Ready, Set, Napkins!

If your child still brings his plate to his chin to shovel rice into his mouth or wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, don’t despair! It’s never too late to teach him good table manners. The trick is to help him see why it’s important -- beyond just to placate you.

“I tell kids that it’s not about being fancy but about showing respect for yourself and others, and frankly, to keep you from making embarrassing mistakes,” says Florida-based protocol coach Patricia Rossi. “For example, if you’re sawing bread with your knife, you might shake the table and spill someone’s water glass. That’s why we break off little bites of bread instead.”

If you keep it light, your lessons will go down a lot easier. Use these games and activities to make learning good table manners fun:

Craft a model place setting Cut a large rectangular place mat out of construction paper or poster board. Show your children the proper placement of each item in a place setting -- fork next to napkin to the left of the plate, knife and spoon to the right, drink above -- and have them draw the outlines on their placemat. Have them draw the food, too, if they want. Laminate the paper and let the kids use it as a guide until they master the art of setting the table.

Make up rhymes and catchy phrases Kids love alliteration, repetition and rhyme, so try applying these to common etiquette rules. You might say: “Don’t chat while you chew!” “Food to mouth, not mouth to food,” “Sit up straight, and you’ll look great!” Feel free to get silly: “Don’t be a dork -- use a fork!” Challenge kids to come up with their own phrases, or prompt them with suggestions such as: How ’bout one for not eating with your fingers?

Teach tricks Etiquette experts use special techniques to help kids remember the rules of fine dining. Peggy Newfield, president of the Atlanta-based American School of Protocol, tells kids to touch their pointer fingers to their thumbs and hold the other three fingers straight to form a small “b” with the left hand and a small “d” with the right. When you put them on your lap, it reminds you to put your bread to your left and your drink to your upper right.

Stage a “fancy” dinner party Dust off the china, dig out Grandma’s candlesticks and have the kids set the table with the works: tablecloth, cloth napkins, real glasses, salad plates, forks, soup bowls and spoons. Need a refresher course on table setting? Go to eHow and search for “set a formal table.”

Demonstrate do’s and don’ts Nothing’s funnier to kids than seeing grown-ups acting goofy: “Do we slurp soup loudly like this? (exaggerate rude slurping noise) “Or do we sip quietly from the side of the spoon?” “Do we get up and do a silly dance?” (act it out) “Or do we stay seated until everyone is finished?”

Ask kids to show you the wrong way to act at the table, followed by the right way, including how to sit (bottom squarely on the chair, straight posture), how to hold silverware (fork like a pencil in left hand), how to chew (thoroughly and with mouth closed) and anything else that comes to mind. The sillier you can make the dining don’ts, the more fun and memorable the guidelines will be.

Whatever else you do, be sure to model proper dining behavior yourself! Your children will watch -- and learn. Bon appétit!

by Aviva Patz