At our homeschool meeting recently, someone asked, “How do you
teach table manners? Not like what fork to use, but when the little
kids are complaining about seeing the food in the teenager’s
Let’s be honest; there’s a bit of the Neanderthal in every
teenager, where they have very little regard for their family’s
sensibilities. (Now, if their friends complained, that might be
different!) How do we teach them to be polite at the dinner table?
First of all, table manners are only part of the general category of
courtesy. Courtesy is simply being sensitive to the needs and
feelings of others. It’s what we would like others to do for us.
Your kids need to know that this isn’t you being fussy, it is a
general attitude that will affect their lives in the future. I have
heard of businessmen who never hire someone until they have eaten a
meal with them to see whether they salt their food without testing
it, or hold their forks like shovels instead of pencils.
Secondly, I don’t recommend talking about table manners at every
single meal. The criticism could end up pushing a child into a food
disorder. Instead, have practice meals. Our family had one sit down
meal a week, Sunday night dinner. That was where my brother and I
learned how to set a table, to put our napkins in our laps, how to
cut with a knife and fork, and how to behave at dinner.
What I would suggest is having a practice meal, just one, to go over
the rules. At your once a week meal, you can reinforce what you went
over at the first practice meal. Here are some tricks.
For kids who chug water before they have swallowed and leave floaties
for everyone to see, have everyone drink a cup of water before
sitting down to the table. They need hydration to be able to swallow
their food, so you don’t want to forbid them water—you just want
them to get in the habit of not drinking with every bite. It
shouldn’t be necessary. So give them their water beforehand, then
take the cups.
For kids who hang over their plates with their arms on the table,
have them move their chairs closer to the table. It will encourage
them to sit up straight and their arms will be ridiculous draped
across the table, even for them.
Use napkins! Teach them to put their napkins in their laps as soon as
the family has said grace. It is a handy thing to have if you
suddenly decide you don’t like the bite that is in your mouth. (You
may tell them it is okay to hide something disgusting in it, as long
as the rest of us don’t have to see it and they don’t make a big
issue out of it.) It also catches crumbs and is handy for accidents,
like runaway barbecue sauce.
Play a game of eating while sitting on one hand. This doesn’t work
if they are using a knife and fork, of course, but is great
otherwise. They can have fun catching each other using their
non-dominant hand. It is also key for training away the draped arms
on the table.
Serve the food at the table. If Mom or Dad serves, they determine how
much food is put on each plate. We always serve the youngest first,
though protocol says that the eldest lady down to the youngest and
then the eldest gentleman down should be served. At family meals,
this allows the little kids’ food to cool at the same time it
teaches them to say “no” to themselves and wait for others—both
important courtesy skills. Along with this, no one is allowed to get
seconds until the person who served has finished. More courtesy, as
well as teaching them that, if they wait, they may not be as hungry
as they thought.
When the hostess raises her fork (that’s mom), the signal has been
given that everyone may eat. (The exception would be if there are a
lot of people at the table, such as at Thanksgiving dinner. The rule
of thumb there is that if the people on either side of you have their
food, you may begin. This isn’t something you would practice with
If you have a shoveler, one who is trying to get as much food as
possible into his mouth as quickly as possible, try serving on
smaller plates. This changes the dynamics a lot more than you might
think. Most people want a small amount of food to last longer, so
they eat smaller bites. It is completely okay to talk with your
mouth full—as long as your mouth is not packed with food. You
should be able to chew small amounts of food without the world seeing
it. Having smaller plates, smaller amounts of food on them, thus
smaller amounts of food on each forkful, makes this possible.
Encourage your children that they may always have seconds if there is
extra; your goal is not to starve them. You just want them to really
enjoy the food and the company and be enjoyable at the same time.
When the meal is over--
Their silverware should be placed together at four o’clock on the
plate. Since plates are removed from the right side of the person, or
if a child is clearing his own plate, the right thumb can pin down
the used silverware on the plate and keep it from skidding away and
clattering over the kitchen floor and making a general mess. It’s
more courtesy. Before getting up from the table—ever--including
going to the bathroom during the meal—they should wipe their mouths
with their napkins. More courtesy. Messy faces are disturbing to
Their napkins should remain on their laps the entire time they are at
the table, even if the family starts reading a book together or people are
talking for a long time after the food is done. If the table is
cleared, that is another story. However, if someone leaves the table
and plans to come back, he should leave his napkin on his chair—it
keeps the table from being sloppy and his napkin from getting messed
up in his plate. If he is done and does not plan to come back, the
napkin can be put back on the table.
Remember, table manners are not about being more refined than
everyone else; they are about thinking about everyone else’s