Good table manners go beyond proper eating and feeling proud of your kid’s etiquette at family holidays — they will also last a lifetime. From high chair to school lunch room to business lunches, your children will have to eat with others throughout their lives, and hopefully they will leave a positive impression on them.
Developing table manners is one of the earliest steps parents can take in teaching and modeling good behavior to their children.
"Table manners set a bond between the parents and child that goes way beyond nutrition," says Jodie Shield, MEd, RD, author of Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight for Kids and Teens. "It is a means for passing on your traditions and values."
Eating together as a family also sets the stage for good health. "The research clearly shows that families that eat together five times weekly are healthier and at less risk for being overweight or obese," says Shield.
It is never too early to start this process.
"Teaching table manners can start when the child is eating independently out of the high chair or old enough to sit at the table," says Melinda Johnson, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Table manners taught in the early phases include teaching kids to not reach across the table, eat from their own plate, putting a napkin in their lap and saying please and thank you."
Parents are the most important role models for children and can provide ongoing positive reinforcement of good table manners at family dinners. "You are the most important visual. Even when toddlers are making a mess, they should still be eating with you," says Shield.
Having family meals is the best way to model and teach good manners, especially when introducing kids to new foods. "They can be taught to politely say when they don’t like something," says Johnson. "Also, young kids often can’t sit the whole meal but can learn to say excuse me and leave, rather than interrupt the meal."
In addition, "Never correct manners in an insulting way and explain to kids why you practice manners, such as why we chew with our mouth closed and put our napkin on our lap," says Shield.
Everyone at the table should get a chance to be part of a positive conversation. "Keep it lighthearted and fun and talk about positive things at the table — just don't make it too relaxed as parents are also teaching good habits," says Johnson.
Kids, even as young as 3 to 5 years old, can get involved by learning to set the dinner table. Other important rules, of course, are no elbows on the table and in today's electronic culture — no phones or texting!
"Good table manners are about respect for the household and can bring out the pleasure of eating. It is something that everyone can do well," says Shield.
Reviewed October 2013