Dining etiquette can sound formal and perhaps even stuffy in today’s fast-paced society, but did you know that teaching children basic table manners helps to encourage their social skills, build healthy eating habits and offer an opportunity for much needed connection?
Children and teens benefit immensely from regular family meals. A recent study from TheFamilyDinnerProject.com demonstrated that family meals encourage better academics, higher self esteem, healthier eating habits and improved mental health.
In addition to the benefits of sharing meals together, using this time to teach basic table manners creates an even deeper opportunity for growth and development as table manners encourage better conversation skills, consideration for others, and increased social confidence.
Not sure where to start? Etiquette expert Courtney Opalko shares five simple table manners to teach your kids.
- How to Set the Table: Learning how to set the table is a simple way to introduce dining etiquette and table manners to your child. A basic place setting is sufficient for most family meals and learning this skill will also provide an opportunity for the child to feel included in the family responsibilities.
For a basic one course meal, simply set the plate in front of the seat, about an inch from the edge of the table. The knife goes on the right, while the dinner fork will go on the left. The water glass should be placed directly above the knife and the napkin can rest on the left, beside the fork, or on top of the plate.
Understanding how to navigate the place setting will help your child to know where to find “their” glass, napkin and cutlery, which can be very helpful at crowded tables found at large events.
- Napkin Etiquette: The napkin is the most important tool at the table and learning how to use it correctly is a skill your child will take with them as they grow and find themselves in more formal dining situations, such as dances and dates, weddings, and even job interviews.
As soon as one sits down, they should place the napkin in their lap. Simply unfold it and refold into a rectangle, with the fold placed at the waist. The napkin will stay on the lap for the entire meal.
This can be made into a fun game – try not to let the napkin fall on the ground – and help with sitting still as well. When the napkin needs to be used, teach your child to use the inside of the napkin to dab, not wipe, around their mouth. By using the inside of the napkin, any mess will stay contained in the napkin.
- Slow Down: It’s easy to rush through a meal to make it to the next practice or meeting, but it’s really important to create an environment that encourages a slow approach to eating whenever possible.
One way to do this is to help your child be aware of the pace of eating around the table. Ideally, everyone should end the meal at the same time. Eating more slowly has a host of health benefits, and it will also help with other table manners like chewing quietly with one’s mouth closed and not speaking while there is food in the mouth.
- The Discard Space: If “I don’t like that!” is a common theme heard around the table, let your child in on this little known secret: the discard space. Imagine the dinner plate as a clock face. The discard space is found at 11 o’clock.
Teach your children that if there is something they do not like (bones, green tops, unpleasant vegetables) they can simply push the food over to this area. They don’t even need to make an announcement about it!
- Toys & Tech Off the Table: Keep the focus at the table on conversation and connection by keeping toys and tech (including phones!) off the table. I always position this with children as how to keep their belongings clean, safe, and ready to use later. A spilled drink could ruin a favorite book or break a tablet – something they surely want to avoid!
The most important part of dining together as a family is to spend that time connecting. With busy schedules, taking 30-45 minutes to enjoy a meal together at least once a week can help create deeper connections, better relationships, and lasting memories.
The next time you sit down to enjoy a meal together, begin introducing one or two of these tips. Remember, modeling these behaviors consistently and with a bit of fun, will help your child build and practice these skills.
In addition to these basic table manners, be intentional about asking open ended questions, using conversation starters, or brainstorming your own family rules for the table. Incorporate games and rituals that create an atmosphere of joy and connection.
These simple tips will introduce your child to pleasant table manners, encouraging their confidence and building important social skills which will serve them well as they grow, all while creating priceless family memories.
Courtney is a certified etiquette coach with a mission to spread kindness and civility through important life skills. Courtney’s unique programs are fun, interactive and inclusive in nature, rooted in values of confidence, awareness, empathy and respect. As an etiquette expert, she offers modern advice designed to elevate the everyday. Visit www.courtneyopalkoetiquette.com to learn more about upcoming events and follow @CourtneyOpalkoEtiquette on social media for daily tips and advice.