Kids at the Table: Teaching Manners With Memorable Meals

BY Victoria de la Maza TIMEMarch 23, 2022 PRINT

I grew up in a large household as one of seven children. Table manners were essential for my parents’ sanity, a way to keep us under control. (Once, I remember being in total panic when faced with a bunch of grapes on my plate. To this day, I’m teased mercilessly by my siblings as they recount how, not knowing what to do, I tried to use a knife and fork to cut the runaway fruits! I was 5 years old.)

Teaching children table manners isn’t just about how to hold the fork and knife. It’s also about good behavior at the table, conversation, respect for others, and appreciation of food.

Exposing children to many types of meals and showing by example the way to eat each dish can entice and welcome them into the marvelous world of good food and proper table manners. Try involving them in the whole process, from market to table, and letting them join you in the kitchen. Even if they’re just watching, they’ll begin to absorb knowledge and appreciate different ingredients, flavors, and aromas. Telling interesting stories, amusing anecdotes, and reasons why certain things are the way they are will make your lessons both fun and effective.

In that spirit, I’m sharing a few recipes that are both great family meals and fun, charming ways to teach some basic manners.

spring table setting
Flowers and candles make an ordinary family dinner feel special. Have your children help you set the table—and let them choose the colors! (Victoria de la Maza)

First, we have mussels, steamed in a broth and saffron sauce, served with mounds of toasted baguettes for dipping. Teach your children how they eat mussels in Belgium by using one empty mussel shell to pick out the meat of another. Shells are discarded in a separate bowl. The broth is sipped with a spoon, and the bread is dunked by tearing off one piece at a time.

Of course, everyone loves eating with their fingers, and this is a perfect opportunity to practice wiping your mouth, cleaning your fingers, and keeping the napkin on your lap. And yes, in this particular case, it’s totally acceptable to wear your napkin like a tie.

Spaghetti with pesto is also a great teaching recipe, and it’s less messy than classic marinara—I do want to limit the red sauce splatter—and full of flavor and aroma. Here’s your chance for a lesson in how to twirl spaghetti (starting from the far edge of the plate, lay your fork horizontally and use it to roll the strands toward you, until you have one perfect bite) and how to eat something even if you don’t think you’re going to like it (yes, even if it’s green!). Tell them the story of pasta and how the pesto sauce is made to release the aromas of the basil and garlic. For younger children, substitute spaghetti for angel hair pasta, as it’s easier to twirl.

For dessert, we end with an impressive but easy-to-make apple tart, with a blender-made batter and a simple marmalade glaze. It comes with a sauce, as do many other desserts, and needs to be eaten with a spoon and a fork: the European way. Learning this method also works with any other saucy dishes.

Finally, we all learn by doing, so ask your children to help with your table setting. Using flowers and candles makes an ordinary dinner feel special. Allow them to choose the colors!

Table Manners 101

From the correct way to twirl spaghetti to how to eat a hamburger, there are so many rules and so many nuances that it’s hard to list them all. Here are a few suggestions for the ones I think are the most important to instill at an early age (once your children can sit at the table!):

1. The napkin goes on the lap the second you sit at the table. And please use it throughout the meal to wipe your mouth between drinking and eating.

2. Wait until everyone is seated at the table and your host (or parent) starts to eat.

3. Watch your host (or parent) to learn how to hold the various utensils and copy what they do. Always use the ones on the outside first and work your way in.

4. Try everything on your plate. You won’t know if you like it until you do.

5. Don’t leave the table until everyone has finished eating and your host (or parent) gets up and says it’s all right to leave the table.

6. Say thank you!

RECIPE: Saffron-Steamed Mussels

RECIPE: Spaghetti With Pesto Sauce

RECIPE: Blender Apple Tart

Victoria de la Maza is an award-winning cookbook author, columnist, and international TV host. Passionate about great food, she combines American traditions with her European heritage to create classic-with-a-twist recipes and ideas for stylish entertaining at home. Subscribe to her weekly newsletter, "Diary of a Serial Hostess,” at
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