8 Must-Have Table Manners for Kids and How to Enforce Them

8 Must-Have Table Manners for Kids and How to Enforce Them

Keep your kids courteous and content during dinner with these simple tips.

By: Leah Maxwell

With big holiday meals and parties filling your calendar, now is the perfect time for kids to brush up on their table manners. Whether you’re teaching a toddler to use his napkin instead of his sleeve or helping older kids decipher the puzzle of which fork to use, the effort you put in now will not only make holiday meals more enjoyable for everyone but it will lay the foundation for years of civilized dining. This applies whether you’re guests at a fancy formal feast, out at your favorite restaurant, or just having casual weeknight dinners at home. One thing is certain: Kids with table manners will give you something to be thankful for all year long. Read on for a guide to essential manners and tips on how to enforce them.

Must-Have Table Manners

1. Stay seated. Perhaps the most important lesson of all has nothing to do with food. If your kids tend to roam and graze instead of sit still for an entire meal, practice, practice, practice staying at the table and eating together until everyone’s done or individuals are excused.

2. Ask to be excused. It might seem old-fashioned or stuffy, but teaching kids to ask to be excused is not only polite, it helps keep them mindful of Manner no. 1 above. If your child wants to leave the table, teach him to ask first and teach him that once he’s excused, that’s it, there’s no coming back for more food, and that includes dessert. (If he needs to be excused to use the bathroom, a good alternative is, “May I be excused for a moment,” instead of declaring, “I have to go pee!” loud and clear for all to hear.)

3. Keep your hands and feet to yourself. This means no poking your brother, no kicking the person sitting across from you, and no grabbing things off anyone else’s plate.

4. Use tableware correctly. Older kids can be instructed on which utensils to use for which dishes (rule of thumb: work from the outside in), but even toddlers can be taught to use a napkin to wipe their mouths and hands.

5. Take turns talking. Sharing meals together helps us bond, and conversation is a major part of that. Teach kids to engage in dinnertime discussions by taking turns listening and speaking. Other important points to remember: Don’t talk with your mouth full, don’t interrupt unless there’s an emergency, and don’t bring screens to the table (because it makes it impossible to pay attention to the people you’re dining with).

6. Politely decline. It’s perhaps too optimistic to expect your kids to like everything being served, which is why it’s important to teach them to be polite about things they wouldn’t eat with someone else’s mouth. If your kids are inclined to wrinkle their noses and say “yuck” or “gross,” encourage a simple “no, thank you” or “that’s not for me” instead. If they taste something they don’t end up liking, teach them to spit it into a napkin (if they must) instead of onto their plate. Bonus: Having the option to not finish a food they dislike means they’ll be less afraid of trying new things.

7. Politely request. It’s great when kids love food, but teach them that, instead of yelling “MORE TURKEY!” or diving a hand into the mashed potatoes, the polite thing to do is say, “Please pass the...” or “May I please have more...”

8. Say thanks. Showing gratitude is always appreciated, so teach kids to be generous with their thank yous, whether it’s for the person who passed the gravy, helped cut their meat, or hosted the meal (even if that person is Mom or Dad).

More from P&G everyday: 7 Ways to Teach Kids Good Manners

If that seems like a lot of manners, you’re right, it is, but with practice and your patient guidance, these are things that will eventually feel like second nature to your kids. Here are some tips to help you get there, especially if you’re looking forward to formal holiday meals in the next few months:

Enforcing Manners

1. Be clear. Talk to your kids about what you expect. If you throw them into formal dining situations with no warning, you’ll likely spend a good portion of your meal correcting their behavior. Even if you’ve worked hard to teach your kids the manners that are important to you, it’s always good to review them before sitting down for a meal with others.

2. Be reasonable. Keep your expectations appropriate to your kids’ ages and abilities; it’s one thing to want your kids to sit quietly at the table for an hour, but it’s another thing to expect them to, especially if there’s the added excitement of a special meal with family and friends. If dinner’s running long because the adults are enjoying themselves at the table, allow the kids to excuse themselves to another room when they’re finished. Listening to 20 minutes of incomprehensible toasts or sitting through multi-course meals that go on forever can test even the most mannerly of children, so keep their limits in mind and also accept that they’re probably going to slip up and you might need to subtly remind them to mind their manners along the way.


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3. Practice. The best way to make good table manners a habit is to use them every chance you get. Most manners can be practiced during any meal, but if you’re gearing up for a fancy holiday dinner, you might also consider taking your kids out to a restaurant or staging a formal meal at home, complete with the nice cloth napkins, candles, non-plastic plates and utensils, and grown-up conversation.

4. Dress the part. Sometimes fancy clothes can help fancy-up behavior. Kids who are dressed up a bit might adjust their attitudes accordingly, so go on and break out the party dresses and bow ties.

5. Feed them first. Kids with rumbly tummies will be more likely to act out, so start them off with a little pre-dinner snack, like a cup of nuts, crackers, or cereal to keep them occupied during turkey-carving and toast-proposing. If dinner will be eaten in multiple courses, consider serving kids before adults and/or letting kids eat their entire meal at once.

6. Keep them busy. If your holiday meals stretch on and on, consider providing simple distractions to keep kids occupied. A coloring page or some cereal or pasta to string into a garland or necklace can keep little hands and minds busy at the kids’ table. A perennial favorite of all ages is a tablecloth made of craft paper plus some crayons and stickers to decorate it.

7. Talk to them. If you don’t have a separate kids’ table, make sure to include even the youngest guests in the dinner conversation. Keep the topics appropriate, accessible, and inclusive, and save the grown-up stuff for when the kids are off playing.

8. Model good behavior. See that list of manners up there? Make sure you’re using them too.

9. Praise good behavior. Instead of only correcting behavior you’re not happy with, make a point to comment on your kids’ good behavior, not just after the meal but during. A few nice words can go a long way, so if your kids are trying -- even if they’re not perfect -- be sure to acknowledge the effort.

10. Be patient. Remember that teaching kids manners is just that – teaching them. You can’t submit your list of rules and expect them to fall in line, you have to practice and guide and model, and give it time to sink in.

What are your secrets for getting kids to behave at the table?

Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.

Image ©iStock.com/GMVozd

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