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5 Ways to Teach Toddlers Table Manners

My husband and I are trying to create a home culture where family dinners are enjoyed by everyone and eaten by everyone (almost) every time. Here's what works for us.
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I head up a blog about cooking for kids called My aim is to make healthy, delicious food, both with and for kids so they'll grow up to cook themselves, and better yet, enjoy sitting around a table full of family and friends for years to come. I've got tips (let the kids help cook) and tricks (grate vegetables and add them to everything --everything!) but mostly I rely on simply delicious flavors for success. Sometimes it's a win, sometimes it's not. So goes life, especially life with kids.

But recently I was overwhelmed with responses to a post I wrote here about picky eaters. One issue came up over and over: why don't parents just make their kids eat what's in front of them the way most of ours did? Not everyone felt this way but when they did, the sentiment was almost always followed by some version of "Be the parent, not the friend!" plus a bit of grumbling that kids today are too spoiled...

As a parent who makes tremendous effort to prepare a nutritious, tasty meal every night -- one that is usually but not always greeted with flying forks of gratitude -- I certainly understand getting frustrated by kids who don't appreciate it. And isn't that the issue right there? It takes time, energy and expense to prepare a meal. When someone refuses to eat it, they show a lack of grace. It's also rude. Can you imagine going to a friend's dinner party and sobbing in hysterics because she served you carrots? Slithering out of your chair, onto the floor and semi-coherently moaning, "But I don't yike carrots! I don't yike them!!!" But you wouldn't and here's why: you're a grown up. There are lots of things that kids get away with. They're cuter, they're beloved unconditionally and here's the kicker, they don't necessarily know better. That's where we come in, heaven help us.

Kids need guidance, boundaries and leadership. But just because I'm not forcing broccoli down anyone's throat doesn't mean I'm a softie who's raising out of control hoodlums. Eating good food together is a major priority for me. It also happens to be a priority that we all love and look forward to it.

My husband and I are trying to create a home culture where family dinners are enjoyed by everyone and eaten by everyone (almost) every time. So we sit down to dinner as a family every night. We have rules but it's not about brute force. At our generation's kinder, gentler dinner table, here's what works for us:

  1. Dinner starts with grace. Some families choose a moment of silence instead. Either way, it's a lovely way to clear the air, getting everyone in the same mental groove.

  • Everyone must try at least one bite of everything. When I say "everyone" I mean our almost 3-year-old and her 1-year-old sister, too.
  • Dessert is admittedly a bribe but it's almost always fresh fruit, sometimes sliced, sometimes diced, sometimes with the slightest drizzle of chocolate sauce just for fun. You have to eat one bite of everything to be eligible. (See rule 2 above.) If you can't at least try everything, you don't get any. It's not dramatic. It's not a big deal. It just is.
  • Everyone who is able to speak must say "Thank you for dinner" and "May I please be excused?" before leaving the table, but typically we wait to finish as a family.
  • Anyone over the age of 2 brings her plate into the kitchen where it's deposited into the sink. Ditto for the bib.
  • Ours are very young kids, so this is just the beginning but I can report that something organic (and amazing) has developed along the way. Nice conversation. Polite conversation. Our oldest daughter is thrilled to set the table. She's dying to help prepare the food, pick out plates and get everyone organized in the way only a big sister can. But the good stuff starts at the table. She says things like "Mmm. This is a good meal!" "Now I know I like spinach!" and even, wait for it, "Daddy, tell me about your day." So that's it. Food is prepared, it's usually eaten with gusto and even more importantly, everyone spends an enjoyable hour together.

    And speaking of carrots, broccoli and other dishes with bad reputations, here are a few of our most successful recipes for the whole family. Each one is a proven winner in the eat-and-enjoy department. No fist pounding required.

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