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Toddler Tips

Table Manners

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 20 No. 5, September-October 2003, pp. 187

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Situation

My husband and I enjoy eating out and preparing special meals to enjoy at home with friends and family. We have had no problems in restaurants—even fancy ones—with a nursing infant. But now that our daughter is 18 months old, she is much more difficult to keep entertained during a restaurant meal. We even find that meals at home are becoming stressful. What are some tips other families have used to teach their toddlers table manners and how do other families handle restaurant meals?

Response

I can relate so well when you say that eating fancy dinners and going to restaurants with an 18-month-old is difficult! Getting all dressed up for a special dinner and then caring for small children who are spilling things all over the table, the floor, and themselves is a challenge, to say the least. Inevitably, I'd end up having to take one or more of our children outside so that they could run around a bit while everyone else finished their meals. My husband and I finally came to the conclusion that we needed to rethink the way we'd been doing things. We normally eat family-style meals at home, and we try to keep things relaxed and enjoyable. The children help in choosing the menu. This goes a long way toward keeping them happy at the table. When they get restless, they're usually finished eating or just not hungry, so they're excused from the table.

Sometimes we take them out for meals, but not to fancy restaurants. Instead, we eat out at the more family-friendly places in our area so that when they get restless, it isn't so noticeable. In our family, it's taken the children years to learn table manners. We do try to reinforce good manners even with the youngest ones.

When my husband and I want a romantic dinner, I'll feed the children something simple that I know they'll like early in the evening. While they're eating, my husband goes out to one of several local restaurants and gets takeout meals. After the children finish dinner, I get them settled in bed while my husband sets the table for a special dinner.

For holiday dinners, the grown ups eat in the dinning room and the children in the kitchen. Usually my sister and I will take turns supervising the children's party while a very grownup meal takes place in the dining room.

Ann Anzul
Madison NJ USA

Response

Kudos to you for wanting to eat together as a family. I think that is one of the most important things families can do together. Sharing a meal and conversation makes for healthy, happy people. Here's what's worked for our two- and four-year-old children:

  1. Go to restaurants when it's not crowded and you don't have to wait for a table.
  2. Try to eat at restaurants where you can call in your order ahead of time to eat there. We do this just before we leave for the restaurant. The food is ready shortly after we arrive.
  3. We find it works better if we arrive at the restaurant when our children are hungry (not famished). That way they want to sit at the table and eat—not get down and run around.
  4. Restaurants with a fenced outdoor patio are wonderful for children. We eat outside, if it's possible. Even if you can't eat outside it sure helps to have a secure place to take restless children while waiting for food or the bill to pay.
  5. Bring some small toys, books, markers, paper, or other items that are inexpensive. I keep some of these items so that my children can only play with them when we go out to eat.
  6. Let your children eat and play with certain items at the table. For example, my children love to sprinkle a little Parmesan cheese or salt on their bread plate and mix with a spoon or spread butter on bread with a butter knife.
  7. Realize that children under the age of about four or five are not capable of sitting still (when not eating) for more than 15 or 20 minutes.
  8. When preparing meals at home, let your child do as many things as safely possible to help prepare the meal. I spread a small sheet on the kitchen floor and let my children help with different types of preparation. Then I just toss the sheet in the washer —no sweeping or wiping up.
  9. When my children become restless at the table, we let them leave the table and go play (with an adult, if necessary). We don't try to make them sit still and listen to adult conversation when they're finished eating.

Katherine Brownell
Dallas TX USA

Response

We have four daughters, ages 16, 14, eight, and almost two years old. My husband and I learned early on that we could enjoy meals more if we had the right expectations.

Since nursing children are used to eating on demand and not waiting, we would go to restaurants for early dinners when our wait to be seated and to be served would be short. Nursing or having a short snack before we left home often helped my child stay calm while waiting for the food at the restaurant. If for some reason we couldn't go early but had to eat out (for example, when we were on vacation), we would walk our daughter outside when she got fussy. For some reason, snacks I would bring along with me never satisfied any of our daughters when we were at a restaurant.

At home, we allow our toddler to eat when she's hungry. If she wants to eat before the meal is ready to be served we let her. She may or may not sit at the table with us once the food is ready. Gradually, as she gets older she will begin to understand waiting for the meal to be ready. We don't expect our toddler to have table manners. But we do remove her from the table if she gets creative with the food. We clean it up and let her go play. As the adults, we display good manners, and that seems to work in our family.

Margaret Pezzella
Lincolnshire IL USA

Response

My husband and I also enjoy eating out, and we found that preparation was the key to enjoying meals both at home and at restaurants. For meals out, we keep a basket of small toys, such as cars and trains, a few Lego blocks, finger puppets, magnetic play sets, stickers, lift-the-flap books, a bag of pipe cleaners, and pom-poms, and small plastic character toys. We rotate the toys frequently so our son can build obstacle courses at the table or we can play peek-a-boo with the puppets. We also invested in a set of markers and paper with a combination clipboard and document holder. Since the markers work only on special paper, they're ideal for the car or restaurants and the clipboard keeps it all together. The toys and a small "playable" snack from home (like Cheerios or pretzels) usually got him through to the arrival of the food. Sometimes, though, quiet play just doesn't happen or service is slow, so we also kept a box of bigger toys—such as shape sorters, a flashlight, small musical toys, a ball, and a magnifying glass—in the car. If need be, one of us could take him outside to explore the landscaping or play in the car for a few minutes.

We also found that it really helped to familiarize ourselves with a few standby restaurants that we enjoyed. We kept take-out menus at home. We found out which places were amenable to substitutions (like rice or steamed veggies for the inevitable fries). We looked for restaurants with plenty of booths and a child-friendly atmosphere. We look for entrees that could serve as both our dinner and a child's meal. We were often able to place our meal order along with our drink order. It also helped to order dessert and ask for the bill soon after the main meal arrived; that way if we needed to make a quick exit, we could. As time went on, our son even learned how to tell the wait person what he wanted to drink and what side dish he preferred and then to say thank you as we were leaving.

Meals at home are handled in much the same way: we keep special toys, such as refrigerator magnets, activity place mats, or a captivating book, that he can play with alone while we cook or finish eating. We also don't expect him to stay at the table once he's reached his limit; we simply call him back after the meal to help clean up. Early on, though, he began to enjoy helping with food preparation, fetching from the pantry, and setting the table. We even found place mats that had place settings drawn on them, so he learned where to put silverware and napkins. A bonus was that learning table manners was actually fun when he was responsible for setting up the "classroom," as it were. Now, at two, he helps sets the table, carries his plate to and from the table, and puts dirty napkins in the laundry after meals. Spills and mistakes are inevitable, but it's great to see the pride in his face.

The most important thing we learned was not to be embarrassed by childish behavior in public places, or to expect him to act older than his age—he is, after all, a child! By making accommodations for him and adjusting our expectations (quiet, lingering dinners are now gifts from extended family willing to baby-sit for an evening!) we're helping him learn how to function in adult situations much sooner than he would if we waited until he was old enough to "behave." Expect a few dirty looks at first (we got our share!), but also expect lots of positive comments. Taking time for your children makes an obvious difference, and people will notice.

Leslie Connor
Houston TX USA

Response

Thank you so much for thinking about how your child can learn to behave well in public, both for her own sake and for the sake of others! Guiding your daughter politely, with love and respect of her feelings, will help teach her true consideration of others. Alerting her to how you and others like to be asked will help her to develop specific social skills.

Developing realistic expectations of her growing abilities can help you all avoid frustration and can help her develop those budding skills without resentment. I learned the art of family watching before I ever became a mother myself. I'd observed most parents' putting their toddlers into restaurant high chairs as the rest of their family sits down to decide what to order. I saw the children begin to fidget and go beyond their sitting endurance, sometimes before the food arrived!

When my own children grew beyond the age of snuggling or nursing contentedly in my arms, we hit upon another plan for restaurant dining. If a menu were posted, we would read it even before being seated. If not, one of us would stand and hold the toddler while quickly deciding, then tell the other one our order. The designated walker was then free to walk around with our little one, pointing out artwork, fixtures, and other sights. Little ones can be intrigued by how bathroom latches work, how floor tiles make a pattern, how lights are similar to or different from those at home, and all sorts of interesting things. We'd keep an eye on the rest of the family, to arrive at our table concurrently with the meals.

Only when the food came did we put the toddler into the highchair or booster seat. Typically, we had plenty of time to eat before restlessness set in. Even though these "mini field trips" were presented as a treat, my children later reported that they came to believe it was a great privilege to earn the right to remain at the table throughout the ordering and waiting!

We explained to our older children that some adults enjoy talking to children in restaurants, while others prefer not to. My oldest asked, "How do you know which are which?"

"That is a good question," I admitted. "I wonder how?"

He decided to conduct a quiet survey. He was so respectful in his approach to some nearby diners that they were utterly charmed by his question and were glad to answer. (Most thanked him for asking and explained that sometimes they wanted privacy, while other times they enjoyed such conversations.)

We once took a five-year-old and a seven-year-old into an upscale restaurant whose sign stated, "No children under six."

The hostess asked us whether the petite little one was six yet. "No," we freely admitted, "but she does know restaurant manners."

She sized us up and seated us, reminding us that they had neither high chairs nor booster seats. The meal went very well and they thanked us for our patronage as we left.

Susan Johnson Blake
Valrico FL USA

Last updated Tuesday, October 24, 2006 by njb.
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