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!