Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ciao Time! The Montessori Table

The weaning post precipitated some discussion about Montessori and food. As with just about everything else, Montessori has pretty strong opinions about how children ought to eat.

This is not a post about table setting, at least not yet, but about Montessori's ideas about food. NOLA mom remembered "something about broth"--which I had to look up. What I found was a really nice article by Jan Katzen-Luchenta detailing Montessori's writing on the subject.

She points out what preschool teachers have noticed for as long as I can remember, that the kid who's bouncing off the walls in your class is very likely the one who had a Pop Tart for breakfast, and the one who's focused and busy is likely to be the one who had an egg. The one who's a puddle of tears by 10am is often the one who woke up late that morning and came to school on an empty stomach.

At the time of weaning, Montessori points out, it is important to make sure there is adequate fat in the child's diet as breast milk is removed. Breast milk is very fatty, as we know, and Montessori worried about crashing levels of fat in the child's body at weaning time. (Nice segue, eh?)

I am a big believer in this, and I have often peered into children's lunchboxes when looking for the causes of behavior problems. As Katzen-Luchenta repeats: you are what you eat. This is true in a big way for kids, in my opinion.

Want some more of my opinions about kids' nutrition? Here they are.

I think that the uptick in preschool ADD/ADHD diagnoses based on school behavior (I don't mean the real ADHD kids, I mean the regular kids who are being called ADHD. I realize there is a big difference), can be attributed to two things: 1)the marketing explosion surrounding sugary breakfast foods and quickie substitutes for real breakfast and 2) the conflation by parents of the fear of childhood obesity and the idea the eating fat is what makes you fat. In my opinion, and the opinions of many nutrition specialists, kids need fat in ways that adults do not, and use it differently in metabolism. Building a body is not the same job as maintaining one, and so does not require the same raw materials. Kids need to eat fat. Fat slows stomach clearing, provides the metabolic precursors to myelin, a critical part of brain development, and helps stabilize blood sugar. Yes, your body can make fat out of sugar, but it's not the same, and eliminating fat from a child's diet alters the whole schedule of the body's metabolism, and in a way that makes the child less likely to conform to what we usually consider an appropriate eating schedule.

Montessori's "thing about the broth" was the suggestion that fat should be added to broth made for children, rather than removed. She observed (like we all do) that people are born predisposed to eat sweet things and salty things, and she cautions that many of the things that satisfy these cravings (refined sugar candies, salty pretzels) will immediately satisfy the child's hunger, but will not help the child to be stable in mood, and focused in her work. She considered it a real disservice to the child to feed him improperly, and thus to set him up for failure in his work--a failure caused by an inability to concentrate due to unstable blood chemistry. I can find little reason to disagree.

So what about childhood obesity? Are we supposed to feed our kids cheesecake and fried chicken every day and expect them to grow up to make healthy food choices? No, but this is not really as far off the mark in my view as you might think.

First, I think we can all agree that overeating and underactivity are the fundamental causes of overweight in everyone--but here, especially children. Young children are still following their bodies' signals to eat, and we pretty much agree that they should be allowed to eat when hungry and be given adequate opportunity for physical activity. So tell me what you think of this:

If the fat content of a child's diet is inadequate, her blood sugar (and the associated signalling chemicals) will be unstable and will cause the child's period of satiety to be shorter than normal. Thus, the child will feel the need to eat more frequently. If the child feels the need to eat frequently, and is given calorie-rich, but fat-poor foods (how many "fat free" snacks are available in the supermarket these days?), the child will end up eating more calories than she needs, and will gain excess weight. Couple that with a few hours of screen time every day, and you can see where you're headed. Fatty foods in a child's diet help the child develop better eating habits.

Can you believe it?

A child who has eaten a fat-rich meal (something with cheese or cream in it) will stay full longer, and in a better mood longer. Now, watch me tie this to ADHD. Ready?

Remember when your kid was a little baby, and all the baby books said "crying is a late sign of hunger." What they meant was that, if your kid is crying from hunger, you have missed some earlier signals, and now your baby is REALLY hungry. Anyone remember the "early" sign you were supposed to look for?

Right. Heightened alertness, increased activity, irritability. I believe that was the order. These are early signs of hunger in children. They are nature's way of inducing the body to get up from whatever else it's doing and feed itself, and they come on before the child is able to articulate that what she needs is to eat. If the other thing it's doing is, say, school activities, and food is not offered, that extra activity will be seen in other ways. Things we would consider misbehavior, lack of focus, hyperactivity.

I rest my case.


My Boys' Teacher said...

Thank you for the very nice post.

Your timing was excellent because I have just started looking into importance of fat in our family's diet. I spent an hour yesterday on an excellent website reading about milk. I spent another half-an-hour trying to explain to my husband why I'm considering putting our 3 yo back on whole milk instead of skim.(Coincidentally Kelly is also very into people eating eggs.)

I had NO idea that Montessori was cued into this as well.

I am going to save a link to your post. Don't be surprised if the link doesn't show up on my blog at some point.

thank you!

My Year Without said...

I think you will be VERY interested in Harvard's new Food Pyramid, which challenges old ways of thinking (USDA Pyramid). Though the government will not acknowledge Harvard's pyramid, it is right on and based on over 40 years of cumulative scientific research from Harvard and around the world. Just google Harvard Food Pyramid 2008.

There is good information about fats. Good fats versus trans fats. Also, refined grains AND sugar are at the iddy biddy top of the pyramid which signifies we should eat little to none of those foods.

Anyway, I would be interested to know what you think of that.

Great writing and very interesting post.

Melissa said...

Wish I'd had a printout of this to hand to my parents. And my principal the one, horrible year I taught in what passes as "Montessori Magnet" here-- and I told her I refused to allow the children to purchase ice cream with their lunch, or sodas, and to send the angry parents to me. (these were 4-5 year olds.)

We trained the children to eat in what I called "order of best nutrition"-- I always had them start with whatever protein they had, then veggies, then fruit then refined starches. We were the only classroom that did that, as well as the only of 5 that served a simple protein at every snack. The results were pretty emphatically in our favor.

Thanks for writing it out so eloquently (as usual!)

Testdriver said...

This is one of many areas in which I think our current co-op nursery school excels. There is always a simple protein at snack time, and usually a fruit or vegetable, and water to drink.

I was amazed that the school I worked in before was required by law to serve fruit juice with snacks. Water was not adequate for children to drink. Not that I have anything particular against fruit (kids don't really need a lot of juice, though), but I think this is totally the wrong principle to stand on.

h said...

Here in Ontario, Canada, we are also required by law to serve juice to toddler and Casa aged children -- for years I have had only water at our Casa snack table, and stood ready to argue the issue with whichever government inspector might care to make an issue of it - but it's only come up once, and the inspector seems willing to overlook it when i got into fighting stance ;) I agree that there is nothing wrong with juice, but if a government is going to go to the trouble of putting something on the books you'd think they'd make it something more beneficial like "must have protein" or "must have vegetables".

I enjoyed all of your clever segues in this post. I was especially interested in your observations about baby feeding signals and the symptoms of ADD. Alfie Kohn (all of whose books I would highly recommend) wrote a very interesting article questioning the diagnosis of ADD/ADHD. The research in it is a little out of date, but it's quite thought provoking and relevant none the less:

Melissa said...

What's your take on the fat content of milk? We recently switched from whole to lower fat (depends on my mood which one I buy.)

I tried a little experiment today-- my husband usually give G oatmeal (with rasins and brown sugar. Steel cut oats, but still) for breakfast. And by 8:30 we are down the tubes almost every day. I gave eggs and cheese today-- slightly better morning.

Testdriver said...


I'm a whole milk kind of girl. Especially for kids. Pretty much everyone agrees that kids under 2 should have whole milk, but I think any kid who does not have reason to restrict intake should drink milk.

For kids (and grownups who are not specifically removing fat from the diet) I think refined sugars and starches should be cut first, and replaced with "whole" sweeteners, along with chemically altered fats (AKA hydrogenated or "trans" fats).

Many natural fats (like butter) have some "trans" character, but it's my opinion that butter is better than hydrogenated oils, which are just way too chemically well-organized and "stackable", facilitating atherosclerotic plaque formation.

M. T. said...

Fantastic post, as all your posts are! I totally agree. My year as a Primary assistant we all(directresses and assistants) were Nazis about the No Sweets at lunch. We also allowed the children with a choice of water or whole milk for drink with lunch. Any juice boxes, etc. were confiscated and returned to the embarassed parents. :)
Oh, and we definitely knew which kids ate what for breakfast. ;)

NOLA mom said...

Legally mandated fruit juice! How bizarre!!

I agree with all of your comments and observations, and I for one, don't hesitate to include fat in my kids' diet (or my own, unfortunately). Both my kids are both naturally slender and very active, so obesity is not a concern (though cultivating a preference for artery clogging foods does worry me some, but it's not like I'm feeding them twinkies and big macs).

For my almost-five-year old, I was super diligent about offering nutritious foods. Making the baby food myself, cooking real meals and delaying the introduction of sugary stuff and breast feeding as long as he wanted (which for him, was 18 mos). I remember feeling smug sending him to preschool with a belly full of oatmeal, unsweetened applesauce and plain (whole) yogurt, and horrified at my fellow moms who confessed to fortifying their 2 yr olds with croissants, or pop tarts, or skittles (seriously, skittles).

Well, guess what? He now eats about 5 things. Five pretty healthy things, but he is very restricted. He doesn't like many proteins or dairy foods. Eats no fresh fruit (gags on it) and just a few veggies. He asks for pancakes every morning, but he only gets whole wheat pancakes on saturdays with butter and maple syrup. Today, he had whole wheat toast with jam ("fruit spread") and apple plum sauce. Sometimes I can get him to eat a tablespoon of peanut butter before school if I hide a few chocolate chips in there, but if we did that every day, he would become sick of peanut butter and never touch it again.

I know many, many people out there feel that picky eaters are made and not born, and maybe I have screwed up here, but it wasn't for lack of trying to do the right things! Surely this topic comes up in the world of Montessori? Any thoughts?

PS Have you read Ellyn Satter's book? Her advice was to just offer healthy foods and let them choose what and if to eat it. I like the independence of that, but then your child may be one of the ones crumbling at 10 am in school...

Marcy said...

This post is fascinating! I haven't ever read Montessori's take on food, or at least don't remember it. Most of this makes so much sense. It ties into the whole "French women don't get fat" thing that I tend to agree with, and just eating natural, whole foods (and thus not refined to take out natural fat) rather than all the "diet" snack foods that are just... well, crap.

I'm struggling to find good, healthy, easy-to-make-and-have-on-hand foods for my 14 month old for his meals and snacks. I'm trying to stick to healthy foods, as unprocessed as possible, but I also often tend to cave in to things like gerber puffs. I've just never been much of a cook, but I also know this is so worth it so keep on trying...

NOLA mom said...

I looked up my original source, The Montessori Method, which is reproduced on Google. Lots of interesting info about appropriate foods:,M1

Amy said...

So wait, those lunchables I packed in Hipster's lunch could be the reason his teacher can't seem to handle his bursts of hyper-emotional-fits???

Jussssssst kidding. We recently started really thinking that one of the reasons HIP can't ever sit still is because of the amount of empty calories he seems to crave. Since being diagnosed with Celiac Sprue, my diet has obviously changed. I have been forced in a lot of ways ( mostly against my will) to study what food does, you know, beyond the taste.I have begun to implement big changes at the Parker Family table :) I have seen a lot of improvement in HIP's school progress. He is still 100 miles an hour of course... but his handwriting is neater, his ability to sound out words is on the up and he seems to be retaining his big lessons a lot better. As much as I'd like to sleep later in the morning, stuff a pop tart in his mouth and give him a big" go get 'em tiger" pat on the butt as he runs out the door to catch the bus... I know that a nice bowl of a high fiber cereal with whole milk, a banana, and cup of yo baby with the cream on top is a much better option for my little Speedy Gonzales.

The good news is that the kids' school is STRICT about lunches. They don't have a cafeteria, so it's up to the parents. Anything that is sweet is sent home. Not even granola bars are permitted( the plain crunchy ones) Basic food groups are required in each lunch. A ( re-usable) bottle of water, a fabric napkin, and entirely recycleable/re-usable containers for lunches are also required. Paper bags are only for field trips... and even then they are saved and put in the compost in the greenhouse when the class returns to school. I like that my kids are not only being taught to be gentle with our environment, but to be gentle with their bodies as well. ANother valid point of this rambling comment is that A snack is a requirement at Butler. I typically send in unsalted corn tortillas and fresh salsa. The kids are crazy about dipping their foods in stuff. The teachers have observed that a light snack before lunch does wonders for a kid's energy levels and therefore frustration levels etc seem to be kept at bay. What I am trying to say in 1000 words or less is: Yes .. I whole hearted agree that educating the whole child does certainly include teaching them about how their bodies use food after it is swallowed... and every now and again... let them eat cake!

Melissa said...

Totally off subject, but um, Hello? What is Halle Berry's baby wearing....!!!!

Testdriver said...


Yep, that's my dress! Knock me over with a feather, right?

I guess I can brag over here, since you started it! ;-) Everybody check out Halle Berry and her adorable daughter (who happens to be wearing a dress I made!) link through at

Where did you see it, Melissa?

Melissa said...

On Anna Maria Horner's blog-- but she didn't credit you with it, which I think she should have, because she also credited another children's line in that post. Kuddos to you!

Here's another topic I am wondering about. What is your though on doing things like Sandpaper letters at home? I'm starting to see some real signs of readiness, but it will be almost a year before my guy is old enough for our Primary program. Am I being crazy Montessori mom here?

NOLA mom said...

The kids clothes are super cute! Congratulations!

RafaƂ Szczypka said...

Thank you for this post. Now I have a clue what might cause the strange behavior at my 18 months old baby. Now I need to read more and try.

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