How I got my kids to cook breakfast

As I shared in yesterday’s post, my kids make their own breakfast. Not every day, but at least often enough to be helpful.  Initially, I did not set out to teach them this skill.  I suspect it started as a natural outgrowth of their own independence combined with my inborn aversion to mornings.  Today, I am sharing simple age appropriate steps to teach your child to cook their own healthy breakfast each day.  Your kids can cook, mine do.

When I realized that my kids were capable of making their own breakfasts, I decided to encourage it.  (I realized it from the now-famous hot dog incident). As my kids have become more independent, I have discovered some major benefits.   They generally eat what they make (instead of complaining and rejecting what I serve).  That reduces picky eating and gives me one conflict-free meal a day.  The skills they learn in the morning are equally useful at snack time.  When they make a poor choice about what to eat (it happens) then we have opportunities to learn and grow.  They are learning to appreciate me more, because they understand that cooking and cleaning are work.   They developed motor skills from pouring, cutting, and stirring.  They learn math skills from measuring.  And yes, it means I get a few extra moments to wake up each day.

Getting to the point where my kids are independent breakfast makers was not easy.  It required an ability to tolerate my kids making messes.  It required me to allow some food to be wasted as they learned portion sizes and control in pouring stuff.  It required me to praise progress and tolerate imperfection.  In many ways, it had been like teaching my children to feed themselves when they were toddlers.  Similarly, there are times when I still “take the spoon away” and take over.  Generally, those are in the name of speed, efficiency, or cleanliness.

(and you thought it was just a cute baby picture to get your attention.  nope, it’s an analogy.  it’s a reminder about how our kids learn.  all the messes and inefficiencies that happened as your child learned to feed themselves will happen again as they learn to cook.  but it is a cute picture.  it is from watty’s first birthday.  he got cake all over everywhere.  it was his first time to eat frosting and he spit it out.  i was five months pregnant with gogo and wearing maternity clothes. eek!)

Here are the teaching stages we went through, along with approximate ages for our children.  Regardless of your chid’s age, walk them through each phase at least briefly. Follow common sense safety guidelines.  Don’t allow your kids to handle sharp knives or hot objects.  Watch their little hands around the “pinch points” on doors and drawers.  Practice and teach basic sanitation.

Age 2:  “Can you get me”  It’s a natural way to keep your child out of trouble while you cook, but it’s also a way to teach.  Get your child involved in the process!  It will teach them the location of key items they need.

  • Can you go get the box of cereal? (it helps to put the cereal on a shelf where they can reach it)
  • Can you get a spoon from the drawer?
  • Can you carry this bowl (it helps to have shatter proof dishes)
  • Can you get the apple from the refrigerator?
  • Can you get a towel for cleaning up that spill?

Age 3: “Can you help me?”  Once the kids are familiar with the names of kitchen items, basic kitchen rules, and where things are located you can move to the next stage.  You can either raise them to the work area (have them sit on the kitchen countertop or stand on a stool) or you can lower the work area to their level.  I found that lowering the work was safer and easier.  It’s helpful to prep items (while they are “getting”) in advance.  Then carry everything to where your child normally eats.  Have them sit in their normal spot and then work with them.  For us, this was the kitchen table.  Messes WILL happen, plan accordingly.  Being at a lower table also enabled me to work with two kids simultaneously.

  • Can you help me pour the milk in the cereal bowl?
  • Can you help me cut this banana (use a plastic knife)
  • Can you spread the peanut butter on the bread (small plastic spatula works well)
  • Can you help me open this yogurt?
  • Can you help me stir the oatmeal?
  • Can you help me wipe this clean?

Age 4: “Can you do it?”  Once you and your child have worked together on basic skills (pouring, stirring, opening, spreading) it is time to let them do it on their own.  It is easiest if you start by giving them pre-measured amounts.  Instead of asking them to pour milk into the cereal bowl from the milk container, have them pour from an appropriate sized cup (same for cereal).   As your child comes to the table, give them a “can you do it” challenge.  Notice that these are two-step directions.

  • The (pre-measured) cereal and milk are out.  Can you get a bowl and spoon and finish making your cereal?
  • I put the bread, peanut butter, and jelly on the table.  Can you make your sandwich?  I’ll come trim the crusts for you.
  • The (pre-measured) stuff is on the table, can you mix your oatmeal up?  I will come put it in the microwave.
  • Can you get your yogurt and fruit from the refrigerator?  I’ll bring you some toast to go with it.
  • The towel and cleaner are under the sink.  Can you get them and clean up the mess?
  • Can you set the table for us to eat scrambled eggs with toast and bacon?

Age 5: “How do you?” While your child is displaying the physical ability to prepare their own meals, they still need to develop the thinking skills and memory to do so successfully.   Before they can be independent, they need to be able to demonstrate these thinking skills. These are three-step (and beyond) types of questions?

  • What do you do when you spill something? (get the stuff, clean the mess, tell mom)
  • How do you make oatmeal?  (get the stuff, mix the stuff, ask mom to cook it)
  • What do you need to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? (bread, jelly, peanut butter, spreader, napkin)
  • How much cereal goes in your bowl?  Milk?

Age 5+ “Set them up for success.”  At this point, they are probably ready to make their own breakfast.  But are you ready?  Are there still things that they need help reaching in the kitchen?  In order to help my kids become independent, I rearranged my kitchen.

  • Move plates, cups, bowls, and glassess to a lower cabinet.  Bonus: they can put them away from the dishwasher too.
  • Create a “breakfast bin” in the refrigerator on a shelf at their level. Bonus: this makes it easier for me to eat breakfast too.  I am not a clear thinker in the mornings.
  • Centralize breakfast foods in the pantry.  I store open boxes of cereal (oatmeal, etc) in a separate location from unopened containers.
  • Provide them with easy to use measuring devices.  I had a big plastic measuring cup (the kind for liquids) that had lines drawn for milk and cereal amounts.
  • Continue to portion out items that are difficult to handle (leave a glass of milk in the refrigerator when the big gallon container is full and too heavy) or items that need to be controlled (like brown sugar topping for oatmeal).

Age 5+ “Give them a plan.”  With your child, write down a list of the breakfast foods they can fix for themselves.  Make a separate list of things they still need help with (anything involving the toaster oven or microwave should be supervised).  If needed, you can write down measurements for how much milk and cereal go in the bowl.  Start with ONE item on the list and add things as your child is successful.

  • On your own: cereal with milk, cheese stick and apple and crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • With my help: oatmeal, cheese toast, scrambled eggs with toast

If your children are resistant to doing this for themselves even when they are capable, summer is the PERFECT time to get them on board.  My house rules encourage independence.

  • If you are not fully dressed with your bed made, I will not serve you breakfast (or any other meal)
  • I stop serving breakfast after I put my own breakfast dishes away (about 8:30)
  • If you are grouchy (from not eating) then you can either (a) feed yourself something healthy or (b) go to your room.

Warning!  Your child will not stick to your list of approved breakfast items.  You will need to monitor them.  GoGo insists that fruit snacks are the same as fruit.  His dream breakfast used to be fruit snacks and potato chips (not going to happen, and i quit buying the fruit snacks).  Watty should never be left unsupervised around the  maple syrup or honey.  Don’t ask.  But they have also improvised in delightful ways.  They have eaten leftover (cold) grilled chicken dipped in applesauce.  They made peanut butter and jelly yogurt.  They have eaten cold pizza.   It pays to be flexible.

Tell me, what meal can your child prepare on their own?  What advise can you share with other moms?


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Susan Baker
I have a passion for encouraging weary worn out mothers to find joy in everyday motherhood and peace in unlikely places. I have two elementary school boys, one nerdy husband, and two cats. I have a strange fascination for bad puns, the color pink, socks, and books. I worry about running out of toilet paper, wine, and chocolate.. I serve an amazing God. I live an ordinary life filled with wonder.
Susan Baker
Susan Baker

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