Remember when dinner used to be a relaxing event? Maybe you’d put on some music, open a bottle of wine and talk to your partner about your day. Or perhaps you’d bring dinner to the couch for a Netflix marathon.
While meal times inevitably change once you have kids, it’s okay to want a little bit of that peaceful feeling back. In fact, it’s not only okay, it’s totally possible.
Here are seven ways Montessori classrooms establish peaceful meal times and how you can replicate them at home.
1. Meet your new sous chef
Food prep is often one of the children’s favorite things to do in a Montessori classroom. This includes tasks the children do independently like washing, peeling and cutting carrots as well as special activities that require adult guidance, like preparing foods to celebrate holidays or cultural events.
How the child is helping isn’t really important, but getting them involved will give them a sense of pride and importance at the dinner table. This is especially helpful if your child is in a picky eating phase.
The older your child, the more they’ll be able to do (and the more it will actually be helpful to you), but don’t be shy about starting them young.
Some jobs for young children might include washing vegetables for a salad, stirring things and peeling and chopping fruits and vegetables with a wavy chopper. An older child could be put in charge of a simple side dish.
2. Give them a heads up
Transitions can be really hard for children. At school, there is a very predictable routine so they generally know what’s coming.
While you can try to establish consistent routines at home, things are never going to be as predictable as they are at school—and that’s OK. Real life is sometimes unpredictable and that’s what makes it fun!
On days when they aren’t helping to prepare the meal, giving your child a heads up that dinner will be happening in 15 minutes will allow them time to mentally prepare for the transition and finish what they’re doing. If they argue, try setting an alarm for fifteen minutes—it’s harder to argue with a clock than with mom.
3. Give a transition task
If your child is still having trouble transitioning from playing to dinner time, even with a warning, try giving them a transition task.
Asking your child to do something like set the table or fill water glasses for everyone will help them naturally transition into dinner time.
You may need to rearrange the kitchen a bit so your child can access what he needs, but it will be worth it when it helps him settle in at dinner time.
4. Make it special
In Montessori classes, lunch time is just as much about the ritual as it is about food. Dinner time can be so hectic, that just getting food on the table seems almost impossible at times, but adding a few special touches can help make it feel special for everyone.
You might play quiet background music during dinner, something relaxing like Bach or the Beatles. You could put some pretty flowers on the table. Even better if your child helps choose them or helps pick them from the backyard.
These things are all simple and small, but together, they help make meal time an event, rather than something to rush through to get back to playing.
And remember, there’s no reason you can’t listen to Mozart and look at fresh flowers while serving mac and cheese—everyone’s busy and these little touches still help!
5. Follow through
Set meal time rules for your home and always enforce them. There don’t need to be many rules, as long as they’re consistent.
For a really young child, it may be that throwing food on the floor signifies the child is done. You can say something like, “When you throw your food on the floor, it makes me think you’re not hungry. Are you done?”
For an older child, it may be a rule about staying seated until she’s done eating. But what if she keeps getting up and being silly? After a reminder, clear her plate. The rules only work if you follow through every time.
If you’re worried that your child legitimately didn’t get enough to eat, put her plate in the refrigerator and offer it again a little while later. After enforcing the rule a few times, it likely won’t be an issue anymore.
6. Minimize distractions
It may seem like a good idea to let your child bring a toy or two to the table, but you might try a few nights without this and see how it goes.
Especially for young children, eating still takes a lot of focus! Having the TV on in the background or toys at the table can simply be too much.
Try telling your child that dinner is a special time to be together and he can have his toy again as soon as everyone’s done eating—then put it out of sight.
7. Get the conversation going
In the classroom, Montessori teachers sit and eat with the children, to help build a sense of community—but also to model the art of conversation.
Knowing how to have a conversation is a learned skill. Waiting until someone is done speaking, replying with something relevant—children need practice and there is no better place than at the dinner table to do so.
If you need help getting the conversation going, try opening the window. Most children love nature and will enjoy talking about what they see and hear outside. You could also try simple games like “Would you rather?”
Or simply tell a story about your day. Children often respond with one word answers or blank stares if you ask them what they did that day. Talking about your day can show them how to talk about theirs.
Family meal times are an opportunity for so many great conversations. Setting up routines and consistent expectations lets you get the mundane part out of the way so you can get on to meaningful things, like being together and making memories.