Even toddlers can start learning how to be good dinner guests. Registered dietitians (and moms!) offer their advice on how to teach them.
When you've got little kids at the table—jumping in and out of their seats, tossing food, and maybe even melting down—it can feel like mission impossible to just get through the meal, much less instill good manners. But teaching kids table manners is important, even at a very young age.
Granted, the first few years are going to simply be a lot of modeling. And reminding. And more reminding. "Teaching manners to kids is like so many other aspects of parenting. It's a marathon, not a sprint," says my friend Katie Morford, author of Rise & Shine and the blog Mom's Kitchen Handbook. Case in point: After years of telling my son to say "please" and "thank you" when ordering food at a restaurant, he does it on his own—absolutely no nagging from me. In other words, patience pays off.
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Though we're not overly fussy at our dinner table (what's a salad fork?), I am trying to teach my two boys to mind their p's and q's at the table. Some of our current dinner table rules:
- Chew with your mouth closed
- No conversation topics that may ruin someone's appetite
- Use your napkin frequently (instead of sitting through the whole meal with spaghetti sauce on your cheeks)
- Ask to be excused before leaving the table
- Clear your plate and utensils
I asked some of my favorite dietitian bloggers how they handle table manners with their kids. Here's their wisdom:
1. Just show up.
"I always expect my toddler to come to the table and stay with us, even if she is not hungry. So 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."
--Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD co-author of 5 Steps to Raising a Happy Eater
2. Everyone does their part.
"We went through a stage where my toddlers would throw food if they didn't like it and now we ask them to make little piles off their plates to combat that habit. We also ask the boys to set their place at the table and clear their own plates after everyone is finished. Giving them a task at mealtime has seemed to help with their enjoyment of being at the table with us. Because we all know toddlers have trouble sitting still!"
--Katie Serbinski, MS, RD, founder of Mom to Mom Nutrition
3. Ask to be excused.
"With a 3- and 5-year-old, keeping the girls in their seats until everyone is finished is one of our biggest challenges. 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."
--Holley Grainger, MS, RD, founder of Holley's Kitchen
4. Keep it positive.
"One expectation I have is that they don't speak negatively about what we're eating. 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."
--Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, culinary nutrition expert and healthy living blogger
5. Use your words.
"When my kids were toddlers, my husband and I focused on teaching them the words 'please' and 'thank you.' Pretty simple to teach, especially as their language was exploding daily. The success tip was to emulate these words ourselves when talking with them, and gently guide and remind my children to use them. As they got older, they learned how to ask for something at the table. We taught them, 'May I please have...' and they all use this phrase to this day when we are out for meals. My husband and I often hear about how polite our children are, which makes us both happy!"
--Jill Castle, MS, RDN, childhood nutrition expert and creator of Nutrition Prep School
Morford also suggests teaching manners in a visual way: "When my kids were little, we would get out a piece of paper and write/draw out the manners that are expected at the dinner table and then post it on a wall in the dining room. I could then turn to that as a gentle reminder. As my kids got older, we built on that initial list, adding new manners as they were old enough to manage them. And lots of praise when they get it right."
What table manners do you teach at home?
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. You can follow her on Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.