We take a lot of table manners for granted as adults because it’s been so long since learned them. We forget that even the basics can be difficult for a toddler – things like using a spoon or asking for more.
Additionally, there are some phases toddlers go through that are definitely not acceptable table manners.
I would like to provide you with a list here of easily attainable toddler-appropriate table manners and how to teach them.
The easiest utensil for children to begin with is a spoon. Beginning to use utensils can be frustrating for children because at that point a) they are more efficient with their hands, and b) they don’t mind the mess. Toddlers will usually put their spoon down several times during the meal and revert to eating with their hands. Consistency is key here.
Take their hand and wrap it around the spoon for them, then demonstrate with their hand on the spoon how to dip it into their food and bring it to their mouth. One of the most difficult things for them is just figuring out the most effective way to bring the food to their mouth. Often they will get their hand twisted around the spoon upside down and get discouraged by the fact that they aren’t getting much to their mouth.
Continue demonstrating, modeling, and encouraging them to use their spoon correctly. Once they realize they can get a better mouthful with their spoon than with their hands, they will be inclined to use their spoon regularly. This is a good time to begin showing them how a fork can be handy for foods that don’t fit well on a spoon.
Asking for more
This site has a video demonstration and an animated model showing the sign language for the word “more”. This is an easy motion for your baby or toddler to make. Once they have mastered the word (and meaning!) of “more”, you can move on to adding “please”.
These two words can be combined to help your child learn good manners when they indicate that they would like some more food or drink.
You should say the word at the same time that you make the sign so that when they begin to talk, they already understand the meaning of those two words and that they should be used together at the table.
Naturally, after “please” comes “thank you”. Thank you is a slightly more difficult concept for children to grasp because they aren’t being rewarded for it. It’s a bit abstract to learn that after they are given something, they should say “thank you”.
One of the best ways to do this is just by modeling it. Whenever your child gives you something, tell them “thank you” and make the sign. Children love to do what they see you doing. Once they are old enough to start talking and understanding, you can also prompt them when they are given something by asking “What should you say?” They will need a few reminders at first, but will eventually get the hang of it.
Keeping food and drink on the table
This is a big issue for toddlers.
Innocent food-dropping is one thing. Toddlers are just clumsy little creatures and will inevitably knock a lot of food and drink off the table without realizing it. Teach them to clean up what they drop. This will make them more aware when they drop food on the floor because then they know they will have to spend time cleaning it up afterwards. Also, teach them to keep their chair pushed in and their drink far away from the edge of the table.
What many toddlers go through is a phase of intentional cup throwing, or sometimes even plate throwing. This can be exasperating for parents. However, there is a simple solution.
When your child throws their cup, they can have one warning. Tell them verbally “Your cup needs to stay on the table if you’re drinking”. The second time they throw it, take it away.
Now, you may be concerned about children staying properly hydrated and I am ALL FOR THAT. But when I taught it a one-year-old classroom with a cup-thrower, I noticed something. When we came in from the playground on a hot summer afternoon, she would drink an entire cup of water without throwing it once.
I would like to propose (as I have in the past) that children are aware of when they are thirsty or hungry. It may be a game the first few meals they throw their cup to see if you pick it up. But once they get thirsty enough, they will be more inclined to hold onto it.
Putting their dishes away
From a very young age, children can be trained to put their plate, cup, and utensils in the sink when they finish their meal. This makes clean up easier for you, and is a good start to cleaning up after themselves in all areas of life. By 2 or 3, they can even be scraping off excess food in the trash can beforehand.
Kids are eager to help at that age, so getting them to put their dishes away is often fairly simple. Just show them how you do it and ask them to do the same. Chances are, they will pitter-patter after you to do exactly what you did.