The Family Dinner: Table Manners for Children
The Importance of the Family Dinner
Study after study has shown that having a family dinner together at least three times a week has many benefits. Children who eat meals with their family have less delinquency, less drug use, less depression, a better relationship with their parents, and even better grades in school! But family mealtimes can be unpleasant if children are not taught proper table manners.
We were taught the dos and don'ts of table manners and were expected to abide by them. Pleasant and lively conversation was encouraged and enjoyed. In the process, I learned proper dining etiquette, which has been helpful in many social situations throughout my adult life. Dinner time for my family was a relaxing and joyful ritual that kept my family close, and it can be for you too! Here are some simple tips for teaching your children dining etiquette.
The Place Setting
Even the youngest children can learn dining etiquette. Start by teaching them how a place setting is laid. A clean tablecloth is nice for dinner time, or you can buy some pretty placemats to use. Get some in various colors or with different designs and let the child choose who gets which placemat.
Next comes the placement of the plates and utensils. In the photo above, you see what is a semi-formal setting, so you may not need to use all these, but they are included in case you do need to use them. In the center is, of course, the dinner plate. The napkin is folded on the plate (or you can put them in napkin rings). In this photo, the salad plate is placed on top of the dinner plate. The utensils to the right of the plate include a knife (blade facing the plate), spoon, and a larger soup spoon. The rule of thumb is that you use the utensils starting from the outside in. So, if you're not serving soup, you just leave that one out.
To the left of the plate are the forks, the smaller salad fork on the outside (to be used first) and the dinner fork on the inside. Above the plate, to the right, you place drinking glasses and coffee/tea cups. Above and to the left you place a small plate for bread or rolls and a butter knife. This photo shows the dessert plate with utensils above the dinner plate, but these can, alternatively, be brought in after the dinner dishes have been cleared.
Teaching children to set the table is a great way for them to participate in the mealtime ritual. They can be proud of their work, as the family sits down and eats at the table they have laid, and it may help in getting them to use their very best manners!
How to Set the Table
Family Dining Standards: Setting the Mood
Certain standards need to be expected from your child before the dinner begins. They should be dressed neatly, in clean clothes, hands and face washed, and hair combed neatly. No hats are allowed at the table. Any electronic devices are not allowed at the table, and cell phones should be turned OFF. If you have a house phone, turn the ringer off and let the voicemail pick up (put an elastic band around the receiver to remind you to turn it back on after dinner). This is your peaceful time of day to spend with family, and should be uninterrupted! I was an avid reader as a child (this was well before any electronic distractions), and was caught bringing a book to the table many times! Reading at the table is also a no-no! Turn TV/radio off as well, you're there to communicate and share with family. Pets should be shut out of the room while you are dining.
Now it is time to sit down. You've chosen your background music, which should be mellow and calming, and you've lit your candles. In my family, the boys pulled out the chairs for the girls/women, and I personally find this a pleasing custom. If you are at a dinner party, it is rude to seat yourself before the host/hostess is seated. So in my family, we practiced this concept by waiting for my mother to be seated before we sat down.
Some families bring the food to the table in serving dishes and pass them around with everyone serving themselves. In my family, the serving dishes were placed at my father's end of the table, and he would fix each child's plate and pass it down. This had some disadvantages for me, as he would give me too many of the vegetables that I didn't like! Alternatively, and especially if you eat in your kitchen rather than in a dining room, you can just have each person make up their own plate from the kitchen counter.
Next comes grace, and I would recommend that this ritual is observed, even if you are not a religious family. Grace can simply mean a moment to pause and be mindfully grateful for being together and having nourishing food to eat. Everybody can do that! If you have a religious belief, this is the time for a brief prayer. As stated by David Dean and Sarah McElwain in their wonderfully useful book Saying Grace: Blessings for the Family Table, "Whether graces are said over meals eaten with chopsticks or spoons, around a campfire or over the best holiday dishes, they are part of every culture." This book has given me great ideas for graces from many cultures and throughout history to use at the dinner table. Whichever grace you choose, hands should be folded in the lap and heads bowed or eyes closed for a moment of contemplation.
A nice alternative is for family members to join hands around the table. In my family, the children took turns saying grace; sometimes a prayer, sometimes just something like "Let us be thankful for family and good food". It often ended with the German admonition "Guten Appetit!" which was said in unison, meaning roughly "eat well". (sometimes we used "Bon Appetit", the French version of this). It is all just a way of making the dinner into a special occasion rather than just sitting and wolfing down a quick meal.
Once grace has been said, it is good manners to wait for your host/hostess to lift his or her fork before you begin to eat. We waited for my mother to do so. Napkins are unfolded and placed on the lap. If there is a basket or plate of bread or rolls, the child should be taught to ask "please pass the rolls" to have it passed to them. Same with condiments, salt and pepper, butter, etc. A warm roll may be broken by hand to be buttered, but rolls served cold should be cut open with the butter knife.
Once the eating has begun, teach your children how to hold a pleasant dinner conversation. There are certain topics that are off-limits for this occasion, such as anything morbid, depressing, or anything that would be un-appetizing to hear about while eating. Arguing is also, of course, not conducive to a pleasant meal. My parents often used this time to ask each of us what we had learned in school that day.
As you can imagine, my brothers' answers were often "nothin," which didn't facilitate a stimulating conversation! I, on the other hand, was always eager for it to be my turn to tell, which I did in excruciating detail. Teach children not to interrupt as a general rule, and when they do need to interrupt, they should say, "Excuse me, don't mean to interrupt, but. . ." and then keep their interruption as brief as possible.
Here is a quick review of the basics that every child can be expected to adhere to by the age of six or seven.
More Meal Time Etiquette for Children
There are some taboos that should be avoided during the meal.
- Children should be taught not to lean on their elbows on the table! This is considered to be very rude. The best position for arms is for the forearm to rest on the table while eating.
- Chewing should be done with the mouth CLOSED, never open. No one should be able to see the food in your mouth!
- Wolfing down a meal at the dinner table is rude. Children should be taught to take their time.
- Remarks about the food should only be positive. If you don't like something, keep it to yourself.
- Talking with food in your mouth is another no-no! Chew and swallow before speaking.
- Do not leave the table (to use the bathroom, for example) without saying, "Excuse me for a moment."
- Scraping the fork on your teeth while eating is annoying and rude. Pull the fork out through closed lips so that you don't make a scratching sound.
- Coughing or sneezing should be done into the napkin, and you should always say "excuse me" afterward.
- Napkins are there to dab food and drink from your mouth, then returned to your lap.
- Slouching in your chair or tipping the chair while eating is rude. Sit up straight and leave all four legs of your chair on the floor!
- Eating with the fingers is not kosher, except when the food is a legitimate "finger food", such as pizza, rolls and bread, tacos, sandwiches, etc.
It is a nice custom to wait for everyone to finish the meal before you leave the table. If you finish before others, you can sip your water or beverage and continue the conversation until they are done. It is very good manners, at the end of the meal, to compliment the cook/chef, even if that is Mom. In my family, we had to ask Mom or Dad "may I be excused?" when we were ready to leave the table. While this may seem a little formal, it is a good way to ensure that your family meal is thoroughly enjoyed and experienced before the kids go running off again. When leaving the table, utensils should be laid diagonally across the plate, and napkins placed on the table beside the plate.
These dinner time rituals may seem stilted and old-fashioned to today's family. However, I promise you that if you teach these rules and expectations to your children, you will create a peaceful oasis at the end of your day, where family can come together to enjoy a meal and one another's company.
Learning dining etiquette is also important for children so that they know how to behave when dining out or at the home of a friend, at Grandma's, and so on. Besides, in these times, when so many common good manners have gone out the window and rudeness seems to rule the day, how nice would it be to enjoy a well-behaved and tranquil hour at the dinner table with your family?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Katharine L Sparrow