Though chewing with one's mouth wide-open might seem obviously rude to you, kids aren't born with table manners. But simple rules -- like staying seated in chairs, keeping elbows off the table and passing food instead of reaching across -- can make the difference between an enjoyable dinner and what starts to feel like a food-fueled free-for-all. Learning basic dinner etiquette should be an enjoyable experience that helps your kids feel confident and grown-up, rather than something they associate with constant correction and criticism.
Before the Meal
While some meals may be eaten in the car or on the run, you want to impress upon your children that certain tasks are required before sitting down to dinner. Washing their hands with soap and water should take place before any meal, but washing their faces before sitting down to dinner is an additional step. Children in kindergarten and older should learn that, at the very least, proper dinner etiquette means wearing clean clothes that aren't covered in paint, dirt or sweat.
Your children should learn that eating dinner is a calm and relaxed affair and one that requires waiting patiently until you have been served. Children should place their napkin in their laps, and younger children can fasten their bibs while waiting for food to be served. Children old enough to reliably handle heavier dishes should learn to pass a dish to others after serving themselves, so that everyone at the table has a chance to eat.
Comments and Conversation
Part of dinner etiquette is not offending the the host (or Mom and Dad) regarding the dinner food. Children should learn that statements such as "I hate this," "I don't like carrots" or "This is gross" are never acceptable during dinner -- or any other meal, for that matter. If your children dislike a particular food, it's best to say "no thank you" when offered the dish or simply not eat that particular part of the meal if at someone else's home. Kids should also not bring up blood, vomit or bathroom language during dinner.
Mouth manners can be a huge source of embarrassment for parents, especially during a sit-down dinner. Explain that nobody wants to see their chewed-up food, and they should keep their mouths closed while eating and speak only after swallowing their food. Also, children should learn to excuse themselves, or at least cover their mouths, when coughing or sneezing. Burping is not appropriate at the table, and kids should learn to do so quietly with their mouths closed and covered while saying "excuse me" afterward.
Children's bodies can be a source of distraction and stress for many parents, especially at a sit-down dinner. Teach your kids that part of having good manners means staying seated while eating, keeping their elbows off the table and sitting up straight. They shouldn't be putting their heads on the table or playing with their food while eating. Keep your expectations age-appropriate, though. For example, it's much harder for a for a 2-year-old to sit through a 30-minute dinner than it is for a kindergartener.