If you’re still in the throes of the bowl-throwing phase, the concept of introducing table manners to your child may seem like a frankly laughable concept. But it’s never too soon to start encouraging those all-important mealtime Ps and Qs. Developmentally, the finer points of polite eating, like asking if she can get down from the table, will have to wait until she’s at least two, but you can easily start her off with the basics while she’s still a toddler.
Basic table manners for tiny tots
Most of your toddler’s table etiquette will be absorbed by imitating you. To model that good mealtime behaviour, make sure you sit down together to eat. If you’re less than keen on having your dinner at 4.30pm, at least join her at the table and have a drink or a snack.
Good basic manners to foster even in a young toddler include making sure she washes her hands before mealtimes, and encouraging her to say please and thank you when she is handed her food and drink. Don’t worry if she’s not great at talking just yet; if you say the words for her in all the right places, she’ll pick up on what is expected when her speech improves.
Other starter mealtime manners include flagging up that all important ‘no throwing’ rule, making sure there are no toys to distract her at the table, and teaching her how to match the right cutlery to the right foods (in other words, fingers are fine with cheese on toast, but always use a spoon for baked beans…).
Always remember that you’re acting as your toddler’s role model, so make sure that you, her dad and any older siblings all follow the same rules that you’ve set for her too. How can she be expected to sit at the table to eat her snack if you’re walking around holding a cup of tea and biscuit?
Practice makes perfect
A good way to help your toddler to practise her mealtime etiquette is to help her throw her very own doll or teddy tea party. Your little one will love being in charge of the dinner table, but just be prepared to hear your words coming back at you from her mouth: ‘No, teddy, I told you to sit nicely!’
Arranging a few lunchtime play dates with friends of her own age can help too, and give you an opportunity to let off steam with other mums in the same boat.
Giving your child some choice over the food she eats – such as choosing which vegetables she wants with a meal, or helping you cook her favourite dinner – will help turn her from a passive participant into a more eager, active one. For example, making pizza together is quick and easy, and she can bring out her artistic side by putting on the toppings. If she feels that mealtimes are fun rather than a chore, she’s more likely to participate politely rather than causing a ruckus.
While good manners are important for your child to grasp, try and be realistic about what she’s capable of, and don’t spend every mealtime correcting her. Avoid the temptation to force to her to eat everything on her plate and accept it when she shows you (or tells you when she’s a bit bigger) that she’s had enough. Expecting her to sit at the table for long enough to eat her meal is reasonable, but insisting on her staying there quietly throughout a two-hour family dinner at a restaurant is probably a step too far. And don’t mistake toddler clumsiness for bad behaviour; even impeccably mannered tots can’t help accidentally upending their beaker.
Above all, try to praise the good and play down the bad. If you avoid turning mealtimes into a battleground by dishing up plenty of positivity, your toddler will be happy to sit and eat with you and be far more likely to behave.