Holiday Table Manners for Kids
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
It's never too early, or too late, to teach table manners to children.
The Holidays are approaching. Lots of dinners. Lots of relatives. Lots of kids. Lots of food. Lots of dinners. Oh, sorry I already said that. With lots of dinners where children are involved, this equates to lots of opportunities to teach table manners.
Aside from Holiday dinners and family gatherings in general, there are many reasons to let your kids know that table manners are important, and expected. For starters, most kids tend to have a play date or two in their lives. It's comforting as a parent to know that your child can navigate a table when dining with another family. Hopefully your child is comfortable eating in the presence of others. It's best they know why we chew with our mouths closed, why we talk when our mouths are empty (not full of food), how to dish up a plate and continue to pass dishes around a table (not stop the passing process and begin to eat) and why we sit at the table (in a chair) from the time dinner begins, to the time dinner is over.
Implementing and enforcing table manners is really quite easy. All you have to do is dine with your children. No, I don't mean sitting in front of a television eating pizza or chicken fingers and jo-jos. I mean sitting at a table and eating a meal. Even if you are consuming pizza, you can still show how a napkin is put in a lap (and used to wipe food off one's mouth), enforce chewing with a closed mouth, and explain how a fork and knife are used.
When dining at a table, kids need to learn to sit. The only way they will know that it's expected of them is if parents foster this concept. Again, they can learn this if parents work with their kids at every meal. Sitting at a table (with no distracting television on in the background) and talking to your children, catching up on their day, is not just important as a family, it teaches consideration for others, self control, and yes, table manners.
It's amazing how many homes we have been in with young children where everyone sits down to eat, yet the parents are either chasing their kids with a sandwich, trying to encourage them to eat, or cajoling their children to sit in their chairs. Likewise, it's unnerving how kids (and the adults in the home) sit at their tables (restaurants and homes) with phones and other devices in hands and not interacting with anyone.
Napkin use is also an important and easy to teach opportunity - not just for children, but adults too. If a napkin is left on a table, it's is not going to be used. If it's placed in a lap, however, its intended purpose becomes apparent. A napkin was invented to catch fallen food, and wipe food off of one's mouth BEFORE everyone around them sees all the goo squishing out around the edges. It's to be used instead of a shirt sleeve, or collar, or the back of one's hand. Napkin use is much like other positive habits like chewing with a closed mouth, and being generally polite: habits which need to be instilled and reinforced over and over again.
Proper use of utensils is equally important as a child grows older. I'm surprised how many kids don't know how to use a knife and fork. Just the act of eating pancakes or waffles for breakfast is a great time to explain how to hold a fork and use the knife to cut (not tear) an item that should be sliced to a bite size before being placed in a mouth. I can't tell you the number of times I've witnessed a young adult stabbing a piece of food with a fork, holding it up to their mouth, and tearing chunks off with their teeth. Or picking up a waffle with their hands tearing it apart and dunking it in syrup like it’s a French fry going into ketchup.
Chewing with a closed mouth is not a given these days. There are many kids and young adults who chew their food without their lips closed. It's loud. It's annoying. And it's gross. Gum chewers and food eaters alike all need to keep their mouth closed, encasing whatever item is being chewed, stored tight behind their lips. Parents need to work on this daily until chewing with a closed mouth becomes a habit.
Habits produce results. If you insist a child chew with their mouth closed day after day, it will eventually become second nature. The same is true of sitting at the table when eating. Bring a hungry child to the table. Explain that they can eat ONLY if they eat at the table. Do this every time you eat. Suddenly your child will stop getting up to run through the house with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in their hand.
As kids learn to sit at the table to eat, they will also learn (and really want) to pass serving dishes. This is something many adults seem to miss. When you pick up a serving dish and place a spoonful of food on your plate, you need to pass the serving dish to the next person. Placing a dollop of potatoes, or a square of lasagna on your plate, does not mean you begin to eat that portion of food and stop passing serving dishes around. You need to make sure all people seated at the table have the opportunity to dish up all items. Then, when you believe you have filled your plate, you still need to look around, making sure everyone else has done the same. At that point you can begin to eat.
Much like teaching math, manners require a steady stream of repetition. Positive reinforcement and encouragement are the best sources for teaching. That, and practicing what you preach. Bon appetite!!