Montessori classrooms for infants and toddlers are designed with four primary areas in mind: sleeping, toileting or diapering, eating and play. These probably feel a lot like the spaces at home- that's by design. We want the infant and toddler communities to meet children's needs in a warm, response, home-like environment. They should feel more like a cozy bedroom than an institutional care center.
And mealtimes in these classrooms should also feel like home, with children gathered around a common table and sharing the experience of a meal in community. While children will still eat on demand, following their own hunger rather than a teacher-developed schedule for meals, when they are hungry, they'll find a welcome space at a shared table, at which small groups of children can enjoy each other.
Even as infants. You won't see high chairs in Montessori infant communities, just as you won't see other furniture that requires an adult to place the child in position and buckle them in. While high chairs are more comfortable for the adult, we prepare environments with children's development in mind, including their ability to move independently through the space. Instead, you'll see low tables and heavy chairs that protect the child from falling (and can often be used for new toddlers to scoot around the room.) Children will sit at the table and eat from open plates. Younger infants who are exploring solids for the first time might only use their fingers, but as soon as they have the capacity to hold a utensil, you'll see them (messily!) exploring those tools as well. Of course, a teacher will be there to make sure that enough food gets from the plate into the child's tummy to soothe their hunger, as mealtimes are both for the development of independent skills and the basic need for food! You're likely to see children enjoy a number of smaller meals throughout the day rather than a single, larger scheduled lunch, coming and going from the table as their hunger inspires.
Toddler communities may offer snack throughout the day, again with low chairs and furniture appropriate for toddler gross-motor mastery. Toddlers might eat lunch all at the same time, as the teachers help to support independence in opening and closing their containers, setting a simple table, and cleaning up their space when they are done. Some toddler communities encourage children to serve themselves from communal bowls of fruit, vegetables, and grains, exploring new tastes with the encouragement of their peers. You'll likely also see children drinking from open glasses (yes, glass!) and learning to pour their own water or other beverage from small pitchers.
At home, you can support these same child-centered structures for mealtime, engaging your child in the preparation, enjoyment and clean up for a family meal and avoiding some of those stressful times when you're trying to keep your child distracted while you make dinner. Instead, consider:
1. Use a toddler-sized table for meals that include your infant or toddler, taking special note to be sure that your child's feet can touch the floor while they're eating. Dangling feet are a chronic distraction for young children and will interrupt your happy family dinner when they become too much to ignore.
2. Expect a child-appropriate length for your family meals. Infants and toddlers lack the self-restraint and attention spans to remain at the table in stillness while other people finish eating. Decide before you begin whether meal time is primarily a time for the family to enjoy each other's company, or primarily a time for your infant or toddler to have their dietary needs met, or primarily a time to learn the grace and courtesy lessons around shared meals.Eventually, you'll do all these things at once, but with the youngest children, you may need to focus on just one. You can have a more filling dinner later.
3. Offer a diversity of foods, including different textures and tastes, but don't be surprised if your child scoffs at some of them. Children have more sensitive sensory awareness than we do... the texture of some foods or distinct taste may be significantly off-putting to the child. Offer small portions of multiple foods to encourage your child's willingness to try new foods but to do so in a manageable structure.
4. Enlist your child's support in preparing the meal. From constructing a salad to setting the table, toddlers have the capacity to contribute in real ways. Let them cut fruit or squeeze juices. Let them spread soft cheeses, or roll dough for dinner rolls. As soon as children are interested, you can develop creative ways to engage them in the process.
5. Be patient with your child and yourself during mealtimes. If you've scheduled it right, most meals will fall exactly when your family is already hungry. Even the most patient hearted parent may notice a turbulence in the air... slow down, focus on what's going well, and engage your child in meaningful activity.
And finally, remember: your child's diet is strongest when it's filled with healthy, whole foods. Avoid foods with extra additives on the packaging. Choose fresh veggies and fruits whenever possible. Avoid the prepackaged toddler food and opt instead for tasty morsels of real food. When your child is able to see an ingredient from refrigerator to plate, their comfort with the food on the table grows. When they have been involved in preparing that food, their eagerness to eat it themselves also grows. And when you make time for thoughtful, engaged and child-centered design for how and what you eat with your child, the connection and community of breaking bread together also grows.