Some of the traits you love about your kindergartner or first-grader — her boundless energy, honesty, and hands-on approach — may be the very things that drive you absolutely crazy at mealtime. If you're at the end of your rope with how she behaves at the table, consider yourself in good company and take comfort in this: "You can teach any 5- or 6-year-old basic table manners in a few weeks, but it takes repetition and practice," says Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D., great-granddaughter of manners guru Emily Post and co-author of Emily Post's Table Manners for Kids.
"You should introduce no more than two or three concepts at a time," Senning explains. "Otherwise, it's too much information for a young child to process." Explain that mealtime manners display kindness and respect for other people at the table. Correct mistakes gently, and praise him when he does something right. Above all, practice what you preach. With constant reinforcement, good eating habits should become automatic.
But in case they don't, Post and other manners experts suggest simple steps that will end suppertime shenanigans once and for all.
Some of the beginner dinner-table rules you may want to instill in your kids include:
"I always expect my toddler to come to the table and stay with us, even if she is not hungry, " says Natalia Stasenko, M.S., R.D., co-author of 5 Steps to Raising a Happy Eater. "The basic manners that are required from her are coming to the table, sitting in her chair for a few minutes, and spending some time with us. Even if she decides to skip the meal, like toddlers often do, she is learning to be a pleasant mealtime companion and being polite enough to consider the meal options."
You taught your child these words when she was 2 or 3, but maybe she uses them inconsistently or only with reminders from you. If your kid tells you "Oh, yeah" when you ask if she'd like a drink or she snatches a roll out of your hand without thanking you, help her understand why it's important to be gracious.
Your child is trying to do things on her own, so don't scold her. Instead, say something like, "I'd be glad to pass the peas to you, honey. Just remember to ask next time."
Senning suggests explaining to your child that "please" changes a demand into a request and sounds nicer while "thank you" shows someone that you care about (or appreciate, if your child understands the word) what he's done.
To get these words to become automatic for your child, emphasize and enforce them at every meal. Start the day with "Please come to the table for breakfast." When your child says he wants milk, don't pour it until he says "please" and wait until he says "thank you" to hand him the glass.
By the time kids are 5 or 6, they should be able to sit at the table and remain relatively wiggle-free for at least 20 minutes, says Lynn Rosen, author of Elements of the Table: A Simple Guide for Hosts and Guests. Start by finding a comfy (yet appropriate) position for your child. Chances are you no longer use a booster seat at the table for her, but your chairs are designed for adults. A cushion might help, and you may find that using a stool from the bathroom as a leg rest also works wonders to keep her facing forward.
At restaurants — when you know the meal is going to last at least an hour or so — take a planned trip to the bathroom right after ordering in order to let your kid stretch, suggests Rosen. Also talk to your child in advance about what to do if something goes wrong, like a crayon falls or she spills.
"My husband and I taught our kids, 'May I please have...' and they all use this phrase to this day when we are out for meals," says Jill Castle, M.S., RDN, childhood nutrition expert and creator of Nutrition Prep School. "We often hear about how polite our children are, which makes us both happy!"
Teach your child how to use a spoon by age 2 and a fork by age 3. Start with small plastic utensils that are easy to handle, and provide lots of encouragement: "This is how big boys do it."
Five- and 6-year-olds eat so many finger foods that they can legitimately be confused about what parts of their meal require utensils. "Let your child know that if he's unsure, it's best to ask you," says Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. And be consistent about what you require: If, for instance, you don't put a fork in your child's lunch box to eat his mandarin oranges, he'll think it's fine to use his fingers to do it at Grandma's house.
Another way to get your kid more comfortable with utensils: Put him in charge of setting the table. You can say something like, "Now that you're getting older, I think you're ready for a grown-up job of getting the table ready for dinner. We'll do it together the first few days, and then you can do it by yourself." Talk to your child about what to expect at restaurants as well. "Let your kid know that it's okay to wipe his mouth with the fancy cloth napkin in a restaurant," adds Rosen. "Many kids this age think you'll be upset with them if they get the napkin dirty."
All the "pleases" and "thank-yous" in the world will seem insignificant if your kid responds, "Eww, that looks gross," when your best friend asks her if she'd like an egg-salad sandwich. Teach your child that if she doesn't want to eat food offered at someone else's house, she simply has to respond, "No, thank you." You may be inclined to push — "Honey, why don't you give it a try?" — but then you're inviting a bigger manners no-no: What if she hates it and spits it out?
"One expectation I have is that my children don't speak negatively about what we're eating," says Jessica Levinson, M.S., RDN, CDN, culinary nutrition expert and healthy living blogger. "For example, words like 'gross,' 'yucky,' and 'disgusting' are not permitted. I like to remind them it's not nice to 'yuck someone else's yum.' If they don't like something, they simply can say 'no thank you' or put it to the side of their plate."
"It's important for your child to taste new foods and work on picky-eating habits, but save it for your house," says Rosen. Using this approach, it seems like it would be easy for a kid to "no thank-you" her way to never eating a green vegetable. But Rosen suggests that, at home, you follow your established rules for trying food; just make sure your kid understands the boundaries.
"With a 3- and 5-year-old, keeping the girls in their seats until everyone is finished is one of our biggest challenges," says Holley Grainger, M.S., R.D., founder of Holley's Kitchen. "I try to have the meal on the table as soon as we sit down. We also try to keep the girls engaged and in conversation knowing that we may only get around 10 minutes of their attention. We encourage them to stay seated until everyone has finished their meal and then ask to be excused when they want to get up."
For starters, limit meet-ups to two hours, and try not to divert from your daily routine too much (for example, be sure to time gatherings so they don't cut into naptime). Be prepared to pack up your diaper bag early when your child seems cranky or tired. "If your toddler isn't having fun after 30 minutes, maybe it's not the best activity for her that day, and that's okay. You can try again next time," says therapist and parent coach Tammy Gold, owner of Gold Parent Coaching, in Short Hills, New Jersey.
Two to four toddlers (with an adult for each) is ideal for a playdate—any more can make things overwhelming for kids. No matter who's been invited, don't feel bad if your little one doesn't really engage very much with her playmates, says Cheryl Rode, Ph.D., clinical director of the San Diego Center for Children. It's perfectly normal if she mostly plays next to them. "Parallel play is typical during the toddler years, when children don't yet have the skills to truly interact with each other," assures Dr. Rode. Over time, kids will begin to imitate each other's actions. For instance, if your daughter's playmate starts running around the room, she might join him—and then start jumping up and down, which he'll begin to copy too. This is a sign of children's growing social awareness, and an early step toward developing friendships.