15 easy to master table manners for children

toddler girl biting bowl at the table

I’ve read some awful blogs on the internet from others who have shared their advice on teaching children table manners, often from parenting experts but actually who don’t have any professional expertise in children’s feeding, and so I wanted to write this blog to put some more helpful information out there into the world.

Feeding children is a messy experience as no doubt you will be well aware, they learn to eat through the sensory systems which involves touching food, playing with food, smelling, chewing and even taste and spat out before it’s ever accepted as a food they like.

These could all be perceived as poor table manners but in reality it’s just how children learn.

Somewhere around the age of 1 you may want to start introducing some basic manners as now is when we can start to refine those skills and introduce some social skills.

Why are table manners important?

Manners are a social construct and are different from one culture to the next. 

There are no right or wrong manners and so I encourage you to read through my list and then make a decision about what’s right for you and your family.

And absolutely teach your children that their friends may do things differently in their family and that’s totally fine.

But they are an amazing way of showing love and respect to others around the table and also appreciation for the meal that’s been provided.

They’re also perfect for practising those all important social skills that are a major part of how we eat.

Having social skills means that your child will be able to relax and enjoy eating with other people as they get older such as at school and at other peoples homes, and restaurants.

What are the benefits to kids having good table manners?

Children with good table manners are a pleasure to take to restaurants, and when they are invited to eat at other peoples houses to eat, the other parents will love to have them too. 

Essentially it’s a whole lot more pleasant for you.

But importantly you’re giving them the essential tools for social interaction which will set them up for success throughout the rest of their lives.

When table manners aren’t important

Before I dive into the table manners I recommend, I want to caveat this advice with when table manners aren’t important. 

Children learn to eat using their senses. This means they need to be able to play with food. 

When children are being offered new foods we may need to explore them first before they decide whether they’re going to try them or not.

Using their hands, face, smelling and spitting out tried food is totally fine when they are learning and particularly if they have sensory preferences.

Likewise, don’t insist on the use of cutlery when your child is tired, like dinner at the end of a busy day. This is much more likely to result in tears, when a finger food meal is more likely to be eaten well.

Bottom line, manners need to come second after the skills and sensory preferences of the child have been accommodated for first.

15 easy to master table manners for children 

Every eating opportunity, whether that’s a meal or a snack serves as an opportunity for practising table manners.

Be consistent in your approach, reminding your children often of what you do want them to do and eventually they will get the hang of it.

Remember toddlers and young children don’t have great impulse control and so teaching manners requires a lot of patience and perseverance from you.

Here are my top table manners that we use in our family and that I have advised some of my clients to take on board with their families that have had awesome success.

Washing hands before a meal

The main reason for this is hygiene of course because children (and adults) touch everything(!) and then often touch food with their hands.

We don’t want to be putting them at risk of illness from poor hand hygiene.

The exception to this rule might be if you are playing in the garden or out on a countryside walk and your child picks a new food like a blackberry and goes to pop it in their mouth, you’re not going to get them to wash their hands first. 

If the berry is quite clearly safe to eat and they are spontaneously deciding to try it, let them.

For under two you need to wash their hands for them and as they get older use a footstool to help them reach the sink and taps.

toddler boy washing his hands

Use a napkin

Most children need to wipe their hands or mouths during a meal.

Some really don’t like the feel of food on their skin around their mouths and on their hands, and others just need an occasional wipe.

Whatever preference your child has, provide them with a napkin otherwise they’ll naturally try and wipe off anything messy onto their clothes like the cuff of their sleeve!

With babies and young toddlers, remember they need to get messy when learning to eat so avoid wiping till the end of the meal and from 1 you can pass them a wet flannel and ask them to do this themselves.

Wait until people are seated to start eating

I love this one and I believe it is one of the most respectful practices that children can learn.

Stay seated 

Getting your child to sit at the table is essential for practising eating and drinking skills.

They actually find it easier when they have core stability that comes with sitting.

Staying seated at the table for long enough is important to ensure that they have the best opportunity to eat well. 

However, be realistic with your timings. Many of the families I work with expect children to sit at the table for longer than they really are capable of. 

Below is a suggestion for what’s realistic for different ages.

With older children, teach them to ask for permission to be excused from the table when they are done.

It’s important to remember that while meal times are social occasions for adults who often enjoy lingering to chat, they are functional occasions for children, and actually are perceived as boring grown up time.

Don’t be offended, again it’s part of their cognitive developmental stage and they will come to understand that meal times can be more enjoyable as they get older.

toddler girl sat waiting at the dinner table

Food stays on the table

Definitely one for the younger age group, where little ones have a habit of throwing food or simply dropping it over the side of the highchair and looking to see where it’s gone.

Instead of saying don’t throw food, tell your little one what you want them to do, for example food stays on the table.

Usually this is short lived between the ages of 10 and 18 months.

Don’t overstuff your mouth

Some children put a lot of food in their mouth all at once because of a sensory processing reason, for example they have a low sensitivity to the tactile sense and just can’t feel where a single piece of food is in their mouth, so they have to put lots in in order to work out where it is.

This isn’t safe and puts your child at a much higher risk of choking. Whatever their age.

Other times, children are in a hurry to eat and want to get back to playing so try and get the meal over and done with as quickly as possible.

Whatever the reason, remind your child to slow down, to take smaller bites and chew before swallowing and taking the next bite.

If you think your child is overstuffing because of a sensory issue, seek feeding therapy support.

Avoid rude noises at the table

Needing to burp is a completely normal human bodily function, but what you want to avoid is burping competitions!

An accidental burp is fine but teach your child to say “excuse me” afterwards and absolutely do not laugh if they produce a very loud burp in the middle of a meal! (They’ll just do it again and it’ll be a difficult habit to stop )

Chew with your mouth closed

I think it’s fair to say that nobody enjoys watching food being chewed and moved around somebody else’s mouth, so this is a manner that I imagine most people will want to encourage.

Some children get this straight away, others need reminding often, tell them why; so for example, please chew with your mouth closed because otherwise we can see what you’re eating.

And of course demonstrate this so your child knows exactly what you mean.

From about 18 months babies can grasp this skill.

Say please and thank you

One of our basic cultural norms is to use please and thank you, so encourage your child to do so at the table. 

Remind them often but don’t overdo it, we still want mealtimes to be pleasant.

Even the little ones can baby sign please and thank you, and of course do this yourself role modelling the ideal behaviour.

Avoid negative comments about the food

This table manner is likely to apply to all cultures around the world. Nobody likes to be told that the meal that they have prepared is yuck!

It’s quite alright for children to say that they don’t like a food, but never at the table.

This is critical if you have a fussy eater because talking about food in a negative way will reinforce their beliefs.

Aside from that, it isn’t very respectful (and actually could be quite hurtful) towards the person who has cooked the meal.

If your child has anxiety around eating, talking in a negative way may be how they’re telling you they aren’t coping. Support them by serving food ‘family style’, move offending foods further  away and give them a divided plate so that food they don’t like doesn’t contaminate food they do.

No devices at the table

This makes mealtimes pleasant sociable occasions, and if there are devices being used conversation cannot flow.

Watching something on a screen whilst eating distracts your child which means that they are not fully in the moment and not experiencing the sensory aspects of the food. 

This is a basic requirement for learning to like food.

This goes for mum and dad too. You must lead by example if you want your children to do this too.

Create a positive mealtime experience 

One of the fundamentals of being a positive food parent is creating a pleasant meal time environment and this involves pleasant conversation.

Treat meal times as a special time where your family comes together to enjoy food and each other’s company.

Over time your children will learn to respect this important family occasion.

Don’t try and use this as an opportunity to teach your child about food, healthy eating or nutrition, all of this can amount to pressure and pressure switches appetite off dead. Instead talk about other subjects like how your day has gone and positive experiences. 

One of the things we do every day is have each member of the family take turns to share the best thing that happened to them today.

Don’t reach over to grab food

It’s polite to teach your children to ask politely for the food to be passed to them instead of reaching over your plate or the serving bowls to grab it for themselves.

Little ones who aren’t talking yet can point and then you can pass but from around 18 months of age small lightweight bowls of food can actually be passed from your child to somebody else and back with success.

Say thank you to the cook

One of my favourites, it’s lovely when your children say thank you at the end of a meal. 

It really shows appreciation of the time and effort you’ve spent buying the food, preparing the meal and the warm mealtime atmosphere you’ve created.

Help tidy up after the meal

From around 18 months or so children can help tidy up by taking their plate over to the sink to be washed up.

This is actually really helpful if you have a picky eater because it signals the end of the meal and stops them coming back 10 minutes later to pick up the leftovers. Essentially it’s teaching them that eating happens at a meal time.

If you have a very fussy eater one of the feeding therapy tips that I recommend is getting your child to scrape the food away into the bin at the end of the meal because I know this sounds counterintuitive it actually encourages them to touch the food which is one of the steps that leads towards them becoming familiar with it in order to want to try it.

Printable Table Manners List

Would you like to receive a beautiful printable list of the 15 table manners so you can start practicing them at home? Just pop your details below:

5 tips to implement table manners

Know how long kids can sit at the table

Most of the families I work with get this wrong because babies will often sit in their highchairs for quite a while (I remember those long maternity leave lunches with my mummy friends in Pizza Express!)

However, toddlers are busy people and won’t sit for long.

Here’s a guide of what to expect:

12 months : 20 minutes

18 months : 5 years 10-15 minutes

5 years : 11 years 20 minutes

12 years: 30 minutes +

Lead by example

Children learn best when they see you doing what you are asking them to do. So be a good role model and show them as well as ask.

Read fun books about table manners 

There are some brilliant children’s books all about eating which I highly recommend. Here are some of my favourites that you can read together: (Note these links are Amazon affiliate links)

How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?

Table Talk

The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners

Emily’s Everyday Manners

I Want My Dinner

Madeline Says Merci

Table Manners for Tigers

 What not to do

Don’t get cross when they break the rules

I really hate it when I hear parents say things like “were you raised in a barn?” Or “didn’t anyone ever teach you any manners?”

These are possibly some of the things that we heard when we were children and likely didn’t make us feel happy or do us any favours, more likely made us feel inadequate, ashamed and most certainly didn’t encourage us to eat well! 

Like with all aspects of parenting, teaching table manners can take a little while for children to learn and then master.

Much of this is to do with their brain development and with each cognitive developmental leap their understanding will change.

What this means is that they may challenge the boundaries or limits you have set up, essentially breaking the rules.

It’s important not to get cross with them which is much easier to do when you understand that this is simply part of their cognitive development.

Instead, remind your child of what you do you want them to do rather than telling them what you don’t want them to do.

This way you’re leading with a positive reminder.

Don’t withhold dessert as punishment

We were probably brought up to clean our plates but today we live in a society where food is abundant, there are no rations and we don’t need to worry about where the next meal is coming from.

Therefore cleaning up plates doesn’t make sense.

Allow your child to stop eating when they feel full, and make dessert a normal part of the meal every day that happens whether they eat much of the main course or not.

When you do this, you don’t make sweet food desirable. However, if this is new for you, expect your child to only want the sweet stuff until they have acclimated to the new way of doing things.

Do ignore ‘naughty’ behaviour

Believe it or not, toddlers aren’t actually misbehaving or being naughty when they make the rules, it’s often just a reaction to what’s going on for them.

For example, if they throw food it could well be a sign that they are finished and want to get down.

If you have an older child ask them not to encourage anything that’s perceived as naughty or cheeky behaviour, this tends to reinforce it meaning it will happen again and again.

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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2 Responses

  1. Thank u Sarah our boy is getting a bit better he is trying a couple of new things. Still very fussy and dosnt still try lots but slow steps. he dose seem to stuff a lot of food in at once even when not rushing to get bk to somthing. Watched few of the videos u sent about sensary very interesting and alot sounds like our boy. thank u so much for a lot of advise u have given so far it has helped. We have stopped worrying as much and let him come to us and ask to try. Which has been good because there are a couple more things he likes often he will say he likes tast but not taste and we praise him when he trys even if he dosnt like taste so thank u again all articles are helping us understand a bit more x

    1. Hi Katie, glad to hear you are seeing some improvement, however it does sound as though there are some sensory issues particularly if he’s overstuffing his mouth. We see this a lot which children who have trouble noticing where food is in their mouths. It’s probably worth working with a feeding therapist to help him.

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meet Sarah

I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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