of mangoes, then any other dried fruit or carbs. My two children have eaten over 20 bananas worth of dried bananas in ONE MORNING when they grabbed the jar while I was in the shower. Seriously, how do you get them to “save some for later?”

    • Kelly said,

      If I notice that my kids have had plenty of snacks, I’ll let them know, “OK, snacks are done!” But it doesn’t often get to that point. We’ve taught them about serving sizes, have small bowls that are just for snacking, and have small scoops for portioning out 1 serving at a time. We’re also on a pretty regular eating schedule, so they really only go get a snack once or twice a day. They are just able to help themselves when they do…they don’t have to ask me to get them something. It’s taken time and teaching!

  5. santamonicamama said,

    I absolutely LOVE this!!!! We keep a little drawer filled with items like hand towels, a brush/pan, cups, plates, spoons, etc. for my 17 mo old and we often find her cleaning up her messes (or at least attempting to) and helping set her little table before mealtime/snack 🙂

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