A parent’s question: 21 month old son is driving me crackers at meal times. He just will not sit still at the table and eat his meal. He wants to get off the chair after every spoonful and wander around. He never got on with the highchair so has been at his own table for a long time now. Originally he sat lovely and ate well but after a while he started to get up half way through his meal to go off and play then came back for more. I thought he would eventually learn to sit nicely again with encouragement. Now he just will not sit still at all. I make the same food for myself and sit with him at his table or he sits next to me at the adult table. I know he likes the food and he will usually finish the meal but it takes a long time after reminding him to come eat it. I now have a newborn so my patience is starting to wear thin with my toddler due to lack of sleep and not being able to sit and eat a meal for myself nowadays without baby waking up on cue so really need help now mammas!
SOFT DISCLAIMER: This advice may prove helpful assuming your child is otherwise healthy physiologically and psychologically/ neurologically. Let me be clear that I am not a professional dietician or nutritionist and I am by no means offering medical or nutritional advice in this post. I’m offering educational guidance information that I have found useful with young children 0-3 years old. Take what proves useful, and discard what doesn’t suit you. I know food is a touchy subject. **
HERE’S MY ANSWER TO THE QUESTION POSED ABOVE…
This issue has multiple aspects worth considering.
1. There are some things that are only within each person’s individual control and are never, ever within another person’s control, period; no matter how the others might feel about it. Even if those “others” are grown ups. (:
Dr. Montessori says there are three bodily functions we must take care never to exert force or too much external control for a child: eating, sleeping, and elimination; which are within the child’s control and only the child’s control.
If we try exert force and assert too much externally-imposed control around these three activities (eating, sleeping, elimination during toileting), we run the risk of damaging the child’s psyche. How, you might wonder, is wanting my child to eat enough going to damage their little psyche?
For example, if someone stronger than you kept forcing you to sit back down at a table to eat when you clearly wanted to get up, how would you feel? If someone kept nagging you to eat more, eat more, eat more, and you knew you weren’t hungry, how would you feel? There is something called “learned helplessness” from the field of psychology, which means you start to believe you are powerless to be in control of yourself or of your circumstances; and there is no way out. It is documented that this is for sure psychologically damaging to the human mind. If you’re old enough you remember the film Mommy Dearest, remember when the mom keeps bringing out steak tartare night after night for the daughter to eat, and how the daughter keeps refusing, night after night? Kind of an extreme example, but hey, let’s stop forcing children to eat when they communicate to us through behavior, body language, facial expressions, or words/ protest that they’re all done.
2 . All children must learn that humans are all blessed with a free will; and so long as the will is inspiring them to do things that are healthy, helpful, productive, and safe, they can and should learn how to trust themselves to follow their own free will.
To make matters slightly more complex, Dr. Montessori believed young children have the unexplainable desire to follow inner urges and drives behaviorally that us adults may not always understand (read about “horme” in her book The Absorbent Mind). This unexplainable behavioral drive is a precursor to development of the will for young children. At first they cannot help it, they MUST execute a behavior; and then later will come more conscious control over their mind and body, and it becomes a matter of free will. And this is why we have “limits” in the Montessori method.
We may not understand why this child keeps feeling compelled to get up from the table and wander. And that may very well drive us adult “crackers”, which is how the mom who asked this question said she feels. But if the child feels internally compelled to get up from the table, just let them get up. There is no need to turn it into a battle or a struggle. The food, however, will always remain at the table; and the meal period is offered for a limited timeframe. So if the child chooses to get up, and to not remain at the table for the meal period, they won’t get to eat. The lesson there really is that simple. So painfully simple that it may actually drive us adults “crackers” to enforce that truth consistently until the child finally understands that truth for themselves.
3. Every environment has its own “norms”; and children all learn what those norms are. Children can learn social and environmental norms through observation, through experience and engagement, through cause-and-effect, and through the reminding and reinforcement of clear limits established by adult guidance when other cues fail to reach the child. This mama will have to decide what the norms will be in her household for her child to learn. If she doesn’t care that every meal is grazed, then that’s what will be the norm she reinforces in her household. If you want your child to learn how to sit down at the table for meals, and remain seated until they are finished eating, then that is the norm you must work to establish in your household.
I will say that if you desire for your child to attend a Montessori program outside of the home, the norm is that all children are expected to sit while eating; and if they get up from the table, they are finished with that meal or snack, non-negotiable. The food is either taken away and put away for them at this point (nido); or the child is instructed to clear their place and be completely finished (toddler and older).
4. “Finishing things completely”, and not being wishy-washy about it, is a huge Montessori principle which we call the “cycle of activity”. You start your activity of choice, you engage until you’re satisfied, and then you finish by putting your things away/ cleaning up, and moving on to your next activity in life. I can’t emphasize how wonderful and functional of a habit this is for young children to develop, as opposed to being scattered, disorganized in the execution of tasks, easily distracted, trying to multi-task, trying to take on too much at once, or being present in body but elsewhere in mind. I suppose you could say this “cycle of activity” habit is very similar to “mindfulness”. Be where you are in the moment you are in, and be there completely until that moment is over. Life is basically a series of moments all connected across time. “Meal time” is essentially a moment where we sit down to nourish our bodies with food. That moment ends as soon as you stand up from the table.
5. Every creature has its own hunger cues. Parents may not realize that your child is learning (or really, maintaining) the ability to follow and trust their own appetite, which is the internal bodily cue that one is hungry. Children will all figure out how to summon adults for food when needed or how to find something edible when they are hungry. Every baby is instinctually born knowing how to crawl up to the breast from birth, because every living creature must acquire nutrients in order to survive. The child in the question posed is demonstrating the knowledge for where to acquire food– at the table. Which is great! Now he just needs to learn to stay there and eat until his hunger is gone.
6. There must also be limits to adult guidance around showing children how and how much to eat, bearing in mind that otherwise healthy children can and should learn to manage their own appetite. Generally, adults tend to be more concerned when we feel children are “under eating” than when we observe “over eating”. But in both instances appropriate follow from adults should be practiced. The goal is “enough”. Don’t be afraid to let go of your worry if an under eater walks away from the table– there will be plenty more meals and snacks offered throughout the day and our lifetime. Don’t be afraid to cut off an over-eater if you see them consuming an absurdly large amount of food either. There is a such thing as “eating too much” when it comes to food. We don’t want children to feel sick/ uncomfortable from being too full.
Adults or parents must learn to start feeling OK with trusting children to follow their own appetite. If the child isn’t hungry anymore they are free to leave the table. There is no need to insist that they eat more than they are hungry for. Remember: everything we do is helping children learn something. They can unknowingly learn to keep eating past the point when they are actually full. In America, where overweight and overconsumption of sugar is a national problem right now, we definitely should be encouraging as much mind-body connection in children around food and satiety.
7. All behavior is a communication. Staying with your “things” tells the world it’s yours, or your turn to engage with it; and you’re not done until you’re completely done. If you were at a restaurant, and people got up from the table, what would that behavior communicate to you? That the person must be done eating, right? Otherwise they would not have gotten up. Someone else may come sit in that seat and sit down for their meal now. If you’re a restaurant owner, and the customers leave the restaurant, what does that mean? It means they are finished, and other patrons may come in and have a meal. Customers at restaurants typically may not “graze”, or come and go as they please, while magically retrieving more food to eat; unless they are willing start the process all over again– get in line, wait to get seated, order, wait for the food to arrive, dine, and pay. Only buffets allow grazing; and even then there are no ins-and-outs privileges. You come in, you eat until you’re completely done, and you are expected to leave.
Adults who want their child to stay at the table for eating should make it clear that when a child gets up and walks away from the table during meals, they are 110% done; because that is what the behavior of “getting up from the table” communicates to the world socially. Every time the child tries to get up from the table, you are going to remind them by saying aloud that if they walk away, it means they must be completely done. Otherwise, they are welcomed to sit back down and continue eating until they actually are completely done. Don’t be afraid to use those words “completely” and “actually”. Those words teach important concepts in pre-math and social behavior that serve a child well. More learning= awesome!
If adults allow the behavior of getting up over and over with no consequence or immediate and noteworthy changes to reality, the child will learn that such a behavior must be normal since no one is stopping it and nothing is changing; and this must be how people eat or how that child specifically is allowed to eat. And this child is then mis-learning or misunderstanding a pretty generally-accepted social communication about food and eating: I’m letting the world know I’m engaged in a meal by sitting down at a table and staying there until I’m completely done. I’m also letting the world know that this plate of food is MY food.
Look around at any restaurant or even in the animal kingdom– if it’s your food to eat, you stay with it. To pose it another way, if your child got up from the table and some other child sat down in their seat and proceeded to eat their food, but your child wasn’t actually done yet, chances are high that your child would freak out that their food got eaten by another kid. Parents with multiple children observe this truth, I observe it all the time in my classroom. If you’re a toddler and someone else tries to eat your food or steals food off of your plate, you will instinctually freak out.
SO WHERE IS YOUR POWER AS A PARENT/ ADULT, and what is your role?
All you can do is offer opportunities for food, and observe a child’s cues and behaviors around food, and keep the limits consistent.
~ “it’s the socially decided upon time to eat, and right now I’ve provided food at the table to make this opportunity for nourishment available to satisfy your hunger”;
~ “the child hasn’t eaten recently, and now they’re whining, and moody, perhaps they are hungry. Let me offer a snack/ hey, it’s actually lunch time now; let’s invite them to the table”.
~ “The child must like the food, and feel hungry because they keep eating it”, or “they don’t like it because they’ve spat it out”, “they must be getting full because they aren’t putting food in their mouth anymore”.
~ “They got up from the table, they must be done. Time to clean up”.
And that’s about it.
With consistency, your child will learn the rules and patterns around food in your home. They can learn the practice of dining just like adults do, while seated at the table given complete freedom to get up whenever they wish. The toddlers at my job do this successfully and beautifully every single day just like little grown ups. They all know what is expected of them if they desire to eat, they all know when the food will be made available, and they all know that if they get up from the table, they either need to sit back down if they weren’t actually done, or they can clear their place. This has held true across many different classrooms of toddlers I have led. So your child can learn it, too.
SOME ADDITIONAL ADVICE TO ENCOURAGE OPTIMAL EATING WITH TODDLERS
One critical misstep I see a lot of my friends who are new parents making, is that they fill the child’s entire plate with food as soon as the child sits down to eat. Don’t do this. This is the way we adults serve ourselves, because we are adults and we know what we like and how much we are likely to eat. But toddlers are learning what they like, and have changing preferences and appetites as they continue to grow. Legend has it, it takes 11 tries of a new food for a toddler to officially incorporate it into their diet. A toddler may be obsessed with a particular meal or love a particular food item for months… until one day they decide that they’re over it and suddenly they won’t eat that anymore. They also go through growth spurts and teething, which impact their appetite and tastes.
Instead, you should offer a very small serving of each food item one at a time. A serving for a toddler should resemble about a tablespoon or a heaping tablespoon, or a portion maybe the size of your child’s palm if the food item is not spoonable. Start with the most healthy item first (veggies), and ask if they would like a serving or a taste. If they say a taste, give them a tiny piece to lick, bite, or consume. Then if they like it and want more, they can then ask for more.
Move on next to your entree, and save any fruit for last. In the school environment if we ever have “dessert”, which in my class fruit-flavored muffins are the only “dessert food” allowed in the classroom, it is the very last item offered in a very small tablespoon-sized quantity. This order of serving food will encourage your toddler to eat more nutritious items, otherwise they may eat the fruit and carbs and leave the rest, or they may not eat much of anything and leave it all. Thus, you should never “serve it all”.
All foods that come commercially packaged in packets or pouches should also be served into a bowl in the aforementioned small serving sizes. Eating food out of pouches is not what adults generally do; and we want to maintain the mind-body connection while helping toddlers nourish themselves. They deserve to see the actual food, learn to match the texture with the visual, learn the colors of food, smell the food, learn to see how much food there is relative to the size of the dishes they typically eat off of, and to be in touch with what’s inside that pouch. One day they will have to feed themselves, acquire, and prepare their own snacks and meals. And when that day comes we hope they will choose fresh, real, whole foods instead of pre-packaged, processed foods. Learning really is holistic. What you learn as a toddler could theoretically set the stage for a lifetime of dietary habits. We don’t know yet because pouched foods is a relatively modern phenomenon.
Furthermore, when food is processed down in order to be sold in pouches, all of the fiber is processed away. And fiber plays a big role in helping our stomachs know when we feel full and to slow down the way the body digests the sugars. It’s the difference between drinking a cup of orange juice, versus eating an entire fresh orange.
A final little tip on serving packaged foods by plating them is that some toddlers are so smart that they can remember what the package is supposed to look like; and if it’s not the package they are used to eating out of, they might refuse to eat.
Parents and adults should always encourage the consumption of lots of water. Water is the one thing you can never offer a toddler too often. They should have constant access to drinking water, whether it be in the form of a water dispenser and knowing where to retrieve a cup, or by providing a water bottle, always full. In fact, often times even for adults, hunger is confused with the internal state of being dehydrated. But we may seek food when thirsty because the mind and body know that juicy foods are a source of hydration. Water is served with every sit down meal and snack at a Montessori school; and drinking water is constantly made available in every environment both indoors or outdoors.
I have sometimes observed “refusal to eat” because toddlers may not do well with foods that “automatically come” mixed together; and they can be quite particular about how food is plated.
You don’t need to resort to compartmentalized plates. But it is wise to try and serve things so that they have some white space between them. Toddlers may also have preferences about specific ingredients contained within a “mixed foods” entree. Take pasta with meat sauce. They might want the pasta, the sauce, and the ground meat, but don’t want the tomato chunks in the sauce. Take fried rice. They might want the rice, the carrots, and the green beans, but don’t like the corn in the mixed veggies you always put in your fried rice. Toddlers will likely consume more food if items are served separately from each other, or if they are shown how to pick out what they don’t want or the parts they especially want.
This consideration about toddlers being particular also doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself in the kitchen being a short order cook. It just means you can be mindful about how you plate a toddlers’ portion of the meal.
I guess I have a strange double-standard or “intuitive sense” about not mixing certain things up, and then not letting other foods ever get served separately from each other…which I have developed after years of dining with toddlers.
I don’t automatically pour sauce on things. I ask them if they want the sauce on top or on the side. They might not want the carrots this time because the carrots aren’t cut into smaller pieces like they usually are; so I might have to go back and cut them all up. They may need to be shown that they can pick out the tomatoes if they don’t want to eat them.
I also observe that it is best to always put spreads in a thin layer on top of bagels, bread, or crackers; and to never offer spreads “on the side”, separately. Because the children will end up with spread all over the place and neglect the item it was supposed to be eaten on. And I don’t like to waste the crackers or send the child the message that they are allowed to say “yes” to crackers, but eat “just cream cheese” as a suitable snack. This is also my personal preference but I don’t tolerate the peeling apart of nut butter and jelly sandwiches. This turns into such a crazy mess; so I insist that nut butter and jelly sandwiches are eaten with the breads together, by taking small bites.
You have to observe your own child(ren), and try to figure out when they aren’t eating something why that might be the case.
A final tip is to always keep a small basket of fresh edible produce on your child’s low table (an apple, a pear, a carrot, a peach, or even a banana if they know how to peel the skin off independently). If you do this, a toddler will eat from the basket freely when they are hungry; and it encourages them to make healthy food choices. I Hope this helps!