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Teaching Table Manners to Kids in a Chicken Nugget World

Table manners may not matter now for your kid, but they are crucial for future success in life

Child-focused foods are often nugget-shaped or packaged in pouches to be slurped or plucked from the plate with fingers. This can make teaching kids table manners a tough proposition at dinner time. But even if they rarely find themselves in the presence of a fork, knife and napkin, table manners for kids are still important, even at kid-friendly restaurants. In fact, good manners can also help in crucial social situations that could affect the future course of their lives.

Why Table Manners for Kids Still Matter

Holiday family meals will likely never go out of style. But even festive feasting with the family can be a dubious reason for teaching table manners. After all, grandparents and doting aunties and uncles can be incredibly forgiving (or even encouraging) of the occasional dinner burp of napkin neglect. So it helps to find motivation outside of the family, in situations where a child’s behavior at the table reflects as much on them, as it does on their parents.

“There’s going to be an event you need to go to where you are going to want your children to have table manners so that they don’t embarrass the whole family and people don’t look down on you for not teaching manners to them,” explains etiquette expert Jennifer L. Scott, New York Times bestselling author of Connoisseur Kids. But manners go beyond simply saving face and building parental clout notes Scott who is also known as Madame Chic. In fact, they could be critical to a child’s personal and professional development.

“Teaching table manners is such important preparation for life,” Scott says. “I guarantee when they have their first job and they go out to lunch with coworkers or have a special dinner with someone they have met romantically, your kids are going to want to have good table manners.”

How to Teach Table Manners to Kids

Manners at the dinner table are traditionally taught to children via frustrated pleading to “please, for the love of all that is holy, use your fork and don’t wipe that gravy on your shirt.” But, while gentle reminders over dinner are fine, building a base of table manners during the chaos and distraction of a nightly meal may not be the best approach.

For that reason, Scott encourages parents to practice table manners skills with a simulated dinner, or what she calls a “dress rehearsal”. The idea is to role-play manners in a low stakes and fun atmosphere. Moreover, Scott suggests that parents keep food out of the equation during these practice sessions to keep kids focused.

“Set the table nicely. Maybe a little more elevated than your normally would on a random Tuesday night,” she explains. “Then, go from the beginning of the meal to the end of the meal, asking what to do next after each step.”

Scott also asks that parents keep the table manners simple. She notes that there’s no reason for parents to get into which utensil is the fish fork, or the proper way to scoop soup into a spoon (away from you with the back edge of the spoon first, incidentally). After all, the more complicated rules are just likely to get confusing and the chance children will run into them is slim.

The Essential Table Manners to Teach Kids

To keep things simple, Scott recommends that parents keep table manners to a set of basics to begin with. Here are her essentials:

  • Sitting down nicely and staying in their seat
  • Keeping a napkin in their lap
  • Using a napkin to wipe their face
  • No burping or farting at the table
  • Wait for everyone to sit before eating
  • Use utensils when necessary for the type of food.
  • Engage in conversation
  • Ask to be excused
  • Wait to leave until everyone is finished.
  • Thank the Chef.

But just because the best way to teach table manners is through dress rehearsals, doesn’t mean all bets are off the rest of the time. In fact, as Scott points out, table manners should be a part of the family meal DNA. Because when parents model and children practice, the behavior becomes natural.

“I say that we should always practice these things behind closed doors even if no ones there and no ones watching,” Scott says. “That way it naturally becomes who we are and it’s not going to come across as fake or false.”

So even if your kid is cramming nuggets in their mouth, saying excuse me and using a napkin still counts for something.