As a pediatrician, I spend plenty of time talking about what to eat. But just as important — possibly even more important — is how to eat.
When I told my kids that I was writing about table manners, they looked at me with one-eyebrow-up skepticism.
“What do table manners have to do with pediatrics?” they wanted to know.
I asked them to guess.
“If you don’t have good manners, you might slip and cut yourself with your knife,” my younger daughter suggested.
“Or,” said my older one, “if you don’t take small bites, you could choke.”
Okay, sure. Choking or injuring oneself with cutlery are medical issues that do concern me as a doctor. But table manners also matter for many less obvious reasons.
To clarify, I’m not talking about Which-salad-fork-should-I-use? kind of manners here. These are the basics: We sit at a table. Our bums are in contact with a chair. Food stays on the table, and feet stay off the table. Food is not a projectile. Nor is it an art medium (usually). General cleanliness is encouraged, and disgusting habits are discouraged. The TV is OFF (really!). And all phones are out-of-reach.
Oh — and no one is permitted to insult food that has been thoughtfully purchased, prepared, and offered to them.
Using manners at the table is all about taming impulsivity. And because willpower and self-restraint are recognized predictors of success in life, they’re worth nurturing. Expecting children to control themselves at the dinner table is the right way to begin teaching these skills.
How Table Manners Affect Health
Busy schedules and the availability of on-the-go foods have reduced the amount of time we spend eating together at the table. But our table habits really do affect our — and our children’s — health. Here’s why:
- Not using proper manners can result in the spread of germs and illness.
- Eating casually from a package, or in a car, decreases our satisfaction with meals and makes us want to eat more.
- Eating from a plate, at a table, allows us to regulate portion size — both for ourselves and for our kids.
- Eliminating electronics during meals makes us eat with more awareness. When we pay attention to our food, we are more likely to enjoy it. This is true: watching television when you eat will make you eat more, but enjoy it less.
- If there are no electronics during a meal, you and your family will talk to each other. It’s true! And these frequent, casual conversations form the roots of important and protective relationships.
- Data suggest that eating meals as a family reduces risk-taking behaviors in teenagers. And who wants a risk-taking teenager?
- When children learn to eat with good manners, they will be less likely to offend, and more likely to impress, when they find themselves in pivotal social situations later on.
So, at what age should we start teaching table manners? The answer might surprise you.
Maybe even four.
We start teaching table manners the moment we sit our kids in a highchair and start feeding them with a spoon.
The Keys to Teaching Table Manners
There are two keys when it comes to teaching table manners to young children: repetition, and modeling.
Young children don’t learn good habits quickly. Set the rules, keep them simple, and then repeat them a zillion times a week (as needed) until they’re mastered. (Be patient. This may take years.)
The second part, modeling, is harder. This means you have to lead by example. Like it or not, your children are learning table manners by watching yours.
Do you want your children to eat slowly and politely, without shoveling in unregulated portions or nibbling straight from the package? You have to show them how at every meal. Do you want them to be mindful and enjoy their meals, without continually being distracted by texts or calls? Do you want them to make family conversations a priority? Then the dinner table needs to be no-phone time for you, too.
Wait… Did I say I expect a six-month-old to use good manners? Ha! Of course not.
This is what I expect of a six-month-old: They sit in a highchair to eat. They interact with food on a table or tray. The food goes into the mouth, and not anywhere else.
Oops. No six-month-old can do that last part.
This is where repetition and modeling come in. You don’t punish babies when they put food in their hair. Instead, you repeatedly demonstrate the food entering the mouth, and you refrain from putting food in your own hair. Eventually, they get it. And, most importantly, you set the stage for the next set of manners by modeling all of them from the beginning (yes, including that part about the TV).
As they grow, you raise your expectations.
Of course, every adult in the house is part of the equation here. I know this is challenging, but… it’s parenting. And it’s worth talking about, because raising well-mannered children is in everyone’s best interest.
Dr. Kerry McGee is a former Kids Plus provider.
Does it feel like teaching your young kids table manners is an impossible feat? Well, for one thing, it's not impossible. And for another thing, it's never too early.
After all, from the lunchroom to the boardroom, kids will inevitably have to eat in front of others throughout their lives. And unfortunately, the task of ensuring the eating-in-public experience is a positive one for all involved falls to us, the parents. "Meals are one of the primary ways humans connect with others," says Elisabeth Stitt of Joyful Parenting Coaching. "When meals are pleasant and people well-mannered, they are nourishing to the soul as well as to the body and strengthen the connection in families."
So roll up your sleeves, keep your elbows off the table and get ready to dive in to our Table Manners 101 crash course for kids.
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Teach napkin skills
Napkins are a crucial component of a polite meal. Teach kids to use napkins to keep their faces and hands as tidy as possible, but also remind them to keep those napkins on their laps — not on the table. Why? Because nobody wants to look at a dirty napkin while they eat, duh. Also, remind kids not to spit food into said napkins, because you never know when those bits might tumble out again later. Ew.
Model how to sit down (& sit up) at the table
Maybe you're dealing with a superslouch or a kid who refuses to sit down to eat or one who repeatedly gets up and down from the table during a meal — in general, turning dinnertime into a distracting event for all. To ward this off, start early by encouraging dinnertime conversation even with the littlest kids. That said, keep your expectations reasonable; toddlers won't typically sit for an hour-long dinner no matter how hard you try. "The most important table manners lesson for any child is learning to sit at the table for a reasonable length of time — at least 20 minutes for children under the age of 3, and for older kids, up to 30 minutes," says Melanie Potock, pediatric speech language pathologist and feeding specialist.
Explain chewing etiquette
Nobody wants to see the inside of your mouth when you're chewing food. Nobody. Explain to kids that chewing with the mouth closed is where it's at. Additionally, according to etiquette coach Jennifer Porter, it's important to instruct kids to chew their food thoroughly (to ward off impolite gulping but also, more important, choking) and to wait to speak until their mouth is empty of food.
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Engage young kids in table-setting
Kids as young as 3 and 4 can learn essential table manners, such as how to set the table properly (with help) and when to use which utensils, according to Stitt. "Teach that utensils are used to cut food into bite-size pieces — and to keep our hands away from the food," she explains. Be prepared with gentle reminders, but also model proper table skills so kids can learn from your example.
Stick to "use your words"
Teach kids that they should practice using their words during mealtime. That includes saying please and thank you and never dashing off without being excused. Also, encourage them to thank whoever prepared the food for their time and energy. You can also model good mealtime conversation skills (even with very young kids) by developing conversation routines, such as asking everyone at the table to talk about three things they experienced today. "By setting a routine, preschoolers know that they will get their turn [to talk], and that helps them learn to be good listeners to others," notes Stitt.
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Table manners are an essential skill set kids need to learn — and starting that learning process young helps. While you certainly shouldn't worry about setting the table perfectly and keeping kids planted on their rears for an hour-long fancy dinner (um, you are a parent, after all), teaching these few key points will keep kids — and their tablemates — well-mannered and well fed.
"When you teach children table manners, you are teaching them more than simply chewing with their mouth closed and keeping their elbows off the table," explains Porter. "You are teaching them to respect the people in their family and community by sharing their best self." Is that the nicest way ever of looking at napkin skills or what?