Montessori & Intuitive Eating for Kids

In Montessori-inspired homes, we set up spaces in our kitchens that young children can easily access to make their own snacks or help with meal preparation.  What a great opportunity to allow for independence and practical life skill-building while ALSO helping your child gain awareness of her own hunger/fullness cues and learn how to fuel her body, right?!  But that’s really hard to do if you have embraced diet culture ideals without fully understanding that you have.  I don’t know about you, but prioritizing thinness over true health and following diet culture rules instead of listening to your body’s needs are not lessons I want to pass on to my children.  So how can we get away from that?

I have always struggled with food and body image issues, and while I have been “recovered” from my eating disorder for many years now, I recently discovered that I was still holding onto many food rules and imposing them on my entire family without even realizing it.  I worked with a registered dietitian and began my intuitive eating journey – and the more I learned, the more I thought, “Hey!  This fits really well with Montessori!” 

I’ve been wanting to write something about intuitive eating with kids for a while now, but I just don’t feel like I have enough knowledge about the eating piece to do it alone.  So I reached out to Courtney Bliss, a Montessori mom and pediatric registered dietitian I follow on Instagram – and she agreed to answer some questions for us!

Hello!  Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us!  I’ve long thought that intuitive eating and Montessori principles work so well together on paper – I’m thinking about the emphasis on allowing kids to have bodily autonomy, freedom within limits, that mindfulness piece of trusting their body’s hunger and fullness cues, etc – but I’m often torn about how to practically implement that with our kids.  First, can you give us a brief overview of intuitive eating and our goals for that when it comes to children?

I agree completely that intuitive eating and Montessori mesh nicely together. As we know, Montessori promotes following the child as an important component of learning and development. When we choose to implement Montessori principles, you’re working to raise a well-rounded child and adult. A person who can confidently navigate the world and contribute to their community. Intuitive eating is also person-driven. According to the creators of intuitive eating, dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, intuitive eating is a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought. You learn to listen to your body and lose the shoulds or guilt around foods, and incorporate items that fuel your body and soul in portions that bring satiety. One reason I absolutely love intuitive eating for families is that I want to skip the diets and guilt around food so many of us have felt, and allow our children to honor and listen to their body into adulthood and beyond.” 

One of the most frequent questions I receive as a Montessori parent educator is about setting up self-serve snack areas in the home so that children can independently get their own snacks or meals during the day.  Parents always want to know, “How do you make sure they don’t just eat the whole thing all at once?!”  I’ve always told them that they should only put out as much as they are comfortable with their children eating in one day, and maybe even adding a card with a prescribed portion size indicated on it with a number of dots or a measurement.  I feel a bit uneasy about that the more I know about intuitive eating, so I’ve backed away from that answer and offered it as a suggestion while mentioning that I’m not sure that’s the best way to do it anymore.  If our goal is to allow our children to independently fix themselves snacks BUT ALSO to do it with intuitive eating principles in mind, what advice would you give as a pediatric dietitian? 

This is something I have also struggled with in the Montessori philosophy, and I believe it results from the different relationships children/adults had with food in Italy around the time Dr. Montessori developed her curriculum versus the reality of food and body relationships in the current day. All too often I see children filling up on ‘healthy snacks’ and the mealtimes are negatively impacted. First, I implement a schedule or rhythm to the day as you normally would around work hours and sleep, these will be the times you offer snacks. I typically recommend parents direct the food choices and then let the child participate in the preparation. For example if today’s snack is going to be a hard boiled egg and strawberries you can give the child the hard boiled egg and a few strawberries while they get their cutting board, plate and appropriate knife. The child can assemble but you’re demonstrating a balanced snack. For another layer of child involvement you can let your child help you make some bars or snack items over the weekend and also discuss snack options with your child as you’re making the grocery list or hitting the store.

As I have been working on this in my own life, I’ve realized just how difficult it is to break our own food rules when we’ve been steeped in diet culture our entire lives.  Now that I know better, I don’t want to pass that on to my kids.  One thing we’ve changed is that we used to call snack food/desserts “treats.”  It’s always made me cringe a bit (it gives me major “good dog” vibes), and I’m not really sure how we started it – but suddenly I had a 5- and 7-year-old who had that word as part of their vocabulary when describing food.  We changed that last summer, explaining that we’re not calling any food “treats” anymore, that all food serves different purposes, and now we tend to describe the food as either “something sweet” or “something crunchy.”  How do you recommend talking to kids about different types of food, especially those that we’ve previously categorized as “treats” or “junk food?”

This is a fantastic question and I love that you’ve identified areas where you can make adjustments for your family. I recommend calling the food what it is, these are potato chips and leaving it there, as it is very easy to slip into old patterns around food language. If you’re ready to have that conversation with your kids, I’d recommend saying that just like your children, you’re always learning. And something you’ve learned recently is that the more appropriate way to talk about food is to use the proper name. You can also invite them to remind you if you slip up and forget. Another bonus of using the proper name is your child can more confidently and clearly communicate what they want – I’d like to have a cookie with dinner instead of ‘are we having dessert tonight?’ If there are questions about what a food does or why we eat it you can focus on big picture – strawberries have fiber which helps fill our belly and have good poops.” 

As a pediatric dietitian, what types of foods do you recommend parents have set up in self-serve snack areas so kids can prepare them for themselves while still getting an appropriate amount of nutrients and vitamins?  Any winning combinations?

As I mentioned, I don’t love the self-serve snacks and they’re not something I typically recommend. But favorite snack combos I definitely can share. When deciding on snacks we want to be sure we’re offering a combination of carbohydrates, fat, fiber and protein. If I can include 2-3 of those nutrients in a snack it’s a win for me. Here are a few of my favorites that are also great for Montessori kiddos: grapes and string cheese (fiber, fat and protein), crackers and hard boiled egg (fat, protein and carbohydrate), celery and peanut butter (fat, fiber, protein), mixed nuts and clementine (fat, fiber, protein; bonus on this it’s great for iron), peach slices and air popped popcorn (fiber and protein).

What are some best practices for serving family-style meals, especially with picky eaters?  We have evolved a lot in this area, but I still find myself wanting my kids (especially my pickier eater) to have at least a little bit of all of the foods I’ve served.  How can we encourage this without forcing it so that it becomes a choice that my picky eater is empowered to make for herself?

I completely understand this desire, especially if you were raised with those sorts of rules and expectations around food growing up. When we are ‘following the child’ for class/shelf work but insisting a child tries a bite of all the items served at dinner time it sends a very mixed message. I recommend only offering 1 non-preferred food on the plate, and to keep starting portions small. If it’s a food they like start with 1 tablespoon per year, and for non-preferred foods 1 tablespoon total. This will minimize the visual overwhelm and stress picky eaters often feel.”

What do you do if you find that your child is sneaking certain foods (like candy) and eating it in secret when you’ve prepared the environment so that she has easy access to other snacks?  Is it okay to have candy available in self-serve snack areas, and if so, what’s the best way to do that? 

This is a fantastic way your child is communicating with you. It can be painful for you as the parent, but they’re showing you their needs aren’t being met. (And I’m saying this not just as a professional, but as a Montessori mom who’s run into this same issue.) When they’re sneaking any food, I want you to read it as a message that you need to offer it more often and with more intentionality. I want you to have a gentle conversation with them and let them know that you understand they’re really enjoying that ____ food (again, use the real name here), and it seems like they want to enjoy it more. Work with them to come up with a plan to include it more often. Typically families will need to go through a desensitization period when this happens. So you’ll serve the item several times per week on the plate with a meal and with no comments about how much they should eat or if they need to eat their ‘real meal’ first. The child needs to know that all foods are equal and they’re not being judged for wanting or sneaking those foods. After several weeks (sometimes longer), you can back off a bit but not cold turkey. Just enough so they’re still communicating openly and not sneaking.

What about for kids or adults with special dietary needs?  How can we talk about why one person might need to limit their sugar intake for medical reasons without making it something diety or villainizing sugar itself?

Focus on how everyone’s body is different! We already know this lesson and use it, but it comes back to metabolism and physiology as well. ‘Uncle Bob’s body works a little differently than ours does and there are certain foods he eats differently to keep his body strong and healthy.‘”

I think so many of us are stuck in diet culture land without even realizing it – classifying foods as “good” or “bad,” limiting certain foods, prioritizing food rules according to what’s “healthy” rather than listening to our own individual body’s needs, etc – and also passing that down to our kids.  When we first started making some changes around this, I was shocked to see how many diet culture ideals my kids had already absorbed.  When I explained that they could now put a couple of Hershey kisses on their plates with lunch, my 5-year-old said, “Okay, I’ll have to have a really BIG apple first, though.”  What would you say is the first thing to change in your family’s lifestyle/mindset if you want to get away from diet culture and instill intuitive eating values in your kids?

I really want to commend you here, because it is so hard to look at things we previously knew to be true and look at things differently. It’s scary and takes lots of effort, but it’s also really true that kids have picked up far more than you realize. And it’s hard because often we celebrate the ‘healthy choices’ our kids are making but it’s often because there’s been a fair bit of pressure and subtle judgment to get to that point. If any of this conversation has stood out to you, start by taking a look at food and movement choices and language you use every day. You need to know what’s happening before you can know what changes to make. While you’re working on this, I find a great place to start is to use the real word for foods and avoid good/bad/healthy/unhealthy. If you notice your kids using that language it’s a good opportunity to redirect them with the appropriate word as well.

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us!  Can you tell us what services you offer as a pediatric dietitian and where we can find you online?

It was such an honor to share some information with you and the readers, I hope it was helpful. Readers can find me on Instagram @feedingbliss. I have a few different ways parents can get support – I have various ebooks on my website, 1:1 coaching and a new membership community called Feeding Bliss Society. Inside Feeding Bliss Society I’m actually tackling the exact items outlined in our interview – how to raise intuitive eaters while improving our own relationships with food and bodies. We have weekly lessons with office hours, a monthly book club and loads of great recipes to make with your kids.”

Courtney and I went Live on Instagram together to answer all of your Intuitive Eating + Montessori questions, and you can watch the replay here: