Some of my most challenging parenting experiences over the years have surrounded mealtimes, and I know I am not alone. Mealtimes can be wrought with potential challenges, like food throwing, getting up from the table, and picky eating habits. Perhaps most mind-boggling for me is the feeling that each child has different mealtime challenges. For example, I have one child that will eat almost anything I serve. However, he struggles to sit at the table for an entire meal. I have another child that is much pickier. He prefers to eat mostly carbohydrate foods and little protein. Montessori principles can help guide parents through these challenges. In our home, we have utilized Montessori at home mealtime principles to reduce mealtime frustration. Using Montessori principles can help mealtime become less stressful and more centered on respect for our children.
Give Kids Mealtime Responsibilities
An emphasis on real-life skills is a cornerstone of Montessori education. Giving kids mealtime responsibilities is an example of a Montessori at home mealtime principle that can reduce mealtime frustration. In my experience, when kids know more about how their food is purchased, prepared, and served, they are not so surprised to see what is for dinner. Additionally, it can teach them practical life skills and empower them to take ownership of their eating experience.
My kids love to help around the house. Giving them responsibilities surrounding the food in our home reduces our mealtime frustration. Kids can help with grocery shopping, cooking, and meal preparation. Additionally, they can help set the table and clean up. Older kids can help carry in groceries and put them away. They may also be able to sweep the floors after a meal. Even young kids can use a damp towel to wipe the table or floor.
Just this week, I asked my 3-year-old son if he would like to help cook dinner. He enjoyed arranging vegetables on a sheet pan for baking and sprinkling spices on the chicken. When his dad came home, my son proudly told him, “I cooked dinner tonight!” I was thrilled to see that he was also excited to eat dinner. He has been pickier recently, and watching him try everything on his plate was rewarding.
Provide Accessible Mealtime Materials
Giving kids accessible mealtime materials is a Montessori at home mealtime principle. Accessible materials help children be successful at their tasks. When my kids help, they are often more invested in the mealtime experience.
My 6-year-old daughter enjoys setting the table for dinner. Because she’s been working at it for months, she’s quite proficient at this task. She happily sets placemats down, puts a water cup at each kid’s place, and retrieves silverware for each person. Not only does this help the adults, but it also gives her insight into all that goes into serving a meal. Having the materials she needs to set the table accessible to her enables her to complete this task without adult intervention.
Value Process Over Product
While I look for opportunities to include my kids in mealtime responsibilities, I do not have them help with every aspect of every meal. I love cooking with my kids and know I am teaching them the skills they will need as they grow into adults. However, the reality for me is that cooking with kids takes longer, is messier, and produces imperfect results. Kids are just learning the skills that adults often already know. I make a conscious effort to slow down and identify moments where we aren’t in a hurry and that are conducive to kids’ help. In these moments, I can value the “process over product.” I notice that the responsibilities and skills my kids are learning are more important than a perfectly prepared meal.
I also resist the urge to feel like a failure when my kitchen is in total disarray after cooking with kids. It is not often realistic to expect the kitchen to stay tidy and organized throughout cooking with kids, like the orderly Montessori learning spaces we sometimes see. If the space has to stay beautifully organized, I may never feel up to the task of cooking with my kids. Focusing on the skills learned and connection with my kids is helpful in making cooking a satisfying experience for me. Using a perspective informed by Montessori principles can help parents view a mess as an opportunity to develop wonder and curiosity in kids. Valuing the process over the product and focusing on curiosity are Montessori at home mealtime principles that can help parents see mealtimes as potential learning experiences.
Provide Kids With Choices
Giving kids some mealtime choices is one way to respect the child’s desire to have control over their mealtime experience. In our home, I have noticed that giving kids choices empowers them and teaches independence. Fostering independence and respect for the child are important benefits of Montessori education at school and home. Valuing independence and respect for each child are Montessori at home mealtime principles that can be achieved through providing choices.
One recurring way I give my kids choices is by asking them what they’d like to have for dinner the following week. I don’t subscribe to every request for pizza and spaghetti. However, I have found it helpful to ask them questions like, “What vegetable should we have with the tacos?” or “Would you rather have meatloaf or grilled chicken?” These questions have spurred conversations about why our family chooses to eat different types of foods and what makes for a balanced meal in our household. Of course, the details will look different for every family. I encourage parents to look for ways to give kids choices for what is served at mealtime. Once the menu is decided, kids can enjoy going to the store and picking out those ingredients or helping prepare the meal.
Kids Choose What To Eat and How Much
Another way I give kids choices is to let them choose which components of a meal they eat and how much. I learned this approach from resources on childhood nutrition, specifically The Ellyn Satter Institute and the Kids Eat in Color picky eating guide. In our house, it works best if the adults have the final say over when a meal is served and what is served. Our kids, however, have the final say over what parts of the meal they choose to eat and how much. I find that this approach considers the perspective and unique personality of each child, a Montessori ideal.
Setting a clear designation of which aspects of a meal the adults control and which aspects of the meal the kids control can reduce mealtime frustrations. There isn’t as much arguing over “Two more bites” or “You need to eat vegetables.” Giving kids food choices can make mealtime a more positive experience for the entire family. This shift makes the dinner table a place for connection rather than a battleground for power struggles.
Giving Kids Choices and Responsibilities Can Reduce Mealtime Frustration
Montessori ideals of giving kids choices and learning skills through action can apply to mealtimes. Two specific Montessori at home mealtime principles are giving kids responsibility and providing kids choices surrounding their food. Helping kids develop the skills involved in meal preparation, service, and cleanup helps teach them how to care for themselves and become more independent. It can also have the desired effect of engendering pride in the meal. Children may be more apt to eat broccoli if they help purchase, cook, or serve it, for example. Additionally, giving kids choices over parts of the meal may help reduce power struggles at mealtimes. While mealtimes can present challenges, they are also great opportunities for kids (and parents) to learn. Emphasizing child involvement and choices can help make the experience more enjoyable for everyone.