(one to two year olds)
Use please and thank you.
Wash hands and faces before and after the meal.
Keep the food on their plates.
Learn the basics of setting the table.
(two to four year olds)
Stay at the table for the meal
(It might be too much for them to stay for all of yours).
Sit with both legs under the table, their plates close to the edge, with glasses or mugs
far enough away so as not to be easily knocked over.
Excuse themselves from the table when they have finished.
Refrain from saying the food is "gross" or "yucky".
Saying they didn't like it is fine.
Use spoons and forks. Can use knives but will need
help with cutting up most things.
Chew their food with the mouth closed.
Wipe their own dirty faces.
(four to six year olds)
Help prepare the meal.
Leave the table only when they have finished eating.
Wait until the next meal if they didn't choose to eat enough.
Have conversations during the meal.
Eat in an unrushed manner.
Thank the cook.
Be expected to eat something on the plate
if they have chosen to put it there.
Use utensils more confidently, including their knife. Start with
softer foods, and give them actual lessons on how to use it.
Use breakable plates if not done so before.
Take dishes to kitchen and help clean up the table and
do the dishes with you.
Establishing a functional family dinner time can sometimes feel like a battle of wills but, as Rachel Goodchild writes, it'll pay off in the long run.
Dinner time when my parents were kids was very different to the experience my children have. For a start, the expectation was that food would be eaten, not played with or, heaven help us, refused. It was much the same food week to week, with the emphasis on meat, potatoes and vegetables. You didn't like it? You'd learn to or you'd starve. Dinner times today feel different. I know I used to spend a great deal of time trying to work out what I could make that my children would like. I often gave up on what I'd like to eat to keep the peace. And I dreaded dinner times. If one child liked it, the other two wouldn't. I was a slave to making meal times less stressful, but all I felt was stress.
I've experienced the following: a cacophony of voices telling me which bits they do or don't like, a child smearing it all over the table and none of it making it anywhere near her mouth, another child refusing to eat any of it, any child throwing a temper tantrum during dinner, or children getting up and running around with food ending up everywhere.
Deciding that I was going to change the way dinners went and raising my expectations of what was permitted in my house took a huge amount of the stress away. My children stopped becoming "I don't like it" kids, and changed into: "Thanks Mum, that was delicious" kids. And I get to eat foods I like now too.
How did I do it? Well I laid out for the children a few simple rules:
1. I expect you to sit with us, I expect you to be polite and I expect you to try new foods.
2. If you don't like it, you can have a piece of bread for dinner instead.
3. If you don't eat anything, you get nothing until the next meal.
Those three things turned meal times around for us.
What's the big deal?
Eating together as a family increases a sense of family togetherness over time. It provides you with an occasion to connect together, and children are more likely to make healthier choices if their parents eat with them.
Regular family eating times are linked to social, emotional and health benefits such as reducing obesity and juvenile offending.
Like any skill, learning to eat at the table is something that takes time. It's a range of skills that will be learned over years.
While some children seem to be born tidy eaters, others struggle with it right up to their teens. It can feel like an ongoing battle to ensure that your children develop good table manners, and you may find yourself repeating the same little mantras over and over again (sit still, use your fork, put it back on your plate if you don't like it…).
Is it worth it?
Teaching table manners can bring out the broken record nagger in the best of us. It takes all the enjoyment out of eating at the table yourself, it's hard work with little immediate reward, and you can't remember what it was like to eat a meal without chaos.
Long-term, however, the rewards make it all worthwhile. Besides the hope that one day you'll be able to have pleasant family dinners, you'll also be able to send your children to eat at other people's homes or in restaurants, knowing they feel confident at the table and won't repel fellow diners.
Sometimes when we're out - at a café or a friend's house - I'll notice gaps in my children's knowledge of how they should behave at the table. I'll often make a note of it then we'll teach a skill that helps them once we are back home. Sitting with legs facing forward under the table, not wiping fingers on the table cloth or leaving the table without excusing themselves have all been under the spotlight at our house.
A confident eater can then focus on making conversation, as she doesn't need to concentrate all her attention on which hand should hold the fork and how to use a knife. You'll one day be able to have real conversations with your children over the dinner table.
Having good table manners is one of the social norms we expect of adults. Being able to eat in a tidy manner, while carrying on a conversation is an important skill. Meal times are often used for meetings in the corporate world. Decisions are better made when the pasta sauce isn't dripping down your shirt, and you're not struggling to cut off a piece of steak. Same goes for romantic dates and a wide range of other social occasions.
Let's face it - if you have horrid eating habits as an adult you might not get invited out as much.
Eating together is a large part of many cultures, and knowing how to eat properly helps. (For this reason we've always tried to eat a range of different foods, and in different places - on a blanket at the beach, at a communal barbecue, or at a five-star restaurant.)
Teaching children to respect food and the people who made it is an important part of the process. Serving food from dishes at the table can increase the washing up but helps your child learn to give themselves appropriate portions.
If children are wasting food, it's because we're allowing it. If they ask for a sandwich then take only one bite, make it their afternoon tea, or what they eat before they have dinner.
Avoiding the battlefield
Daily battles about what your children will and will not eat can truly take the edge off enjoying your own meal. Many a parent has stopped having dinner with their children because another night of conflict makes them lose their appetites. So make life a little easier on yourself by perhaps choosing to eat together for the meals that cause the least conflict.
You may find that it's easier to eat breakfast and/or lunch together most days, and then share only a few dinners a week together.
Also, remember children have far more sensitive taste buds than we do and often need to experience a food more than seven times before liking it. Make it the rule in your house that they need to at least taste everything on the plate.
By involving children in the preparation of the meal - peeling, chopping, stirring - they are far more likely to eat. Children also like to feel involved in the decision-making over meals so why not make a list of dinners they love and have these every second day at least, with new options in between? You can also make a list of vegetables they like and put it on the fridge, with a reward system if you discover a new vegetable they like to eat. (Some children will be specific about the way they like to eat it, preferring raw to cooked or vice versa.)
Make the only other dinner option for the fussy eater a "nothing sandwich" (two pieces of bread). Make sure you add to the main meal foods they do enjoy - and make it an "all or nothing" choice. Children will often try a few foods they are not keen on if they get a chance to eat their favourites.
If they refuse to eat at meal times, they need to wait until the next meal time to eat (from the age of two). This might mean they have a bigger morning or afternoon tea, or they go to bed with an empty tummy. They will learn to make the most of their meal times.
Consider the Pikler Theory
Allowing children to develop at their own rate physically is all part of Pikler Theory, which is currently finding favour in many early childhood centres in New Zealand.
At home it means not wedging your child into a highchair before he is truly able to sit unsupported. (In fact, some people do away with the highchair altogether, instead allowing their babies to have ease of movement from a very early age.) You can use a child-sized table and chair set, or a strap-in chair that attaches to a regular dining chair.
It can make the early months more hands-on for you as a parent, but by the time the child is two, she tends to be far more able to sit still for longer periods at the table, and parents and teachers who use this approach find their children tend to stay where you want them without ongoing arguments.
Cobb & Co and Pizza Hut had children's entertainment down pat when we were kids. A pencil and a pile of paper puzzles kept us busy until the food came.
Use some of the same ideas at home and when you're out and about to make meal times enjoyable and less of a chore. If you need help to get the conversation started, try playing 20 Questions, or have a joke of the day, or make up silly poems and songs about your day together.
For some of us it was a rare treat as children to eat out, but now it's part of many Kiwi children's world, from fluffies at cafés to fries at fastfood joints.
If you've established good table manners at home, it'll be easier to transfer these to a public setting. But there are some things you can do to help avoid a public meltdown, not least of which is to give them a small snack on the way so they're not ravenous while they wait. Have a discussion with your children before leaving so they know what's expected of them, and be sure to pick a café that doesn't mind having children. Many cafés will bring out your children's food first to lessen their waiting time, but you'll want to have some paper and crayons ready to entertain them while you eat your meal.
Give manners a night off
One of the best things about rules is allowing them to be broken on special occasions. Every now and again, put a tablecloth on the floor or under a tree and eat takeaways.
Make food that is meant to be eaten with fingers (nachos, burgers, tacos) and enjoy the mess that ensues.
It's easiest if you wait to do this when you know they will stay at the table cloth, will have the manners to thank you, and can remember to wash their hands afterwards, before running off to play.
Rachel Goodchild runs courses on self management skills and education throughout New Zealand for both ECE teachers and parents. She is the mother of three girls who get nagged about their table manners on a regular basis.