table manners

How Do I Teach My Toddler Table Manners?

The words “kids” and “table manners” are hardly synonymous. 

Whether you have a toddler who delights in making a mess, a preschooler who spends more time running around than eating, or a school-ager who gobbles and runs back to his video games, there are plenty of ways to get your kids to mind their p’s and q’s at meals. 

Whether you’re eating at home, dining out, or having dinner with friends, good table manners for kids are an essential part of every meal.

When you teach your child good table manners, you give them essential tools for social interaction that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

Laying the groundwork for good etiquette at the dinner table means your children will more likely become pleasant dinner companions for family meals in the years to come. 

And you’ll feel comfortable allowing them to have a meal at a friend or relative’s house, knowing they have good table manners.

Table Manners for Toddlers and Little Kids

Toddlers need constant reminders to behave. But, of course, it’s all a game to little ones, so it’s up to parents to set the mealtime rules right from the start. 

This means telling (or showing) kids what you expect from them and what the consequences will be if they don’t follow the rules. 

If you have kids who are deep in the “terrible twos” phase, you’ll be repeating these rules more often than you’d like.

Flinging food is common, and if you’re tired of picking spaghetti off your walls, circumvent the problem.

If your child throws food on the floor, put one piece of chicken, for example, on her highchair tray. Then, when she eats it, give her another. 

At the very worst, you’ll be picking up one bit of chicken rather than an entire plate. You can also try ignoring the bad behaviour. 

Kids do what works, and if dropping food gets attention, they’ll keep doing it. If eating and talking politely gets attention…well…you get the idea.

When it comes to instilling table manners, it’s never too early to start teaching kids the basics. Every meal can serve as an opportunity for them to learn how to exercise proper etiquette. From using their utensils properly to waiting until everyone has been done, little kids can learn to be respectful and practise table manners.

Just remember to keep your instruction casual and avoid getting too stressed. 

Learning what is expected at the dinner table is a long process and not something that kids will master right away. 

So, be patient but consistent in your instruction and eventually, your kids will get the hang of things. 

Here are some things you can begin to teach kids who are five and younger.

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young mother is setting the table for her family for lunch.

Come to the Table With Your Hands and Face Clean. 

Teach children to wash up before dinner. 

Not only does this show respect for the person who prepared the meal and others at the dinner table, but it is also an essential healthy hygiene habit.

Wait until everyone is served before eating. Teach your child that they should not begin eating until everyone is seated and served. 

Starting to eat before everyone has been seated is disrespectful. Dinner is meant to be enjoyed together.

Chew With Your Mouth Closed. 

Chewing with your mouth closed and not talking when your mouth is full are two cardinal rules of good table manners. 

Gently remind your child that they should chew with their mouth closed. Avoid stuffing your mouth. Teach your child to take small bites and never wolf down their food. 

One way they can practice this habit is to put their fork down between bites. They can even put their hands in their lap while they chew.

Remember Your Manners. 

Remind kids to say please and thank you. In other words, if they ask for seconds or for someone to pass something, they should follow the request with “please.” 

They also should say thank you to the person who prepared the meal and thank those who serve them or pass them things.

Use Utensils and Napkins. 

Kids should be discouraged from eating with their fingers, especially if they have moved beyond finger foods. 

Show them how to hold their fork correctly and teach them to place a napkin in their lap. They also should avoid wiping their hands on their clothes or wiping their mouth with their sleeves.

Refrain from Criticising the Food. 

In preschool, teachers often tell kids: “don’t yuck another person’s yum.” That said, kids should not be forced to eat something they don’t want. It’s OK if they say “no, thank you.” But, while you can ask that they try new foods, please don’t force them to clean their plates.

Other Dining Faux Pas

Here are the other dining dos you should begin teaching your child:

  • Your napkin should be placed on the lap when you sit down. It is unfolded on your lap, not above the table. If someone inadvertently took your napkin, don’t shout, “Who took my napkin?” Quietly ask for another. Many parents ask if it is OK to tuck their child’s napkin into the collar to prevent spillage onto clothes. You may do so if your child is five or younger.
  • Feet should be flat on the floor (if they reach) and have your back against the chair—good posture!
  • Hold the glass with two hands if necessary. If the glasses are more formal, small hands can hold the stem to prevent tipping or dropping.
  • If a bread basket or other food item is passed to you, remember to continue passing to the right. If the dish is closest to you before passing, offer it to the person to your left and then pass to the right.
  • If you must sneeze or cough, turn your head toward your shoulder and cover your mouth with your napkin or hand (preferably your napkin).
  • Always wipe your mouth with your napkin before taking a sip. Smooth lips leave an unpleasant and unappetising ring on the glass.
  • If you must use the bathroom, say, “excuse me”, and get up. If there are guests at the table, you need not let everyone know where you are going.
  • Get in and out of your chair on the right side.

What’s the Best Way to Teach Good Manners?

Start Early

Your child is never too young to begin teaching the basics. The dining table will be the setting for many important happenings in your child’s life.

It may, one day, be the setting for meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, a lunch with a potential employer or a dinner with upper management at the office holiday party. 

No matter what the occasion, knowing how to navigate his way through a meal will tremendously benefit your child.

Most children will master these dining skills by age 5, but you should start teaching them around 2. 

Of course, there will be some exceptions to this, but as your toddler grows and matures, the more difficult dining skills can be taught and mastered.

Model Good Manners. 

Your toddler wants to please you and be like you, so the best way to get him to behave at the table is to show him how it’s done – keep conversations positive and avoid criticism, for example. 

Your goal is to demonstrate appropriate behaviour, but expect that it will take consistent repetition over several years for a toddler’s brain to develop the connections to help him understand and be able to apply the manners you’re striving for.

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Acknowledge Mistakes. 

You can also let your child know that even adults have trouble behaving well all the time and that the goal is to try your best. 

If you find yourself slipping up, turn it into a teachable moment about how to be gracious by making and accepting apologies.

Be good company at meals. Focus on enjoying mealtime together. Don’t use your phone, watch TV, or jump up to tend to other things.

Make Manners a Habit. 

Be consistent when you introduce a behaviour: Set and repeat clear expectations and use gentle reminders to reinforce them. 

For example, expect to patiently and frequently prompt your child to use “please” and “thank you.” 

Consider drawing simple pictures or using photos to chart a small number of mealtime expectations, such as peas on the plate (not on the floor).

Host Sitting Practice. 

Don’t expect your toddler to sit still for longer than a few minutes – up to 10 minutes max. 

Here’s a strategy to help her practice waiting and sitting still at the table: Set a large timer where she can see the time counting down. 

Start with small increments of time and gradually increase the amount of time you ask your child to stay at the table. 

Also, give her something to do while she waits to be excused, such as quietly singing a song, drawing a picture, or counting all of the forks at the table.

Note Good Behavior. 

Comment when you see your child trying to behave well at the table. For example, you could say, “I know it’s hard to sit still while we eat, and I see that you’re trying.”

Don’t Overdo Praise. 

Healthy Praise is specific and focused on your child’s effort. For example, help your child understand that the motivation behind good manners is to make meals pleasant. 

For example, “I notice how hard you are working at listening – it’s important to take turns talking.”

Practice Gratitude. 

Some families say a prayer with meals. Even if you’re not religious, meals are an opportunity to practice and model gratitude. 

By expressing thankfulness for the food, the person who prepared it, and the opportunity to share it, you teach your child to be grateful and understand that the family meal is a special occasion.

What Should I Do When My Toddler Misbehaves at the Table?

cute boy eating pancake in restaurant

Ignore Misbehavior. 

Toddlers aren’t actually “misbehaving.” Instead, their young brains are still connecting in ways that will help them learn and follow the rules. 

For example, you can gently restate the behaviour you want to see by saying, “Food stays on the plate.” 

Also, consider if your child is done with the meal and should be excused or let out of the highchair. 

Reactions, even negative ones, tend to reinforce a behaviour. If you have older children, talk to them about the importance of not reacting to their younger sibling’s mealtime antics. 

You can even make it a game to see who stays the calmest.

Offer a Reminder. 

Sometimes a gentle reminder, like placing the spoon in your toddler’s hand when she grabs a fistful of food, is all that’s needed.

Think Positive. 

Be consistent with the language you use, and be sure to phrase it to emphasise what you want to happen instead of what you don’t want to happen. 

(Try saying, “Food stays on our plates,” rather than “We don’t throw food.”) 

If food continues to fly, dole out smaller portions or designate a spot on your child’s plate or tray to discard food he doesn’t want.

Identify Underlying Issues. 

Misbehaviour or poor manners might be your toddler’s way of communicating with you. 

Toddlers have minimal language skills to tell you everything they are thinking and feeling appropriately. 

Try to get at the root cause of what your child is trying to tell you. For example, perhaps she’s full and done with the meal, or she may be trying to get your attention for one-on-one time with you. 

In these cases, it may be time to excuse her from the table or at least give her a break before returning to finish eating.

What Are Some Good Mealtime Rules for Toddlers?

Different families are comfortable with various rules. 

Ask yourself what’s most important to you – though just getting your toddler not to fling green beans on the floor might be an accomplishment at this point

To get started, consider teaching your toddler some basic rules such as:

  • Say “please” and “thank you.” You can model this behaviour before your child starts to talk.
  • Utensils are for eating, not banging or throwing. If your toddler likes to hit and throw things at the table, do some active play together before sitting down for a meal.
  • Don’t drop, throw, or grab food from other people’s plates.
  • Use your “inside voice.” No screaming. Toddlers increase the volume and intensity when they feel that they are not being heard. Address the feelings underneath the behaviour you’re seeing, saying, for example, “I see and hear that you’re feeling frustrated.”
  • No running around. (See above tips for helping your toddler practise sitting still.)

There are a couple of rules you might not want to enforce at mealtimes, though:

Forget the old “clean your plate” rule. Instead, allow your child to stop eating when his body feels full, not when everything in front of him is gone. 

Instead, offer tiny portions, refill when requested, and respect his decision to stop eating – just like you expect others to respect your decision to stop eating when you’ve had enough. 

It’s your job to offer a variety of healthy food options at regular meal and snack times. It’s your child’s job to decide what and how many of those food options to eat.

Reconsider the expectation that toddlers (naturally more active than adults) should stay seated at the table until everybody is finished eating. 

A better idea might be to excuse him when he’s done and have him play quietly nearby where you can keep an eye on him.

Can I Expect My Toddler to Learn Good Table Manners?

Yes and no, it all depends on having age-appropriate expectations. 

For example, you can help your child work on a few simple manners, such as not throwing food and sitting during a meal. 

However, keep in mind that a toddler can reasonably sit at the table for only about 10 minutes – on a good day.

Table manners are habits that are built over a lifetime. 

Toddlers and young children don’t have the impulse control, patience, or ability to control their behaviour that older children and adults have. 

It’s not until age 4 or 5 that young children can more consistently control their behaviour.

How Do I Teach My Toddler That Manners Are Important?

By creating a meal as a particular time for your family to gather and enjoy food together, over the years, your child will learn to respect this time – and the rules that go with it – mainly when meals are consistently pleasant and peaceful. 

Just as with anything you are trying to teach, consistency is essential.

How Can I Get My Toddler to Behave in Restaurants?

Teaching good manners at home is half the battle. For example, before you eat out, remind your toddler of your family’s basic rules for meals. 

Make sure she knows that the same rules apply in restaurants.

Conclusion

Above all: Keep expectations realistic. Restaurants include a lot of noise, smells, and a busy atmosphere that can quickly overwhelm children. 

Most toddlers can sit at the table for a max of about 10 minutes, so be prepared to have a quick meal and plan to have an adult get up with your child several times during dinner to walk around or take a break outside. 

Bring small toys, books, and colouring books to help keep your toddler occupied at the table while waiting for food and for adults to finish their meal.

Teaching good table manners is an integral part of family mealtime that will help your child have confidence in social situations and when dining out. 

Just make sure you take a low-pressure approach to instruct your kids. For example, you don’t want mealtime to be fraught with stress and anxiety.

Instead, remind your kids those good table manners, like good manners in general, are about being respectful and showing gratitude for a meal. 

They are also not just reserved for social situations or public places; they are also crucial. 

So, be sure you’re working with your kids to fine-tune their dinner etiquette daily. With practice and consistency, the skills you’re hoping to instil will soon become second nature.

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