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!”

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Fruit Leather: Frozen to Chewy in One Day

April 27, 2012 at 6:49 am (Cooking)

We’re doing some spring cleaning…of the freezer. Not so much the house. We are eagerly anticipating growing season and in preparation are quickly working our way through our stash of last year’s strawberries

Outside, they are springing back to life:

Blueberries are getting started too!

Smoothies, jam, waffle topping, angel food cake sauce…We have lots of ways to use up frozen strawberries. Today’s project was fruit leather. It’s sweet and chewy, made with ingredients I can pronouce; a snack I’m highly OK with.

Cook it, puree it, spread it on dehydrator trays. I’ve made fruit leather in the oven, too, and works just fine.

One day ’till dry:

Peel it, pile it, tear it up.

It’s was way too much work to cut them into strips…have to get them all, you know, even & nice-looking. We opted for tearing.

Quite a lot of leather went into our bellies as we worked, but there was enough left to fill up a jar for the snack shelf.

It might last us the rest of the day!

Homemade Fruit Leather

1 ½ pounds fresh or frozen berries (any kind)

1 ½ pounds apples, cored and chopped

1 Tbs. lemon juice

7 Tbs. honey

Cook fruit and lemon juice together in a saucepan on med-low until apples are soft, 20-30 minutes. Puree mixture in a blender or run through a food mill. Stir in honey. Dehydrator: Spread puree 1/8-inch think onto dehydrating sheets. Dehydrate on low (105) overnight or until dry. Oven: Spread puree onto silicone baking sheets or parchment paper. Bake on low (170) until no longer sticky, about 10 hours. Tear or cut into strips. Store in an airtight container.

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Lunch Solutions

January 26, 2012 at 1:18 pm (Cooking, Positive Discipline)

In the beginning of the school year, Elia’s lunch would sometimes come home uneaten. Then, ‘occasionally’ turned into ‘most days’…Most days, she wasn’t eating what I had packed for her. And it’s not like I was sending along brussels sprout casserole with a side of raw onions. I made lunches that she eats at home and I figured she’d eat at school. Well, she was not eating them.

I started feeling frustrated with regard to the time I had spent making and packing theses lunches, angry for the  amount of food that was being wasted, and annoyed at my daughter’s lack of interest in nourishing her body. Some of that I understand. At seven years old, I don’t think I was too interested in nourishing my body. Learning to take care oneself is a long process.

But I was frustrated with the thought that I was wasting time and money on food that ended up in the garbage. The lunch situation wasn’t working for me, and it didn’t seem to be working for Elia, either.

So a couple of months ago she and I brainstormed some some options intended to make school lunch more efficient and enjoyable:

  • I could continue making her lunches and just make sure they were her favorite foods: bread, macaroni and cheese, pretzels, cereal, juice and just about any dessert imaginable. (Nutritionally speaking, that didn’t work for me.)
  • She could buy the school lunch if she’d rather eat what they serve. (She would rather not.)
  • Whatever she doesn’t eat in her lunch, she could eat for her snack when she gets home.
  • She could skip lunch altogether and I’d make her a large, healthy snack when she got home.
  • She could pack her own lunch with things she knows she likes and that I know meet her nutritional needs.

The one we agreed to try was the last one; Elia would make her own lunch everyday. If she forgets, she will either eat the school sandwich option or skip lunch and just have a snack when she gets home.

At first, her ideal list of lunch choices were the ones listed above and included more sugar than I deemed necessary or acceptable. We bantered with, “How about this?” and “I’m not OK with that” until we settled on a few protein main courses and a few nutritionally dense sides. It turns out that, between Elia and I, mutually agreeable foods do exist!

Main courses:

  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Ham and cheese sandwich
  • Leftover pizza


  • Apple slices
  • Pistachios
  • Carrot sticks
  • Snap peas
  • Honey yogurt

Desserts (if I happen to have anything made):

  • Nut bars
  • Dark chocolate pudding
  • Oatmeal flax bars

The list is small but growing. Most importantly, everyone’s needs are met, and lunchtime is not a source of strife for either of us. Elia eats the food she prepares for herself, and all of the options are ones that I’m OK with. She is learning how to put together a balanced meal for herself, and is proud to be able to take care of herself in this way.

This morning’s loaf, sprouted wheat:

Huckleberry jam goes under the peanut butter.

Packing it up!

And a dessert/ snack that we all agree on; grain-free dark chocolate nut bars:

1 cup almonds

1 cup hazelnuts

1 1/2 cups pecans

2/3 cup flax meal

2/3 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1/4 cup almond butter

1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 tsp. blackstrap molasses

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1/4 cup melted coconut oil

1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

Process everything except the oil and chocolate in a food processor until the consistency is fairly smooth (about 20-30 seconds). Drizzle in the oil until a coarse paste forms. Press into a greased 8 x 8 pan. Melt chocolate chips in microwave or small saucepan over low heat and drizzle on bars. Chill at least 1 hour.

I cut mine into small bars and keep them stored in a container in the fridge. It’s a win-win-win for the kids and I breakfast, snack, or dessert!

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The Candy Dilemma

November 3, 2011 at 10:35 am (Cooking, General)

I have issues with candy. I don’t mean sweets in general, but candy. Not homemade candy, either, but the mass-manufactured kind that comes pre-wrapped in plastic and tiny boxes. With this I have problems.

1. As a mom, it adds much too much stress to my life. “Can I have a piece of candy? Can I have this candy? When can we have our candy? Hey mom, can I have candy now?”

2. It’s nutritionally devoid. Our kids are…kids. They’re growing leaps and bounds every day. Candy certainly doesn’t help that process, and it takes up room in their bellies for high quality, nutritious food they might otherwise eat at meal time.

3. It’s gastronomically detrimental. The flavors that have been engineered for that candy are designed to get you to want more. They also get you accustomed to enjoying artificial flavors.

4. It’s everywhere. Besides the candy-yielding holidays and events that pop up throughout the year, my kids keep an unofficial record of the local business establishments that are equipped with bowls of candy on the counters. This always determines their desire to come in when we’re running errands. And once inside…”Hey mom, can I have a candy? Can I have one piece of candy?”

Now, I must say, I am not opposed to desserts. Like this:

Only mass-manufactured candy. Like this:

I never want my kids to have it. There’s just not ever a good time for them to put such “food” into their growing bodies. At this point in my rant, candy lovers everywhere probably want to yell at me to lighten up. And even I have to ask myself,

“What in the world is my problem?!” Can’t I just accept this small part of life and allow my kids to enjoy a childhood with candy?

Every year at this time, I search for a way to balance my candy neurosis with my kids’ unyielding desire for the stuff, and also with my goal of teaching them about healthful foods and the concept of moderation. Self moderation. Which means in order to learn how to manage their candy intake, they have to be in control of it themselves.

If I’m in charge of the answer to “Can I have candy?” it’s going to be “No; no one needs manufactured candy, ever!” If they are in charge, the answer is, “Yes; always and only!” Moderation lies somewhere in the middle, and to find it we seem to need to experience both extremes.

So on Tuesday of this week, we embraced Candy. Tuesday was all-you-can-eat candy day. It started at 6:30 in the morning and ended 2 hours before bedtime. They were in charge of their candy decisions that day. They could base them off of their hunger, their cravings, the well-being of their tummies, or the level of their boredom, so long as they please, please don’t ask me if they can have a piece of candy.

The picture from above? The one displaying a ready-to-eat assortment of candies? That was my son’s lunch.

JJ complained of a tummy ache one time that day, at which point…he stopped eating candy. (For a bit.) Wednesday went back to me rationing out the candy for them, but by then they’d had quite a fill of it. It wasn’t nearly as tempting.

We certainly can’t do all-you-can-eat candy day every day; our kids are just not old enough to have free reign of their candy decisions. But Tuesday’s experience was indeed helpful in learning some personal limits. I do think we’ll do it again, even before next Halloween. At least for our kids who have an insatiable sweet tooth and seemingly iron stomachs, I think it’s important that they experience the difference between no candy and all candy. I want to allow them as much freedom as possible to make their own decisions about food (or “food,” as the case may be). With our help, they’ll find moderation for themselves.

In a few months, after their little systems have thoroughly cleansed, we’ll try Kids-in-Charge-of-Candy day again. Now if you’ll excuse me, there are two eyes peeking at me over the back of my laptop and a muffled voice urgently inquiring, “Mom, can I have another piece of candy?”

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Scratch Value

July 29, 2011 at 7:08 am (Attachment Parenting, Cooking)

Newcomers to this blog might wonder why I include a “cooking” section here, when the blog is intended to be about parenting.  I do enjoy cooking (well, baking, mostly), and I do it often with my kids.  But cooking is more than a hobby for us, and it’s more than simply nourishing our bodies.

I love  including cooking posts here because of what they represent.

High quality nourishment.  We aim to parent respectfully, so we nourish our bodies respectfully, too. Cooking from scratch allows us to eliminate what we don’t need (chemicals, preservatives, artificial colors & flavors), and keep only what we do (whole, natural ingredients).

Time spent at home together; something I value highly.  We cook, we bake, we talk, we eat, we share.  We connect.

Time spent out together; gathering ingredients, experiencing the world.  We shop locally and straight-from-the-source whenever possible.  This means, especially in the summer, our grocery shopping includes lots of visits to farms, farmers’ markets, and fruit orchards.

For example, to make these marion berry muffins, we…

…went to the farm for their cream.  Not just to make a quick stop, but we spent 2 1/2 hours there petting and feeding all of their animals, and playing in the creek on the nature trail.  It was an afternoon of fun and free play.  And we got some cream.

…went to the flour mill for flour.  Bob’s Red Mill is in the area, and when we go for flour, we also stop to have lunch in the restaurant.  We also usually see Bob himself there, looking exactly as he does on his product packages; red vest, newsie cap and all.  On our last visit, he stopped to talk with the kids and I and gave Elia and JJ each a cookie.

…went to the farmer’s market for eggs.  Again, not just eggs, but a morning at the market means local omelets, the balloon man, and walking hand-in-hand together.

…went to the orchard for berries.  We talked and laughed and worked together to fill our buckets with not only marion berries, but blueberries, raspberries, and boysenberries as well.

So the muffins, to me, are not just the end result of a recipe, but they represent all of those moments we shared along the way.

Opportunity for customization.  Sure, there’s a recipe to use as a starting point and some guidance, but we can adjust it so that it works better for our needs.  Such as it is with positive parenting.

So, parenting enthusiasts, bear with me when I post about our latest kitchen creations.  They represent more than simply the featured food item.   These posts represent what our family is about.

(Besides shortcake, here are a few more things we made from our 70 (!) pounds of strawberries we picked this year):

They go into the dehydrator as slices...

...and come out as chips.

strawberry applesauce

The kids call this strawberry-lime juice. John and I call it True Blood.

And here is the aftermath of a True Blood popsicle. No children were harmed in the consumption of this dessert.

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