Dinnertime was always exasperating, with the same phrases repeated over and over: Sit closer to the table. Wipe your mouth. Stop shovelling in your food. The knife goes the other way. That is not finger food. It’s not a race.
He often ate as though he had an appointment right after dinner, and when he excused himself, the space where he was sitting looked like it had served as the ammo depot for a massive food fight.
Holiday gatherings were the worst. Watching my son eat stuffing with his fingers and then futilely hack away at a turkey drumstick before finally picking it up and spilling gravy on his shirt (not to mention a pristine tablecloth), I was certain my disapproving relatives wondered how he was being raised.
Dinnertime was similarly frustrating for Simi Khanna. Family meals in her Maple Ridge, BC, home would typically find her then 11-year-old daughter, Gunita, slouched at the table, talking incessantly with her mouth full and dropping food on the floor and her clothes.
As a native of India, Khanna says she was unfamiliar with the more formal aspects of Western dining, so she enrolled her daughter in a three-month course offered by Elizabeth Etiquette, a school of manners based in Surrey, BC.“It was a miracle,” Khanna says of her daughter’s progress.
Not every family has the time or money to spend on etiquette classes, so we spoke with experts who graciously (of course) gave us some simple tips to help transform even the worst mealtime disaster into a picture of dining decorum.
Don’t take more than you can chew
Watching my son stuff his face like John Belushi’s “Bluto” character in Animal House was often one of the most annoying—and stomach-churning—aspects of mealtime. Wendy Mencel, etiquette consultant at the Canadian School of Protocol and Etiquette in London, Ont., suggests having your kid fill her mouth with as much gum as she can and then try to chew it. Too much, and some will inevitably fall out. “Once they find an amount that feels right, have them look at the lump of gum. That’s how big their bites should be,” Mencel says.
Mirror, mirror, on the… table
Leaning a small mirror in front of a kid’s place setting is one of the best ways to alert him to his poor table manners, says Elizabeth Burnett, founder and president of Elizabeth Etiquette. “They can’t help but glance in the mirror and see what they look like,” she says. Of course, to avoid embarrassing the kid, this exercise shouldn’t be conducted when a friend is over for dinner.
Your mouth is NOT for cleaning fingers
To encourage your kid to wipe her face and hands, Mencel suggests having her use a cloth napkin for a month. The child should unfold the napkin once and place the fold against her waist, and then practise picking it up and dabbing her mouth. “For children, cloth is easier to use and also gives a sense of refinement at the table,” she says. “It signals that the meal is special, not to be gobbled and ignored.” After a month of fine dining with a cloth napkin, your kid should be ready to use a paper napkin in the same way.
Do as I do
Good table manners are learned by mimicking parents’ behaviour and through repetition. If you don’t want your kid to reach across the table to grab the butter dish, then you shouldn’t do it either. Lay down some etiquette rules and practise as a family.
Jack is proof that these tips—combined with a little parental patience—can redeem even the worst dinner disaster. He might not be Mr. Manners, but for now there is peace during mealtimes.
Using phones and other electronic devices at the table leads to distracted diners, says Wendy Mencel, etiquette consultant at the Canadian School of Protocol and Etiquette in London, Ont. Designate a spot for each family member to put his phone or tablet before dinner, and don’t let anyone (including yourself!) look at a device until after the table has been cleared.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2015 issue with the headline, “Trouble at the table,” p. 58.