Montessori Mealtimes

I come from a Hispanic culture, where mealtimes are sacred.  As children, we were expected to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner sitting down at the table.  We were also expected to remain seated throughout the meal, have appropriate table manners, and join in or at least listen to the conversation.  Weekend meals at home and in restaurants were three-hour affairs, especially as my brother and I got older and could partake in adult discussions about politics and current events.

Those times around the table were the happiest moments of my childhood.  I felt accepted, respected, and part of a unit.  I learned to debate my viewpoint and accept counter-arguments.  I discovered that food wasn’t just sustenance; it embodied culture, heritage, family history, art, science, pleasure and yes, even some pain.  Mealtimes taught me discipline, respect for my elders, pride in my cultural heritage, and the joy of service. 

I want the same experiences for our child, and I know that to get there I have to start now.  I want Zach to understand that mealtime is a pleasurable moment of the day where one can relax, converse, and savor food.  I also want him to understand that there are certain expectations during mealtime: he should remain seated until everyone has finished; he shouldn’t play with his food; he should try at least two bites of everything; and he should join in the conversation or listen attentively.  To parents whose children get up and run around the dining room, play with their food, eat only chicken nuggets, or demand to watch TV during mealtimes, these expectations might seem a bit unreasonable.  I feel that they are achievable – and important – goals that any child can reach with the right preparation.

When Zach was younger and started eating solids, I would prepare his meal while he played on the floor and would bring him to the table when everything was ready.  Little by little, I’ve set up a mealtime routine that emphasizes the qualities I want to help him develop.  I always announce mealtime to him, place him in his Tripp-Trapp at the dining room table, and give him a toy so he can entertain himself while I warm up his meal.  When I first started doing this about 4 weeks ago, he would throw a fit from the moment I sat him down to the moment the first bite of food made it into his mouth.  As a very hungry five-month old, he did not understand the concept of waiting.  I persevered, letting him watch from the table as I prepared his food, telling him what I was doing each step of the way, and assuring him that his food would be ready soon.  This morning, I was amazed to see how much patience he has developed in just a few short weeks!  He no longer cries while he waits, and instead watches me as I move around the kitchen and plays quietly.  If you want to teach a child how to wait, the best way to do it is to give him opportunities to wait! 

I also want him to understand that we don’t get up from the table during mealtimes.  To model this behavior for him, I had to make sure I had everything necessary for his meal.  After a couple of weeks of kicking myself every time I realized that I had forgotten something in the kitchen, I decided to buy a tray. Problem solved!  Now, while his food is steaming, I prepare his glass bowls, cloth napkin, cleaning towel, spoon, glass, water pitcher, and fruit compote.  When his food is ready, I place it on the tray and bring everything to the table.  It’s such a relief to know that I have everything I need in one place! 

Right now Zach can’t leave the table until I take him out of his chair, but we chose his Tripp-Trapp precisely because it will give him the freedom to climb into and out of his chair when he starts walking.  I want Zach to develop the necessary discipline so that he can remain at the dinner table of his own accord,and this starts by modeling.  (If you think it isn’t possible for a toddler to sit for meals, I invite you to visit a Montessori Infant Community, where children as young as 15 months sit together for 20-30 minutes, enjoy their meal quietly and respectfully, and then clean up on their own).

While Zach eats, I talk with him.  I must admit that having one-sided conversations takes some imagination!  I tell him what he’s eating, ask him if he’s enjoying it, and discuss either what we’re going to do that day or what we did during the day.  I don’t ramble on during the entire meal, because it’s also important to let him focus on the act of eating and allow him to explore the flavors and textures of his food.  I make sure we establish eye contact while we talk, and I respond to his babbling with smiles and verbal acknowledgment.

During mealtimes, I make it a point not to answer the phone or check my e-mail and I expect my husband to do the same when he joins us for dinner.  Sometimes I have to put off eating dinner until Zach is done because I can’t juggle eating and feeding him at the same time, but at least we are all sitting together and Zach and his dad are enjoying each other’s company at the dinner table.

Montessori teachers are often reminded to “teach by teaching, not by correcting”.  This means that you should model appropriate behavior, set reasonable expectations, and prepare the environment so that you and your child are successful.  By so doing, you avoid having to nag, threaten, and punish.  It takes a bit of planning and discipline, but the results are worthwhile and extend to other areas of the child’s life!

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8 thoughts on “Montessori Mealtimes

  1. Sounds lovely! And sounds like you’ve had some challenging moments (both him and you) to get you this to place. Thanks for sharing of your perseverance. My mother said that when I was a baby (and having those one sided conversations with me) she would start by talking about the food, how she prepared it, how the food grew and got the store, etc. etc. Looking forward to hearing more of your adventures with Zach!

    • Carrie, I LOVED the idea of talking about where food comes from!! I started doing that tonight as soon as I read your comment… Thank you! By the way, it’s so great to know that you sell infant toys! I am starting a parent meetup group and everyone always asks me where they can buy Montessori toys for babies! Now I know!

      • Thanks for the support for our company! Another great source is on etsy. Go to teammontessori to find many people making Montessori items for babies, toddlers, and older children.

    • I agree! I read this blog just after the second meal I have ever given my girl (first time subscriber to a blog, so neat to have relevant info be sent to me right when I seem to need it). I have also been trying to decide what to do as a routine and making plans with my husband as to how we will continue to let her experience mealtime and what we expect to contribute to this great new important step. As always you are filled with great reminders and tips and just a bit ahead of me so I have a chance to think about it all and learn :)

  2. I appreciate this article and thank you for covering the many rich and varied aspects not often mentioned when this topic of mealtimes is addressed.  It is such an important and multifaceted topic for our families today!  I will be asking you for permission to distribute this article as handouts for my presentations.  I particularly admire your covering the subject of waiting, which gives the child the opportunity three times each day to further develop self-discipline, increase the ability to delay gratification and expand the practice of impulse control.  These are indeed our responsibilities as parents, considering that they are more important to a child’s happiness and success both in the present of childhood and in the future of adult life.  

    I like that we Montessorians following your excellent blog would understand the particular way way we think, feel and communicate to the child about “waiting.”  The child learns to wait by waiting.  Within ourselves we think and feel that we are giving the child the opportunity to wait; we engage the child in waiting; we support the child in waiting.  This comes through in our facial expressions, gestures and in the words we choose.  This inner attitude and intention is quite different from what might be understood by “making” the child wait.  The process you describe is so powerful and so beautifully clear but the use of the word “make” could cause an unfortunate confusion in the minds of readers new to Montessori philosophy and practice.  

    We know that whereas bringing up children the Montessori way is never “laisse-faire” parenting, neither is it ever “authoritarian” parenting.  Montessori parenting is “authoritative” parenting.  The distinction, although hard to nail, is not subtle and is certainly not of light consequence!  And we Montessorians work within ourselves to achieve and maintaine authoritative practice.  We struggle to hold the intention and mindfulness of keeping our own childhood upbringing and education, whether more authoritarian or more laissez faire, from skewing the authoritative Montessori we practice in our lives at home or at school.  

    Research shows that children of authoritative parents thrive both in the present and as adults, whereas children of laissez-faire or authoritarian parents suffer.  Although authoritarian parents bring up children who present outwardly as respectful, happy and productive, it is but a mask.  Inwardly they are often fearful, depressive, angry and vengeful, taking their upbringing out on others  whenever they can.  The older they get, the more they turn to their friends for guidance rather than to their parents.  Children of laisse-faire parenting, while outwardly appearing light-hearted and creative, tend to be unfocused, anxious and insecure, spinning their developmental wheels, drifting and falling short of their potential.  They have little expectation of valuable guidance from their parents.  

    Children of authoritative parents tend to be confident and independent, focused and constructive during childhood and as adults  Their achievements are satisfying and genuine.  They have the courage to try and fail and try again.  They value their parents guidance and weigh it carefully because their parents have always set the bar high in a friendly and supportive way while respecting their children’s autonomy and individuality.

    Montessori parenting is authoritative parenting.  And that’s what your article expresses!  

    • Donna, you make an excellent point! I will substitute “make” with a word that more appropriately illustrates the approach. Thank you for your clear and thorough explanation of authoritative parenting; I’m going to be sharing your comment in a future post! And please, feel free to share with parents anything from this blog that you feel is of value.

      • Thank you, Pilar. love that we Montessorians work together to clarify and strengthen our practice! We love being guided by one another.

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