Learning Through Play for 70 Years

Managing Meal Time

In this “FROM THE TEACHERS” segment, we address meal time.

Mealtimes may be messy business for preschool-aged children. But it’s not too soon to begin working with your preschooler at home to practice mealtime skills and manners.

There’s no harm in introducing manners early, as long as you avoid punishing children for forgetting the rules. Reinforcing positive behavior is probably the most effective way to teach manners. So instead of catching your child in those times when he/she isn’t performing correctly, try recognizing/rewarding a mealtime rule is followed. Rather than scolding and nagging, give a gentle reminder about what you expect at the table. Secondly, it’s always a good idea to teach by example. When your child eats with you, demonstrate simple manners and while you’re at it, explain why. For example, “We wipe our mouths with a napkin when we eat so that we don’t look messy.”

When beginning to teach mealtime manners it’s better to concentrate on one or two manners at a time rather than overwhelming your child with rules and information. Begin with a couple of easy concepts, such as using a napkin and asking to be excused, and then show him how you do it. Sticker charts can also work well as an incentive to encourage good manners. He can pick a sticker and put it on the chart himself. Once your child masters those first rules—which can take several weeks, at least—introduce two more rules.

What mealtime skills does a kindergarten student need? Here are a few to consider:

Hand washing
Place the napkin in your lap.
Use of utensils
Sitting up straight
Elbows off the table
Lift food to your mouth (as opposed to bobbing the head down to the plate)
Staying seated until being excused
Keeping food on the plate
Eating/chewing with a closed mouth
Asking a specific person to pass what is needed (and no reaching)
Saying “Thank you”
Avoiding any statement such as “ I don’t like (insert food/drink here)”, “yuck” or “that’s gross”
Thanking the cook and asking to be excused

If your preschooler has not practiced table manners and learned good mealtime skills, now is the time to provide them the opportunity to do so. Develop some mealtime routines and rules. Demonstrate good manners to your preschooler. Serve foods that allow your preschooler to practice using silverware. Eat at the table and enjoy one another’s company. Your child will enjoy the extra time spent as a family.
Now that my children are older and I am teaching preschool, I realize that I could have done better as a mother in this area. So much for perfection! On a personal note, my biggest pet peeve is when people start eating before everyone is seated at the table. We now pray to begin our meal. However, it was not always that way and I still see my children digging in before everyone is seated and before the prayer of thanks. However you start your meal, make sure there are a clear start and finish. If I had it to do all over again in my family, I would emphasize that our meal begins with prayer … and then it ends by asking to be excused and thanking the cook. As I watch the children at school sing their “thank you song” before snack, I realize how simple it could have been to eliminate what continues to be my main irritation/regret at our family’s dinner table.

Teaching children to mind their manners at the table, whether at home or in public, can be an ongoing challenge. Yet, with consistent modeling and plenty of reminders from parents, children can develop table manners that will serve them well throughout their lives. Tell your kids that table manners are more than about proper eating. Manners are about being kind and considerate of others. Also, tell them that although you know that they are smart and nice, other people will judge them (whether or not it is fair to do so), based on simple observations, including table manners. Having proper table manners is one way people judge others. You never know when your child will someday make or break a business deal or need to impress a future in-law. At worst, poor table manners can appear primitive and even repulsive! But learned properly, table manners are valuable and often-used life skills!
Here are some old, perhaps familiar, rhymes that may make teaching mealtime rules more fun. Enjoy!

Sit up straight, Sit up tall, No one wants to see you fall!

Just as the ships go out to sea, I push my spoon away from me. (When drinking soup using a soup spoon)

Lazy Mable, please get your elbows off the table.

Remember salt and pepper always travel together

The Goops, by Gillette Burgess
The Goops they lick their fingers
And the Goops they licked their knives
They spill their froth on the tablecloth
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I 
am not a Goop, are you?