Etiquette 101: Table Graces

Proper table Etiquette, the word itself makes some shutter and others have flashbacks to childhood where we were scolded for burping at the table and placing our elbows in the wrong place at the wrong time.  For others it’s a lost art, a skill we only see in the movies or possibly when we have a business lunch interview.

Table etiquette is a very important skill that our children need to successfully navigate through a future where “bad manners” are literally everywhere.  I’m rarely impressed with the manners and over-all etiquette skills I see with my generation and forward.  The basics of social and table graces have somehow slipped through the cracks and it’s high time we resurrect those skills that grandma so longed for us to carry on.

We’ve all been there.  We’re at the cafe or restaurant and all of a sudden the kid next to us starts throwing a food tantrum or worse demanding their parents give them a food item immediately.  My kids have done it and there is nothing more embarrassing as a parent than feeling like you have rude, unappreciative or ill mannered children.

A few years ago I was in a similar situation when all three of my children chose to use these primate like skills during a dinner one night.  I was furious!  First off, I teach etiquette to high school and college students.  I know, don’t judge.  Second, what kind of mother was I really being if I had all the knowledge on how to properly act at the table but beyond the basics of “please” and “thank you” wasn’t really firmly instilling those key social points to my kids?  After my rage diminished and the thought of tying them up with their napkins vanished, I decided to take action, etiquette boot camp action!

I literally went home and made a list of the skills my kids needed to learn to get through not only a meal but the rest of their social interactions involving food throughout their lives.

I then started implementing these skills slowly during meal times.  It was a slow process and not one that doesn’t take a serious look at your own personal etiquette skills as a parent.  Still the extra effort has been worth it and other than occasionally feeling like an animal trainer at the zoo, I have gained some incredible ground with my kids in this area.

Here are some of the etiquette boot camp topics I have used with my children and when I teach kids in “manner’s boot camp” style training.  They are easy to apply and once they have mastered one idea or topic, add another.  You’ll find will they will be eager to eventually master them all.  Leaving you confident that they have the skills needed to eventually teach the same etiquette to their kids one day.

Table Etiquette Topics:  These can be applied to children ages 3-Adult.  

Back to Basics:  This one is obvious but still needs to be listed first.  Please and Thank You.  There are not two words that ring sweeter off the tongue of a child or young person than these.  I emphasis them everyday and I don’t respond to requests or answers without them.  Be a hard-nose!  It’s worth it.

DEMANDS:  “Give me a drink” or “I want a bite”.  This type of communication at the table isn’t acceptable.  The exception is if a child is first learning to speak.  After that it’s no go.  The more appropriate requests should sounds like:  “May I have a drink please” or “May I please try a bite or have a bite”.  Rewording these simple sentences can make a HUGE different in the way your offspring communicate in the future.  Reinforce it now and don’t give into demands.

Ordering at a restaurant:  When it comes to kids and eating out every parent has their survival mechanisms.  Sometimes though we feel like we’ve lost the reigns when it comes to deciding what our kids eat when we go out.  The kids are yelling “we want this, we want that” and we can’t even see straight.  I’ve started taking a different approach to feeding my children when we go out.  Since I could fill a small thimble with what my kids really know about nutrition and eating correctly, I do the ordering.  I usually let them use the kids menu for a coloring sheet because being ridden with (fatty cheap carb and sodium laden deep fried meat options) that’s all it’s really good for.  They usually can share a regularly price menu item for less money and try new foods that they will need to know and love as adults.  They always end up happy and I have an easier time communicating with the server.  As they get older I let them have a choice in the matter, after I’ve trained them to make the “best choices for their health”.

Sitting STILL on your bottom:  This topic applies to children 3-8 but is important because it sets the stage for the future and how they act and react when they get older.

Napkins in your lap:  I like to have my children using napkins at every meal.  They don’t have to be cloth of course but the idea of always using a napkin saves not only the “clothing budget” but also helps them practice for when we eat out.

Saying……… Excuse me……. when entering the adult conversation during dinner.  All too often I find my kids butting into the conversations I’m having at the dinner table with my husband.  It’s one thing to be excited and want to communicate with the parents at the dinner table and for that matter perfectly normal.  On the other hand, it get a little frustrating when you are talking to your husband or wife and little voices chime in with wants, need and demands or worse complaints.  This has been the biggest battle at the table for my kids thus far.  They like to talk…… I wonder where they get it?  Regardless, it’s still a consistent topic of correction but one I’m not willing to give up on.


Learning the “Flatware” Game:  There are few times as a kid that you need more that one fork, spoon or knife.  Occasionally though I like to teach my kids the proper table setting for preparation as adults.  We play a game and I give prizes for using the correct utensils in the correct order.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  A simple salad, soup, entree and dessert mix-up of courses can be used.  The kids love to pretend and it gives you a chance to use those old plates and glasses you never get out anymore.

Chewing with your mouth closed and not talking with your mouth full:  These two very basic rules are part of being a civilized human, however they are all too soon forgotten.  Even as adults.  Reinforce these topics every meal with your little ones.

Elbows off the table…….REALLY:  I know it can be annoying to hear but there is a reason.  Elbows on the table send the body language message of being bored, uncultured or even rude during a meal.  I teach my kids if they are finished or at a point in-between eating and need to do something with their hands, to fold them and place them on their lap.  It looks nicer and is more accepted socially.

Not eating food on your plate:  This topic is tricky because every family and parent has their own way of dealing with this issue.  We hate to be the parent who creates portion control issues because we made our kids finish the “whole” plate.  We also don’t want to be the crazy parent who only lets their kids eat cheese and bread at every meal.  I believe in a healthy balance and love the approach Karen LeBillon takes in her book French Kids Eat Everything.  She suggests having them try everything at least once to develop their taste buds.  If the kid says they don’t like it, her reply is simple, “you haven’t tried it enough times to like it yet”.  I love this approach.

Burping:  It safe to say that all kids have maliciously burped during a home meal or even worse in public.  It’s hard habit to break especially if they have been laughed at by other kids or reinforced by adults.  Burping into your napkin or with your mouth closed is the best way to teach.  Reinforce with the proper “excuse me” and eventually they will get the memo.

Removing unwanted food from mouth:  The proper etiquette way to remove food from your mouth if you don’t want to swallow it is to place it back on your fork or spoon and them place that bite under your plate of in a napkin.  With kids it’s a little harder.  I have them first start with their napkin and if they are older with the utensil.

Refusing options:  The ideal way to refuse a food option during dinner is “No Thank You”.  Still there are the times when the child can say that with every option.  I like to set number rules.  I tell my children you can either try this or that (usually two healthy options).  I also like giving them number requirement when we are at a buffet or a dinner party.  “You have to try at least 3 vegetables or 3 new things”.  They don’t always like the numbers but it at least gives them something tangible to shoot for.

Finishing the meal:  Every situation is different however I still like  “May I please be excused”?  That phase is not just a saying from the 1950’s.  It’s still relevant today and such a nice way to have your kids exit the dinner table.


Requesting food or drink at a restaurant or public place:  As children get older they become more confident interacting with service staff when dining out.  I try to model the sentences I want my kids to use by having them practice on me first.  My son once said, “hey minster, bring me some more water”.  I was mortified.  We immediately started practicing the saying, “Excuse me sir, may I please have some more water”?  I definitely sleep better at night now.


These ideas are not all inclusive and some have exceptions to family traditions and expectations.  By far my kids aren’t perfect when it comes to proper etiquette at the table.  By using a few of these ideas every week they are getting better and it sure has made my life a lot easier.

Best wishes,


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