Tired of your kids’ sloppy habits at the dinner table? Make learning good manners fun with these 11 manners challenges! Focus on just one a month so each new custom becomes an ingrained habit for your kids before you move on to the next one.

January’s challenge: Show appreciation

Help your kids start a habit of thanking those who prepared the meal. Give a small reward, such as a few candies, to each child who remembers to offer a nice “thank you” five days in a row, without any prompting.

February’s challenge: Don’t interrupt others

Use this fun variation of the popular dinner party game of Measles to teach kids not to interrupt others during dinnertime conversation.

Start with the traditional rules: Everyone chooses a fun new name they would like to use through dinnertime. When someone accidentally uses another’s real name, they get a red dot drawn on their face with lipstick. Here’s the variation: Every time someone interrupts someone else, draw two measles on the interrupter’s face.

March's challenge: Chew politely

This month’s challenge is to teach the kids not to talk with food in their mouth and to always keep their mouth closed when they chew their food.

And here’s a fun manners reminder that helps underscore how unpleasant these habits are for others: When person A notices person B offending, have person A suddenly “freeze in horror.” (A grossed-out expression is optional!) Others at the table have to guess who caused the offence and how. Unfreeze person A with an apology from the offender.

April's challenge: Show up promptly

April's challenge for your family is to work on applying this good manners rule: We show consideration for others by coming to the table as quickly as we can when we have been called to dinner.

To help motivate your kids, think of a small privilege you can bestow on the child who is first to the table with clean hands; perhaps they can be excused from dinnertime cleanup duties, or have the honour of using a special placemat. While your early bird is waiting for others to arrive at the table, challenge them to spend their "waiting time" thinking of a compliment they can give someone over dinner.

For older children, challenge them to use their "waiting for the meal to arrive" time by being helpful. Deliberately leave some necessities off the table, such as salt and pepper, and challenge them to spot what is missing and bring it to the table.

May's challenge: Linger and connect

This month’s manners challenge helps you set clear expectations around the duration of family mealtimes. You’ll reap the benefits in the years to come, since teens tend to want to “eat and run!”

  • If your children are already tweens or teens, begin setting expectations by making this request each mealtime: Please respect this family time by remaining at the table for at least ___ minutes before asking to be excused.

  • For children in elementary school, challenge them to remember to ask permission before leaving the table. Give a small reward if they ask, Please may I be excused? without prompting. You might also want to consider responding to a request to leave the table like this: Our family time together is important. So I would like you to stay at the table for ___ more minutes. (Ask your child to stay one minute for every year of their age.) The goal is to gradually ease your kids into staying at the table together for a full 30 minutes, (or whatever length of time is ideal for your family.)

June's challenge: Don’t reach for it; request it

For the month of June, help your children learn to politely ask for something that they need from the table, rather than trying to reach too far for it. At the same time, also reinforce that they shouldn’t reach across someone else’s plate. When you notice someone breaking this good manners rule, have some fun by reciting this rhyme together:

Sit up straight and never reach across a plate.
If you can't reach what you need, then you're going to have to wait.
Say “Please pass the ______” and show manners that are great!

For older children and teens who have already mastered this rule, focus instead on teaching the correct way to pass food on serving dishes around the table, which is from left to right, i.e., counter-clockwise.

July's challenge: Slowing down gobblers

Gulping down food as if mealtime is a race is not just poor manners, it puts kids at risk of choking too. If you’ve got some gobblers in your family, it may be time to teach your kids how to pace themselves as they eat. Here are some tips to help:

Introduce your manners challenge with a discussion about the importance of eating slowly and safely. You could start by asking your children if they’ve noticed how cows eat (slowly, methodically and chewing well). Then, invite your children to think about how a dog eats differently from a cow. You might ask a series of questions like:

  • Which animal takes time to really enjoy the taste of their food?
  • Which animal might be at risk of choking on their food?
  • Which animal seems to be the most polite eater?
  • Why do you think a dog usually gulps down their food so quickly?

    Use your discussion as a natural lead-in to introducing the good habits you want to see at home:

  • cutting food into small, bite-sized pieces
  • chewing food well before swallowing
  • waiting about five seconds before loading up your fork with the next bite.

    To help slow down a habitually speedy eater:

  • dim the lights and play slow, meditative background music
  • eat with chopsticks, or use a spoon instead of a fork to make it harder to pick up some foods
  • teach appropriate chew-time pauses by having everyone put down their fork after each bite, then leisurely trace a circle around the outside of their plate with their index finger before picking up their fork again. (Make sure cups and glasses are well away from each plate first!)
  • remove any incentives to eat quickly (i.e., don’t let a “fast food” lover leave the table early; make them wait until everyone else is finished too).

August's challenge: No elbows on the table

Are you tired of reminding your kids No elbows on the table? Do your kids wave their arms around as if they're riding a roller coaster rather than eating a meal? Here's a simple idea to help kids learn to keep their arms in appropriate positions:

Make a special pair of “gloves” for each child by cutting old pairs of knee-high socks in half just above the heel. Slide the remaining calf sections over your child’s arms to indicate “the zone” (wrists and forearms) that is permitted to rest on the table while cutting food or loading it onto a fork. Make sure your child’s elbow is bare and point out that the elbow is not “in the zone.” Encourage the kids to rest their gloved arms in their laps when not eating. (Splurge for a pair of fun, colourful socks if you feel like it. For girls, you might call them “princess” gloves; boys will warm to the idea of Batman, firemen or cowboy gloves.)

The gloves have the added advantage of protecting sleeve cuffs from food. If the idea works well for your kids, you might want to make several pairs per child so you can rotate them through the laundry.

September's challenge: Say it with cutlery

This month, help your children learn to send “secret messages” by resting their cutlery on their plate in different positions.

First, show your kids the secret message that signals to waiters and others, Don’t remove my plate; I’m not done with my meal yet: Rest the knife and fork so they form an upside-down V on the plate. (If you imagine your plate as a clock face, this means resting the fork handle at the 8 on the clock face, and resting the knife handle at the 4.) The fork should rest with the tines facing down, and the blade of the knife should face toward the centre of the plate.

Next, show your children how to send the message, I’m finished with my meal; you may take my plate: Rest both knife and fork side by side, pointing from bottom right of the plate to top left. (Imagining a clock again, rest both knife and fork with the handles resting on the 5, and their tips pointing toward the 11.) Once again, the fork goes tines down; the knife blade points to the centre.

To practice, let your children take turns playing “waiter.” See if they can correctly guess the secret messages others send with their cutlery.

October's challenge: Proper use of a napkin

Christmas isn’t too far away. And during the holiday season, your kids will likely face some dining situations that are more formal than usual. That makes now a great time to practice proper use of a staple of fine dining experiences: the napkin.

To have a little fun as your kids learn napkin manners, have your kids mime the proper and improper use of their napkin as you read this rhyme aloud:

The Napkin Rap

Calmly unfold your napkin,
On your lap is where it goes,
It's not for hiding food scraps,
Nor a tissue for your nose.

Gently dab your lips with it,
But don't make a full-face swish,
And when the meal is over,
Do not dump it in your dish.

Just grasp it in the centre,
Shape it like a tiny ghost,
Lay it down left of your plate,
And be sure to thank your host!

If you prefer not to mention ghosts, here's an alternative ending:

Just grasp it in the centre,
Form a rocket bound for space,
Then lay it on the table,
To the left side of your place.

November's challenge: Passing the salt and pepper

Christmas is just around the corner – the season of larger-than-usual family gatherings. When there are loads of people seated around the dinner table, someone is sure to ask “Please pass the salt.” Will your children be ready to respond correctly?

Here's the polite way to pass the salt and pepper:

Always pass the salt and the pepper together (even if someone requests only the salt). Place both on the table near the person’s plate, not into their hand. Don’t quickly sprinkle your food first before passing the salt and pepper on. If you need salt or pepper too, wait until the “requestor” is done, then you can politely ask them to pass the salt and pepper back again.

Help your kids practice this month by making a habit of requesting the salt and pepper at every meal. Invite your children to decide whether the salt and pepper was passed to you correctly or not.

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2013 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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