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A “Game-Changer” Plan to Teach Your Kids Table Manners

ExpertsPost Category - ExpertsExpertsParentingPost Category - ParentingParenting - Post Category - Toddler & PreschoolerToddler & Preschooler - Post Category - 5-11 Year Olds5-11 Year Olds

As a parent, you dream of taking your family to a wonderful restaurant with your perfectly sweet well-behaved children. But within minutes of arriving, you feel your dream beginning to crumble. All of a sudden your children remind you of pigs at a farm. The food is brought and they begin to grab, push, snort and gulp down food. Do you have a game plan to teach your kids good table manners?

With three children myself ranging from 4–11, I’ve seen a lot of bad table manners over the years! I wish I could tell you that there was an easy overnight solution to improving your kid’s table manners. There is, however, an easy game plan to get you started to practice and reinforce mealtime manners. The earlier you start, the easier it will be.

How to play it SMART with table manners is broken down into a simple 3-part plan. Each part outlines steps for your kids to master.


  • Before you eat, wash your hands and dress appropriately. Almost all kids love sports! To help your kids understand the pre-dinner prep plan, use the analogy of playing sports. In sports, you put on the appropriate uniform, tie your shoes and warm up. Just like sports, there are rules to follow before we eat. This is the uniform or requirement for entering the game or in this case, sitting down for dinner!
  • Wait to eat until everyone is seated. Follow your host (often mum’s role!) This rule is a tough one as kids are sometimes REALLY hungry! To help the process, stay as organised as possible and only call them when almost everything is ready. Another strategy is to involve your kids in setting the table with the plates and food so that you all sit down around the same time.
  • Sit still. Use good posture and no elbows on the table, please. Share stories of how in the old days, kids use to have to hold books under their elbows to learn to sit up straight. You can even play this game one day at dinner to elaborate the point of sitting still and using good posture. Who can hold the books under their elbows the longest while practicing good table manners?
  • Place the napkin on your lap and use it to dab any stray bits of food. Give your kids gentle reminders to remember why we have a napkin. The napkin is not just for decoration!

RULE BREAKERS: Don’t have dirty hands at the table. Don’t sit down and start eating before everyone is seated. Don’t start eating before the napkin is in your lap. Don’t have ‘ants in your pants’ at dinner. No moving around and getting up. Don’t use your sleeve or the tablecloth to replace the napkin. Don’t lick your fingers to wipe off food. Don’t use the napkin as a washcloth on your face.


  • Teach your kids early to hold and use utensils. Using utensils can be compared to riding a bike. If your balance is off, it won’t work very well. It takes practice and patience. As parents, we are all guilty of cutting the food for our kids, simply because it is easier. STOP! Here’s where we as parent’s need to be patient and give them a chance to practice their cutting and gripping techniques. Start them off with easy soft foods such as pancakes or bread and then move on to more challenging foods such as chicken and steak.
  • Pass the whole dish in one direction. Use the analogy of a race car. Pass the food in one direction so that dishes don’t collide. The whole dish or bread basket should be passed. Please don’t throw a piece of bread across the table like an American football!
  • Break the bread and eat one bite at a time. Show your kids that small bites one at a time is easier to eat than trying to chew off a piece from a big chunk of bread.
  • Eating and drinking should be done separately. First, chew and swallow your food. Then take a water break, making sure not to slurp or blow bubbles. Think of it as a time-out water break in sports.

RULE BREAKERS! Don’t hold utensils like a shovel. Don’t get puffy cheeks from placing too much food in your mouth. Don’t use your fingers or hand unless it’s a finger food. Don’t wave your utensils around in the air. Don’t chew your food with your mouth open.


  • At the end of a meal, thank the host (usually Mum and Dad) and ask to be excused. Offer to help clean up. Here, use the example of sports when everyone is running at different speeds. Even when you are on the bench, you still stay and support the team. At a meal, wait until everyone is finished and then ask to be excused – stay and support the team! And don’t forget to be a good sport and say thanks to the host!

RULE BREAKERS! Don’t get up without thanking the cook. Don’t leave the table before everyone is finished. Don’t run off without offering to help clean up.

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To practice your family game plan, try playing the “Manners and Candies” game, which is a simple challenge to reinforce the 10-point plan below. The candies (the prize) can be substituted with tickets, gems, stickers, etc. if you would like to avoid the sweet stuff.

10 basic table manners for your kids to follow:

  1. Place the napkin on your lap.
  2. Use your utensils, NOT your fingers!
  3. No reaching.
  4. Don’t start eating until the cook is seated.
  5. No bodily noises (slurping, burping, chewing with your mouth open, smacking your lips, etc.)
  6. Don’t leave the table until everyone is finished eating.
  7. No elbows on the table while eating.
  8. No rude comments about the food.
  9. Sit up straight and don’t tip your chair.
  10. Everyone stays to clean up dishes and the mess.

Everyone gets a little teaser bowl or bag with the prize, in my case, little candies such as M&Ms. This will be the delicious dessert. Now the better you behave, the better chance you have to keep your dessert. Everyone has an eye out to see if anyone is breaking the rules. If you break any rule, you have to give a piece to the person who called you out. The kids always get excited to see how much candy they can end up with! Another alternative to candy is to use tickets and then let the person with the most decide the dessert and get the biggest portion!

Good luck playing it SMART with table manners in your house!


Visit The SMART Playbook website here for freebies which includes table setting guides, great conversation starters to use at mealtime and more. The SMART Playbook mealtime topic also offers step-by-step guides to teach your child how to hold their utensils and cutting techniques.

Top image sourced from Shutterstock

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