How to teach table manners to messy kids

Turns out yoghurt pots aren't meant to be tipped upside down like a sandcastle coming out of a bucket...

A family sitting around a table having dinner while kids are playing and messing around with food

Teaching kids table manners is one of the ways we nudge them towards greater independence, and not just because they’ll become a slightly more welcome guest at their friends’ houses. From building essential social skills to maintaining good personal hygiene, these rules exist for a reason.

Struggling to persuade messy kids to stop flinging carrots across the table? Need a simple brushing up on the do’s and don’ts of table manners? Not to worry. This list of table manners for kids covers everything they need to know.

A handy list of table manners for kids 

Tip

Kids learn best by copying others: dad, mum, and older brothers and sisters can all help out by leading by example.

Polite table manners for kids

Many of the essential table manners for kids are all about being a good guest and showing your appreciation of the meal:

  • Being helpful: at the beginning of the meal, encourage kids to help set up. At the end, they can offer to help clear the plates.
  • Being patient: make sure the whole family knows to wait until everyone has sat down, and the food has been served, before digging in.
  • Being good company: remind kids to talk to everyone at the table, and to wait until others have finished speaking before chipping in.
  • Being polite: when kids leap down from the table, hint that they should ask to be excused. Encourage them to thank the chef(s) for the meal, even if it’s not their favourite. Lead by example: even if your partner has accidentally cooked something a bit dire, thank him or her in front of the kids for the effort.

You’ve been teaching your kids how and when to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ since they were small. But it’s amazing how quickly it can go out the window when they’re excited (especially when food is added to the equation). If they’re struggling to remember their table manners, help them understand why saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is important: it turns a demand into a request, and makes the response more likely to be positive. Everyone wins!

Teaching kids the table manners for cutlery use

As your kids begin to develop their fine motor skills, they will start to master the art of using cutlery. Familiarise them with where everything goes at the table by cutting out colourful card forks, knives, spoons and plates – an old tissue box works perfectly. Play ‘restaurants’ and ask them to be the waiter or waitress and set the table with the cardboard cutlery.

Good table manners for tidier eating

Table manners are important, but when children are very young, sometimes messy eating can do more good than harm. Allowing children to enjoy the sensory side of food helps them to associate it with fun, making them less likely to become fussy eaters. So let them play with their food for a while. As they get older, you can gradually introduce the standard table manners for children:

  • Washing your hands before and after eating: make sure kids know how to wash their hands properly before coming to the table.
  • Eating neatly and quietly: guide kids towards putting smaller amounts of food on their fork so they can eat with their mouths closed. Remind them not to talk and eat at the same time and to avoid burping (if possible).
  • Keeping your hands, sleeves and laps clean: try to keep some sheets of kitchen paper at the table so they have something to wipe messy hands and mouths on. Remind kids to ask for the dishes they want to be passed, rather than making a grab for them (that’s how you get messy sleeves).

Tip

If you’ve washed your hands thoroughly, you’ll want to make sure you’re not making them dirty again when you dry them! If you don’t have a clean towel to hand, use a fresh sheet of kitchen paper to dry your hands hygienically. Try keeping a pack of Plenty Handy Towels in your bag when you’re out and about, so you always have something clean and absorbent to dry your hands on.

Good posture equals good table manners

Or does it? As kids get older, it gets easier to persuade them to sit still at the dinner table and to keep their elbows tucked in and off the table. But keeping still is one of the toughest table manners for children to learn when they’re young.

If your child stands up, kneels or sits on the edge of the chair, perhaps they simply aren't comfortable. If their feet don't yet reach the ground, try giving them a footstool and a cushion behind their back so that their body is better supported.

When it comes to teaching kids table manners, the trick is to take it one step at a time so that your child feels happy and confident enough to try out new skills. Teaching these good table manners for kids can take time, so be consistent with your rules, patient with their efforts and offer guidance when needed.


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