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6 Surprisingly Simple Mealtime Rules for Kids

Recently, I wrote a blog post about eating rules for kids. It was targeted at some of the common eating rules for kids that I feel need to be eliminated.

In other words, those rules which parents might commonly use at the meal table, and which don’t have a long-term, positive outcome for kids.

{Read: 7 Eating Rules for Kids that Need to Go Away}

Little hands taking pizza slices; mealtime manners

In response to that post, one reader challenged that there should be some rules for kids at the table, stating that

The time spent at the table is like any other time in the day, it’s part of every day for every one, and thus it also has rules that need to be introduced to children slowly, taking into account their age and development.

I couldn’t agree more.

After all, we’re raising adults, and in the process, we need to teach kids how to operate in the world (nicely), as well as in our own home.

Here are a 6 simple mealtime rules for kids I think they all should learn:

Use polite requests and refusals.

Children should learn how to politely ask for food, and refuse it. You can teach your child to verbalize their preferences with words like please, thank you, and no thank you.

We taught our children at a very young age to lead with “May I please have…” and “No thank you (with a smile).” Now, as teenagers, they still use “May I please have…” when we go out to restaurants and even at home. To me, these are basic, easy words that give kids the tools to nicely navigate the mealtime no matter where they are.

Chew with the mouth closed.

For very young children, this will be a difficult task and it may take a few years for your child to master chewing and moving food around in his or her mouth while his lips are sealed. Be patient while nudging your child toward the goal of chewing with his mouth closed.

Do not talk with food in the mouth.

This is an extension of the above mealtime manner. You and I know it’s no fun to converse with someone who has food falling out of their mouth while they speak.

{Yes, I’ve met some adults who haven’t mastered this simple eating manner—don’t let your child become one of them.}

Simply ask that they chew up their food before talking. And wait politely for them to do so.

Stay at the table until excused.

There is value in teaching your child to wait for others to finish eating. Of course, you’ll need to be realistic with how long your child sits at the table waiting for others to finish.

Little ones can’t sit for a 30-minute meal, nor should they be made to. 

If your child is finished eating, but there are others who are still eating, have him sit for a few minutes out of respect. Engage him in conversation, and excuse him after a reasonable period or time or, if he’s older, when the other diners are done.

Use a napkin.

It’s natural to want to wipe your child’s face if he is getting messy, but this is an easy task to teach. Your child may need some hands-on instruction, and some gentle reminders at the table, but in time, your child will learn how to wipe his own mouth and keep his fingers and hands clean.

Pass food around the table.

Around the age of 5, children can start to pass platters and bowls of food to the person sitting next to him. When our kids were little, my husband and I situated ourselves strategically between the younger children so that we could help them, while our older children handled passing food on their own.

This approach is called family-style feeding.

Learning manners doesn’t need to be an oppressive or negative experience for children. Quite the contrary.

Teaching simple manners helps children manage themselves while sending the message that they are capable human beings—an important developmental milestone for all children.

What manners do you think children should have at the meal table?

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  1. I’m always looking for ways to do things with my by racial now 1 yr. old twin grandchildren. One is a girl and the other is a boy. I’m their nanny so to speak while their parents work. However it has been many years since I have had to take care of such little ones and I feel it’s now time for them to start feeding themselves or at the least learning how. So right now I’m looking for tips on how to master this oh but messy fun time necessity. So I’m open to all ideas but mostly those that will actually work if you know what I mean. I must go for now because I hear both of them have woken up. I look forward to our fun time today. For everyday I find is a fun time adventure with them. ?

    1. Hi Carol,

      Sounds like you are enjoying your time with your grandchildren–what a blessing! Feel free to poke around here on the blog for information, and also take a look at my book, Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School–great info on this age group with some very practical suggestions for feeding them.