Tired of how your children behave at meal times? Learn how to encourage table manners in kids and have a pleasant experience with the family.
We were sitting at a table next to a mom with her two kids. She had been trying unsuccessfully to get them to sit down properly and finish their meal. She eyed my kids sitting quietly and, with an exasperated chuckle, asked, “How do you do it?”
First, a disclosure: my kids aren’t “perfect” at the dining table. The strangest phrases have come out of our mouths to get them to behave, from “Please stop scraping your fork along the table,” to “The bench is not for jumping.” But generally, I’m fortunate that they’ve been relatively easy during meal times and at restaurants.
That said, what are some tips on how to encourage table manners in kids? Is it a matter of teaching etiquette and reminding them about not belching and napkins and passing the salt?
How to encourage table manners in kids
By table manners, we’re not talking about sitting up straight or holding the fork correctly. Instead, we’re talking about being able to eat with your kids—whether at home or at a restaurant—and actually enjoy yourselves.
Take a look at these simple but effective ways to get them to behave at the dinner table:
1. Create a positive eating experience
Kids can display poor table manners because they’re not enjoying themselves. They might feel impatient for the meal to come or ignored by conversations they don’t understand. Consider the following ways you can make meal times more pleasant:
- Engage everyone in conversation. Do you sometimes discuss topics with your partner, sometimes at the cost of ignoring your kids? While they should be exposed to adult conversations, being included in the conversation will help him feel included. You might explain what you’re discussing, or simply ask one another, including the kids, how your day has gone. Check out these family conversation starters to try.
- Ask them to help at the dinner table. They’ll love helping and handling real, adult items like the salt shaker and napkins, as well as setting the table.
- Discuss the food. With conversations and meals going hand in hand, talking about the food keeps kids engaged and present in what they’re doing. Ask your child what her favorite part of the meal is. Discuss the colors in the food, textures, and scents.
- Establish the importance of family dinners. Gathering for dinner has been cited for improved vocabulary, less obesity, and more discipline, to name a few benefits.
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2. Set expectations
You set the tone for what is and isn’t acceptable at the dinner table. And one of the best ways to encourage behavior you want to keep seeing is to acknowledge it.
Praise your child for wiping her mouth with the napkin or for sitting patiently while she wants for her food. This will let her know that she’s doing a good job and can behave well at the dinner table.
Then, let the little things slide. Don’t make a big deal about a dropped utensil or accidentally making a mess. Some behavior might also be acceptable given her age—eating salad with her fingers may be fine for a toddler, but not for a 12-year-old.
But, nip poor behavior in the bud. There’s a difference between accidentally dropping a fork and burping obnoxiously. Don’t let your kids yell across the table or get in a tussle with a sibling, especially at a restaurant when others are trying to enjoy themselves.
3. Teach and model how to express opinions about food
“Yuck!” a child might say in response to a new food your dinner host has just offered her. Before chastising him for his honest opinions, remember that kids say what’s on their mind with little social filters.
Instead of berating him for not liking a food, offer a different way to respond. He could:
- Not say anything at all
- Say “thank you” for the meal
- Not finish the meal
- See if there’s something else he can eat
Remind him that sometimes, he’ll eat food he won’t like, but he should still be polite and appreciate the gesture.
4. Choose kid-friendly restaurants
One of the best ways to ease kids into table manners in public is to start with safe places. Go to a diner with loud music, big booths, and tons of other families. Eat at the restaurant with no waiter service and less waiting.
Show them how to fill their time while waiting. Mention the restaurant’s interesting decor or bring crayons to occupy them (but not so much that they lose sight of what eating together is about).
And describe the process—tell them that the cooks are now preparing the food or that the server is writing up the check. They’ll feel less stifled knowing there’s a point to all the waiting.
And of course, venture out when they’re at their best—well-rested, hungry but not ravenous, and eager to leave the house. Prepare the conditions so that they all point favorably to a fun dining experience, leading to better table manners.
Learning how to encourage table manners in kids is absolutely possible. Create a positive dining experience that includes them in the conversation. Set your expectations, acknowledging good behavior and nipping poor ones right away.
Teach—and model yourself—how to respond to food they may not like. And choose kid-friendly outings, at least for now, to make the dining experience easier on everyone.
Now the next time you eat out, another parent just might ask you, “How do you do it?” as your kids enjoy their meals.
Get more tips:
- How to Raise Kids Who Want to Eat Healthy
- Get Rid of Picky Eating Once and For All
- What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Eat
- Do You Have an Ungrateful Child? Here’s What to Do
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