Nearly every time we have friends visit for the first time, I get questions about our "dishes station" near our kitchen table. It's been refined a number of times over the years - when we first started Montessori at home from when our oldest was two, to now with four children ages 6 months to seven.
I love Montessori, and I love *strict* Montessori - I like to do things full throttle, and that is how we started with Montessori in our home. We got rid of 80% of our toys, sold furniture and big things so we could buy Montessori home, practical life, and sensorial materials; basically we revamped our whole household to create a prepared environment. In the kitchen, that meant a "water station" and "snack station" so that our children could get their own water, and a "dishes station" so they could independently prepare for meals. We had glass cups, ceramic plates, cube chairs and a little table. While I loved aspects of this "full on Montessori," when we moved and didn't have room for a little table, I realized I loved having the children at the table with us for all meals, especially family dinners. The glass cups and ceramic plates were quickly replaced in an impulsive postpartum Amazon purchase - with a four year old, a two year old, and a newborn, the anxiety it was causing me to need to stop everything and calmly help a child clean up a shattered glass cup that had fallen on the tile was too much! So I released some of the Perfect Montessori Home Rules I had in my head, and I have loved our current system for the last three years! We've been able to stick to the real materials standard of Montessori and avoid plastic, but also find unbreakable dishes that keep me sane.
Our table setting materials:
Plates: (find the exact ones here, and similar ones here) I love our stainless steel camping plates, but they seem to go in and out of stock on Amazon! I love that they have separators and are the perfect size. They are lightweight, durable, and reasonably priced.
Bowls: (find them here) The Cub Bowls by Caveman Cups are awesome quality and the perfect size!
Utensils: (find the exact ones here, and similar ones here) We've had more commercial stainless steel utensils, but with three different colored handles, issues over getting pink spoons and pink forks occurred much too often! This set is fantastic - perfect size and heavy duty!
Cups: (find similar ones here) We have 16 oz cups only because stainless steel children's dishes weren't "a thing" when I bought mine - I would totally buy the eight ounce or four ounce Caveman Cups if we needed them. The standard size ones are fine, but the smaller cups are better for little hands and easier for them to fill up on their own.
Placemats: these are fabric ones from Target from years ago, but in Montessori, the children as young as 15-18 months learn to take care of their environment by rolling mats, cloths, and placemats. Much easier to roll than to fold, and it's a task even very small children love to do! When looking for placemats, pick fabric that is roll-able, washable, and that you don't mind looking at all day (as in, don't get "kid" fabrics, get what you like!).
Bussing station: this probably has a real name, but we call it the "bussing station." I have eighteen billion of these containers from when I was a teacher (they held my leveled readers in my classroom). Ours is from Sterilite and you can get them just about anywhere. Size-wise, it is small enough that the older two can wash it out in the kitchen sink, but also fits a full day of children's dishes.
For breakfast and lunch, each child sets their own place. They grab their placemat, unroll it at their seat, and come back for plates and utensils. Then they fill their water at the water station, and are ready to say grace and serve themselves! For dinner, either one child sets the whole table, or they each do different jobs. When they are finished they ask if they can be excused, and they clear their place. They put all of their dishes in the bussing station, and then roll their placemats up and put them back. Pretty simple - and if you aren't sure if your children could get into the habit, just remember it only takes two to three weeks of doing something consistently for it to become a routine.
After dinner, our five or seven year old does the dishes at the kitchen sink, rinsing dishes and loading the dishwasher. They at least do the full bin of children's dishes, but usually finish all of the dirty dishes. We consistently load the children's dishes on the far left of the two dishwasher drawers so they can easily unload their own dishes in the morning and prepare their dishes station for the day.
• Use the space you have! We have this strange little corner of the kitchen that is the back of the fireplace, and this cart from Hobby Lobby fits well. Ideally each of the table setting items would be flush on a shelf, but this is the space we have, so we make it work. Many people use a lower set of kitchen cabinets or put a small bookcase near the kitchen table.
• Let go of perfect - if you want to create the independence, responsibility, and routine, but you can't afford to toss all of the current children's dishes, let go of the stainless steel or glass and ceramic for now! Find space to set up their dishes - that part is free.
• If you *can* afford it, make the investment into high quality, durable dishes. You will have these for years and years and use them three times a day - it is well worth it!
• Stick with it. For two or three weeks it may feel like you are doing more work, reminding, setting up, helping them learn to rinse and load dishes. It will soon be *much less* work for you, as the mama, I promise! Your children will independently set their place, clear their place, and wash their dishes!
• Get enough dishes for each child for three meals. We have three children eating, so we have ten sets of utensils, 12 plates, and eight cups and bowls. It works really well for our routine to not have to do extra sets of dishes during the day just to make sure we have clean dishes for the next meal.
Happy table setting!