Does it feel like teaching your young kids table manners is an impossible feat? Well, for one thing, it's not impossible. And for another thing, it's never too early.
After all, from the lunchroom to the boardroom, kids will inevitably have to eat in front of others throughout their lives. And unfortunately, the task of ensuring the eating-in-public experience is a positive one for all involved falls to us, the parents. "Meals are one of the primary ways humans connect with others," says Elisabeth Stitt of Joyful Parenting Coaching. "When meals are pleasant and people well-mannered, they are nourishing to the soul as well as to the body and strengthen the connection in families."
So roll up your sleeves, keep your elbows off the table and get ready to dive in to our Table Manners 101 crash course for kids.
Napkins are a crucial component of a polite meal. Teach kids to use napkins to keep their faces and hands as tidy as possible, but also remind them to keep those napkins on their laps — not on the table. Why? Because nobody wants to look at a dirty napkin while they eat, duh. Also, remind kids not to spit food into said napkins, because you never know when those bits might tumble out again later. Ew.
Maybe you're dealing with a superslouch or a kid who refuses to sit down to eat or one who repeatedly gets up and down from the table during a meal — in general, turning dinnertime into a distracting event for all. To ward this off, start early by encouraging dinnertime conversation even with the littlest kids. That said, keep your expectations reasonable; toddlers won't typically sit for an hour-long dinner no matter how hard you try. "The most important table manners lesson for any child is learning to sit at the table for a reasonable length of time — at least 20 minutes for children under the age of 3, and for older kids, up to 30 minutes," says Melanie Potock, pediatric speech language pathologist and feeding specialist.
Nobody wants to see the inside of your mouth when you're chewing food. Nobody. Explain to kids that chewing with the mouth closed is where it's at. Additionally, according to etiquette coach Jennifer Porter, it's important to instruct kids to chew their food thoroughly (to ward off impolite gulping but also, more important, choking) and to wait to speak until their mouth is empty of food.
Kids as young as 3 and 4 can learn essential table manners, such as how to set the table properly (with help) and when to use which utensils, according to Stitt. "Teach that utensils are used to cut food into bite-size pieces — and to keep our hands away from the food," she explains. Be prepared with gentle reminders, but also model proper table skills so kids can learn from your example.
Teach kids that they should practice using their words during mealtime. That includes saying please and thank you and never dashing off without being excused. Also, encourage them to thank whoever prepared the food for their time and energy. You can also model good mealtime conversation skills (even with very young kids) by developing conversation routines, such as asking everyone at the table to talk about three things they experienced today. "By setting a routine, preschoolers know that they will get their turn [to talk], and that helps them learn to be good listeners to others," notes Stitt.
Table manners are an essential skill set kids need to learn — and starting that learning process young helps. While you certainly shouldn't worry about setting the table perfectly and keeping kids planted on their rears for an hour-long fancy dinner (um, you are a parent, after all), teaching these few key points will keep kids — and their tablemates — well-mannered and well fed.
"When you teach children table manners, you are teaching them more than simply chewing with their mouth closed and keeping their elbows off the table," explains Porter. "You are teaching them to respect the people in their family and community by sharing their best self." Is that the nicest way ever of looking at napkin skills or what?
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