It’s expected that if you have a baby that’s just starting on solids, he or she is going to be a bit of a messy eater. They’ll fidget and play with their food, and they’ll make a huge mess while doing it too. But once they start getting the hang of this eating thing, it’s time to teach them how to properly eat at the table, lest people think you have a household full of heathens.
All jokes aside, teaching your kids good table manners as early on as possible isn’t just soothing for your soul. It’s something that will serve them well into adulthood.
You don’t want Junior showing up for an important client dinner meeting and blowing it because he can’t chew with his mouth closed or puts his feet up on the table, or both.
Thankfully, when it comes to good table manners, we can always count on the general rules of etiquette to set us straight. Here’s a rundown of the table manners we should teach our children.
Good Table Manners for Kids
Show up clean
Before you let your kids clamber onto their chairs for a meal, make sure you teach them the habit of washing up before they sit down. A quick wipe-down of little faces and a good hand-washing should do the trick.
Napkins on the lap
I remember my dad teaching me this when I was a little girl. Once you sit down, your napkin goes on your lap.
Pro tip: I know how messy toddlers can be so if you feel one napkin isn’t going to cut it, keep a napkin dispenser on the table for those “uh oh” moments.
Don’t eat until everyone else starts
When your kids sit at the table, teach them to pause a minute and wait until everyone is seated and ready before tucking in. You may also tell them to go ahead and eat if, for example, Daddy is taking too long to get to the table, however, your kids should learn to wait until it’s appropriate to start eating.
This is one I still struggle with when it comes to my girls. One will get up from the table for juice and then the other will follow. I’m glad they can get their own juice but the constant up-and-down makes it take forever for them to eat. I try to offer incentives to get them to stay put and usually say, “Who can sit the prettiest? Who can sit the quietest?” Posed as a contest, they plop back down again.
No appendages on the table
Feet are never appropriate on the dining table! Yuck! But most people are surprised to learn elbows should be off the table too. It’s a tough one, I admit. I remember my dad whacking my elbows when I’d put them on the table. As a result, I am very vigilant of keeping them off the table, even today.
No talking with your mouth full
I should mention my dad is a doctor. He would get us to chew with our mouths closed because he’d tell us of all the people who choked to death from talking with their mouth full. That was enough to scare my brother and me.
My Asian husband isn’t used to these manners though my children are.
My bigger one sometimes talks with her mouth full, but my little one has somehow excelled at chewing with her mouth closed and not speaking until she’s finished swallowing.
Be polite about the food
I always tell my kids to try something before complaining about it. My bigger one is very adventurous with food. She’ll often try things, discovering she likes them. That’s why she’s now completely into sushi and caviar. My little one is afraid to try things sometimes. They can both be pretty random about what they will and won’t eat.
If they try something and don’t like it, I thank them for giving it a taste. But one thing I won’t tolerate at my table is whining about the food. “I don’t like this!” or “I want something good for dinner!” are not allowed at my table. I’ve sent both my girls to their rooms for that behavior. They’ll always come down with a tearful apology, which I always accept.
Ask nicely instead of reaching
This is something my girls are actually quite good with. Teach your kids the beauty of the word “please” and then, teach them how to use it in a table setting, such as, “Please pass the mashed potatoes.” It’s one thing for them to serve themselves if the mashed potatoes are right in front of them. It’s quite another when they’re on the other side of the table and your kid knocks down all the glasses on the table to get to it.
Make polite conversation with everyone
While talking with your mouth closed is definitely a no-no, having a nice conversation between bites is encouraged.
Proper topics: school, after-school activities, friends, things they learned.
Forbidden topics: bathroom happenings and other disgusting things.
Just because I have girls doesn’t mean they always talk about rainbows and sunshine. Again, they’re asked to leave if they don’t heed my warning of keeping the proper conversation at the table.
No burping or slurping
Here’s one my girls excel at but my husband needs to work on. My girls know that should a burp escape them at the table (or anywhere) that they must say, “Excuse me!” They also eat rather quietly.
In my husband’s culture, slurping is a sign of appreciation for the food. He really does make an effort when we’re out (thank goodness!) but at home, we often stare at him for his noisy eating.
Don’t leave without being excused
This ties into the whole sitting nice at the table thing. Once, my eldest got up and started dancing around the living room. I presumed she was finished. After all, we’d sat down to dinner an hour before. I cleared the table and she screamed and cried that she wasn’t done yet. This is why it only takes one reminder for her now to put her butt back in her seat. My little one always asks if she can be excused though.
Thank the chef
Mostly it’s me doing the cooking, but sometimes my husband will whip up favorites from his home country. We’ve worked hard to make sure the kids know to say thanks to whoever did the cooking. I set a good example by thanking my husband when he’s the chef du jour.
Help clear the table
Obviously, if you have really little ones, you do NOT want them carrying glass items into the kitchen. But if your child can handle the plastic and non-breakable items, ask them to bring those things to you in the kitchen. Reward with praise!
Now, these are general rules of table etiquette you should teach your toddler. Even when your kids are young, you can start teaching them these good table manners. A great way to do that is by modeling them yourself. Kids want to be like us so use that to your advantage!
Incidentally, the same rules can and should be applied if you eat at someone else’s house. That includes Grandma and Grandpa’s house!
What About Restaurants?
Ah, I’m so glad you asked! It can be a nightmare the first few times you go out to eat with your kids. Here are some things that helped me when both my girls were really small:
- Always choose a kid-friendly place! Seriously, they’re used to little kids and they usually have crayons and such to keep them occupied.
- Bring entertainment! Sometimes though, they run out of crayons or coloring pages. Keep a stash in your bag. You’ll be glad you did!
- Bring a snack! Snacks can help if you go to a restaurant that doesn’t have free bread or chips.
- Read the menu before you go! Everything is online now so check it out before getting there. This way if the kids get feisty, you’ll have an idea of what’s on the menu so you can order.
- Take them away when they carry on! Every child needs to learn there is a time and place for everything. Screaming and crying in a restaurant shouldn’t be tolerated. Take your child to the bathroom, get down on their level, and talk to them. If they won’t calm down, ask to have your meal prepared to go.
- Don’t make idle threats! My parents always taught my brother and me that we’d leave if we didn’t behave in a restaurant. I will never forget my mom taking me out of a restaurant for misbehaving. I never ever did it again either. Don’t tell your kids you’re leaving unless you really mean it or they will never believe a thing you say.
- Offer dessert as a reward for behaving! Going out to eat should be a treat for everyone. Let your kids know that if they stay in their seats and act properly, they can order dessert.
Using the above tips, we taught our girls to sit in restaurants and behave. Sometimes, I think they’re better behaved when we’re out than at home. I guess that’s a good thing.
They’re also exceptional when guests come for dinner. They even eat more of the food I serve. I should invite guests for dinner every night!
This one is quite funny.
Additional Rules for Bigger Kids
Got some older children? In addition to the other good table manner rules, you should teach them to keep their phones and devices from the table. It’s a good rule of thumb if you do the same. Unless you’re a doctor on call, there’s no reason for your own phone to be present at the table.
Bigger kids should also be expected to help with the dishes. Make it part of their daily chores. If you have more than one big kid, let them rotate. Make it fair by rotating in yourself so they feel like their efforts are appreciated.
Other Bad Table Manners You Might Not Even Know
Good table manners start with us, the adults. But there are some you might not be aware of either. Like using the wrong utensil to eat something.
It’s good to brush up on those fancier bits of etiquette as your toddler get bigger and the chances of dining somewhere upscale increase.
Here are some other often-overlooked bad table manners:
Don’t wave utensils!
For one, you could poke out an eye. For another, it’s very rude. Placing them on the plate while you chew is the appropriate move.
Don’t pick your teeth!
If something has gotten lodged in your teeth at the table, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or use a toothpick away from the table where it can’t be seen.
No grooming at the table!
Tween girls, listen up! No primping or preening at the table. Excuse yourself to the restroom instead.
Don’t blow on your food!
This one probably surprises you, doesn’t it? We all do it, but it’s actually quite rude. If the food is too hot, enjoy the conversation until it’s a comfortable temperature.
Remember, good table manners can be taught to your kids at any age.
By modeling appropriate behavior, you’ll set the standard. If your kids still don’t catch on, politely discuss the rules with them. It might help to set up a tea party setting with your kids and their dolls or stuffed animals to show them in a fun way how to behave at the table.
Don’t settle for bad behavior at the table when you’re out. It’s one thing if you have a crying infant. It’s quite another when preschool and school-aged kids run amok around the restaurant!
Leslie Berry lives with her husband and two young daughters in Los Altos, California, where she loves helping other moms get comfortable with motherhood and embracing the insanity with facts peppered with laughs.
She loves eating too much sushi, exercising, and jamming out on her Fender. Read more about Leslie here.