Montessori, Meals, and Motherhood - A discussion with Julia Mohseni

We hope you loved joining along in our Classroom in the Kitchen Series. Here are all the topics we covered if you want to revisit them (or check them out for the first time)! We first published these lessons to help parents during this unusual back-to-school season, but they really can be read and applied at any time.

Classroom in the Kitchen: Math Edition

Classroom in the Kitchen: Science Edition

Classroom in the Kitchen: Literacy Edition

Classroom in the Kitchen: Nutrition Edition

You also may have noticed shout outs to Julia Mohseni at the end of each article. There was a lot of research that went into this series, and we were grateful to have been able to consult with Julia as not only an assistant Director of a Montessori school, but also as a mother who's spending lots of time in the kitchen with her little one.

We are excited to share Julia's interview with all of you so you can learn about her background, and get inspiration and helpful tips from her story. Enjoy! 

Thank you for sharing so much knowledge with us for our Classroom in the Kitchen Series. Please tell us about yourself and your role with Montessori?

My name is Julia Mohseni and I have been working between preschools and farms since 2007. I knew that early childhood education was my role and what I wanted to do with my life, and the age that I wanted to work with. At the farms, I was learning about local produce and how to create a local food system, but I burnt out from that -that’s when I got back into the school system. When I had the opportunity to join a Montessori school, I absolutely fell in love with it. In 2016, I did my Montessori training as I was also getting my Director’s License to become one of the directors of the school that I had been with since 2011. I am currently the assistant director at Countryside Montessori in Boulder, Colorado.

What exactly is the Montessori method and how does it differ from other teaching methods?

Montessori is a beautiful and age-old concept of child-driven classrooms. So, really honoring and following the child and giving them a lot of tools to gain independence to function as members of society. They don’t get enough credit as little humans and the functioning people that they are. We often find ourselves doing a lot for children when if we just stepped back with time and grace and patience, they can do a lot for themselves. It’s been so fun working on this Classroom in the Kitchen Series with Meal Hero because it’s such a nice reminder of all the things that children can do for themselves or can help with in the kitchen.

How does Countryside implement food and cooking in its program?

There are two sides to that question, one is before Covid and the other after - like everything, right? Before, it was a lot more hands on. Everything at Montessori is hands-on - you want to get the hands connected to the brain. There are all these nerve endings and muscle memories that are especially important for children to activate while learning. The more you can get children involved in anything and everything, you’re going to have a lot more buy-in. 

Our school usually goes crazy with cooking. For something like zucchini chips, the kids would help harvest zucchinis from the garden. Then they would get turns washing and scrubbing it, and using a mandoline with adult supervision to slide it up and down. We use sharp tools and real cooking utensils because just as a dull blade is unsafe for adults, same for kids. Then, they get to paint the olive oil on the zucchini while another child shakes on the salt and another cracks the pepper. They are part of the whole process.

Most recently, our school enrolled in the Farm to Early Care and Education program, which is an amazing nationwide program that connects children to local farmers, teaching them where food comes from. Every week, our school gets produce from a local farm, and we talk to our kids at length about where this food comes from. We do taste tests of local, seasonal produce versus store bought produce to exposes children to different varieties of foods, and also the difference in taste of peak seasonal produce. We talk a lot about gardening and farmers as heroes.

How important do you think it is for kids to be involved in cooking and meal planning?

It’s so important for children to be involved in cooking, growing, and harvesting food. The whole process includes going to the store, picking things out, unpacking groceries , helping set and clear the table, and enjoying a meal together is life and having them be a part of life. If it’s always done for them, they don’t get to make those connections. At ages 2-6, it’s all about making those life connections and learning how to function in life and society. A lot of this groundwork gets laid at this age, and while not every moment is going to be perfect, if you give kids those opportunities to be in the kitchen with you and make food decisions with you, it creates a normalcy around food, mealtime and spending time together. It’s not teaching that dinner is just to get calories in your body and then you do something else. Cooking, preparing, eating, and cleaning up food is about spending quality time with the ones you love. 

Of course, there are plenty of nights when I don’t have energy to make dinner with my three-year-old. It creates a longer process, but he can still be in the kitchen chatting or grating a carrot, even if that carrot isn’t going to be used in the meal, just so he can feel a part of the process. Kids don’t need to be involved in the whole process, but having them there alongside sets them up for success. 

Being able to talk to your kids so they listen, is a huge part and if you want them to listen to your words, you have to also respectfully listen to their words. Even something as simple as asking, “Honey, what do you want to get at the grocery store?” Maybe they will ask for a chocolate covered unicorn, and you don’t always say well, that’s ridiculous. You smile and nod and say “wow, wouldn’t that be amazing, let me write that down and we’ll look, but if they don’t have it, what else can we get?” You bounce off their ideas and not everything is a hard no because this way, they get to be a part of it and be imaginative. 

It’s so much easier to teach a 3-6 year old how to shop or spend time together in the kitchen than it is to teach a 13 year old. If it’s already ingrained in them as part of who they are and what the family does, you set yourself and your child up for success. 

As a parent yourself, how realistic is it to incorporate these teachings at home with your son? What kinds of cooking and food activities do you do together?

My three year old son, Donovan, loves to make smoothies so much that for his recent birthday, we got him a play smoothie maker. Pretend play is one of the most important things that helps develop neuron pathways, cognitive development, literacy, and problem solving. For real smoothies, he helps me dump the berries in and pour the milk from a measuring cup into the blender, tear up leafy greens, and press the buttons. We talk about safety and he knows that this is a tool and not a toy. He has his toy version for himself. He loves to share the smoothie he made and drink it with everyone at home, because it’s part of the communal process. When we all sit together at the table, on the couch, or even on the kitchen floor, it means that much more to him.

One of the all-time favorite activities at our house is the salad spinner. He’ll stop everything he’s doing for a chance to spin salad. He’s having so much fun while learning the mechanics of  how the tool works - it’s physics right before his eyes. Because there are so many points of interest and he did it himself, he has already been bought into it and eats the greens right out of the spinner.

As the back to school season is underway, do you have any advice for parents whose children are remote learning?

Be patient. This advice is hard to follow, but everything has the opportunity to be a teachable moment if we just slow down and let it. Get in the habit of making plans and schedules with your kids. Let them create their own ideal schedule and compare yours with your child’s. For example, try this with a grocery list, and make sure there is overlap. Sync up your free times and meal times - make those connections. Not every meal can be a long drawn out cooking lesson, but what you can do is sit down and share a meal together. 

Slow down. Trying to rush through things sucks for everyone. If you want to have fun in the kitchen together, keep that word “fun” in mind. Let go of expectations of a timeline, just relax and go along with it. Let things get messy sometimes. Get silly. Have fun. 

Let go. If it’s a disaster, sit together after you’ve eaten and cleaned up and have a discussion about what you can do next time. Let them problem solve instead of solving the problem for them when you can. 

Be realistic and be easy on yourself. Have a back up plan, don’t let it turn into a fight. Let go of controlling everything, don’t micromanage or you’ll lose them. Don’t correct them right in front of them or you’ll squash their enthusiasm. Praise them and they will feel supported and included. 

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