At what age can children be left to fend for themselves as far as breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
What a child can do is not the same as what a parent should allow them to do or what a parent should force them to do.
If one left whole-grain crackers and cereal on the counter and stocked the fridge with milk, cheese cubes, hummus, fruit, and cut-up veggies, a three-year-old could certainly feed herself whenever she was hungry and satisfy every nutritional need. We don't do this because children have emotional needs as well as physical ones. Children need to be nurtured/cared for by human beings for their brains to develop properly.
Children need to know that their parents are taking care of them and will defend them and protect them and keep them safe. Children need to be smiled at and hugged and talked to and responded to. Offering food is part of nurturing. Children learn that they are cared for, and that their parents want them to be healthy and happy and are willing to work -- and argue with them -- to make that happen.
The age a child should be made to take responsibility for feeding themselves varies from child to child and culture to culture. A twenty-two-year old living in your house is old enough; you may negotiate an arrangement in which you provide the meals, but it is not required. A six-year-old should not be made to do this. They still need nurturing from their parents; their brains are still developing. There might be a situation where it is necessary occasionally, or even for 1-2 meals each day -- e.g., if a single parent has to work long hours -- but that is in the context of necessity, and you make it clear that it's not by your choice. You don't do this because you decide it's too much bother to feed your kids when you could be playing video games. (Though letting your kids get their own cereal on Saturday morning, thereby allowing you to sleep in, will not hurt them, and teaches them that they can do things on their own.)
Beyond this... if you are doing a good job as a parent, making your kids feel loved and secure and teaching them how to take care of themselves and to do some chores around the house, at some point they start to feel ready to take on the responsibility of feeding themselves. At this point, encourage it!
Let your five-year old make her own PBJ, let your seven-year-old heat soup in the microwave. Teach your twelve-year-old to make a pot roast for the family dinner. If you are in the kitchen, ready to eat with them when they are done, wonderful; this is part of helping them grow up. If you need to be gone or sleeping when they do this, all right, it's necessary. If it's the weekend/vacation and your kids are independent and comfortable with fixing themselves a nutritious meal for their lunch, you can let that be the plan for the day. But until they are eighteen (on average, and in most U.S. cultures; children mature at different rates, and cultures vary), you should provide at least one sit-down meal daily (home-cooked by preference, but a healthy breakfast of cereal, fruit and yogurt works if it has to), during which you take the time to demonstrate that you are an engaged, caring parent -- no matter how pressed for time you are.
Depends on what you consider a meal. Peanut-butter and Jelly sandwiches? 5 or 6, I expect. Something hot or that requires a knife? You'd have to spend time cooking with them to know when it would be ok.
My kids could make batter from scratch and cook pancakes on an electric griddle by themselves at eight, but I wouldn't let them do it without an adult close at hand until maybe 10, spaghetti at about the same age.
It takes a lot of time working with them to make sure they are safe . . . keep hot surfaces clear, pot handles back, don't leave knives hanging off the edge of the counter . . . safety is the important part.
Well, I'm 14 and I have to cook my own dinner every night and I'm fine, I've taught myself to be good at cooking, but not everyone is. I would say that you should teach children how to make simple things first, then move on to more complicated things. Eventually, they would be comfortable enough to cook on their own, but you should definitely watch them at first, and ideally as much as possible in case they make a mistake or forget to turn the oven off. I would say most kids shouldn't be totally trusted to do that until 16, but that's just my opinion. I've cooked meals for myself for two years now, but my parents don't cook for me and didn't teach me how so I read a lot and learnt to do it myself, (I'm fine with that, I like cooking) but I know that kids my age should still be getting dinners from their parents, I'm an anomaly.
I would say about the age of 6-7 is a good time to start learning making sandwitches and heating milk/pre-made meals in microwave. It may come in handy once the kids go to school instead of kindergarden.
Working with tosters, induction plates, other things that get hot but are otherwise safe - some time after they have mastered making sandwitches. 8-9 yo I guess.
Operating gas stoves, grills, things there's reall flame, or handling really sharp meat knives - again, later. 12-13 I think would be a good time to start.
All those things have to be started under supervision, then, as the kids understand how everything works and become more proficient and accustomed to the dangers, the supervision may be dropped.
Depends on the child, at 6 my daughter could easily make a peanut butter sandwitch or a bowl of cereal... But at 8 my son didn't do either. Now they are 13 and 11, and cook one full family meal a week!
I don't think it's bad to have a child make some of their own meals, it's how they learn. I don't mean you should stick them with a microwave meal 3x a day so you never cook... But making some is good for them, in my opinion.
I think the notes about how all kids are different and progress at different stages is really valid. We have a family of 7 (my husband and I, 11 yo son, 9 yo triplets, and live in grandma). What my 11 year old can do is completely different from the triplets, who came into my life when they were 6. When they first came to our house they couldn't make a pb&j, the didn't feel empowered to grab a yogurt or cheese stick from the fridge, and basically I think they were 100% dependent on adults to eat. They had been in an environment where in my opinion they were babied too much. They also only at white food, seriously everything processed, nothing fresh, no bright colors (no nutrients). So not only have I had to teach them to cook but re-teach them how to eat.
I started cooking with my 11yo son when he was quite young. I even have pictures of us making sauce and hors d'oeuvres when he was 2.5/3! He went through phases where he had little interest and other times where he really wanted to learn. We love cooking together and not only does it teach him great life skills but it also is fantastic quality time. So by the time he was 6 he could make risotto without a recipe and now that he's older I show him technique and let him experiment with flavor profiles. He can cook unassisted any meal for our family and will often make breakfast for the other kids on Saturday morning to give mom a break.
Now one of my 9yo sons loves to cook with me and is learning to make simple things like eggs, french toast, quesadillas, and pasta. My 9yo daughter loves to bake and will help with the cooking, but she forgets to turn the oven off and makes a colossal mess. My other 9yo son has no interest in cooking and had issues with his fine motor skills so he doesn't cook unattended.
Full disclosure I am a chef and often teach cooking classes, so this is really in my wheelhouse. It's really important to teach them safety & sanitation from a young age, so that it's natural to them as they cook more. I have to say though starting so young with my 11 year old was really awesome and I wish I had that opportunity with the triplets.