• Step By Step Nursery

Our Parent’s Guide to Introducing Good Mealtime Table Manners

Table manners at mealtimes play an important part in children’s development. While it is natural, as a parent, to focus on the ‘food’ element, the reality is that these occasions are opportunities for children to learn – about the feel of different textures, hand-eye co-ordination, new vocabulary and a range of social and emotional skills.


Most parents find mealtimes a source of frustration, but it is worth investing a little time and effort. Here are some simple activities that might enhance your child’s development at mealtimes.

Washing Hands


From Eight Months

Babies are notoriously messy eaters. The pleasure of food for them lies as much in the hands as it does the mouth. To involve your baby in hand washing after meals, try filling a tray-like container with lukewarm water – while you hold on to the container, let your baby splash their hands in it. Avoid rushing, as your child needs to learn that hand washing is a pleasurable experience.


How this activity helps your child:

  • Co-ordination – Learning to wash hands helps children co-ordinate their hand movements.

  • Independence – Being involved in hand washing will motivate your child to learn more self-care skills.

  • Language development – If similar words and expressions are used each time, your child will learn words such as ‘clean’ or ‘wash’.

What next? – Give your child a soft towel to handle as a way of learning about drying hands.

Tools Of The Trade


From 12 Months

From about 12 months, most babies try to grab the spoon that the adult is using. This is a sign that your baby wants to have a go. Look out for a spoon that is not too shallow and provide some foods that will stick easily to the spoon, such as mashed potato. At first your baby may just explore and play with the spoon. After a few meal times, though, more food will find its way in to your baby’s mouth.


How the activity helps your child:

  • Confidence – Being able to use a spoon helps develops confidence.

  • Shape and size – Using a spoon allows your child to find out about shapes and sizes in a practical way.

  • Physical skills – Using a spoon develops children’s arm and hand movements.

What next? – Once movements become more co-ordinated, try removing the lid from your child’s drinking beaker.

Gourmet Dipping


From Two Years

Some two-year-olds become quite fussy eaters, especially with vegetables. Changing the format of how food is presented can make a difference. Try cutting up a selection of vegetables, some cooked, some raw, and serve them on a tray. Put out three egg-cup sized containers, each with a different flavoured sauce. Sit with your child and model dipping a vegetable into a sauce. Encourage your child to do the same but avoid being too pushy.


How this activity helps your child:

  • Language – Your child can learn the names of vegetables and words to describe flavours.

  • Mathematical – You can draw your child’s attention to the size and shape of different vegetables.

  • Creativity – Trying out new tastes and experimenting is good for children’s creativity.

What next? – If this is successful, repeat again with a range of other vegetables.

Laying The Table


From Three Years

Learning how to set a table is a skill that most children learn at home. Choose a time when your child is keen to help. Begin by putting out one place setting. See if your child can copy what you have done. Check that knives and forks may be in the wrong place. Afterwards, for a finishing touch, see if your child would like to help fold paper napkins.


How this activity helps your child:

  • Hand-eye coordination – Simple movements that require accuracy, such as folding paper napkins, help your child’s hand-eye co-ordination.

  • Thinking skills – Being able to copy a place setting helps your child’s memory and thinking skills.

  • Confidence – Taking part in a ‘grown-up’ task helps children gain in confidence.

What next? – Think about making this task a regular responsibility for your child.

Knife & Fork


From Three-and-a-Half Years

Learning how to use a knife and fork takes time. Children will need to practise this skill once they have mastered using a spoon and fork. Choose a time when your child is not tired and put out a knife and fork. Choose some foods that are fairly easy to cut and ‘spear’. A whole boiled carrot or potato can work well. Aim at first for your child just to practise cutting and ‘spearing’. Then move on to using the knife to sweep food onto the fork.


How this activity helps your child:

  • Hand-eye co-ordination – Using a knife and fork develops children’s hand-eye coordination, so is useful as a preparation for writing.

  • Social development – Being able to eat using a knife and fork is a social skill that is useful for children to acquire.

  • Independence – Knowing how to cut with a knife and fork supports children’s independence.

What next? – Look out for other opportunities to further develop your child’s mealtime skills by, for example, using real glasses and plates.

Making Table Mats


From Four Years

Many children enjoy drawing and writing and making table mats with your child is a great way of practising these skills. Look out for some sheets of paper and a few felt tips or crayons. Join in and see if you can make a table mat too. Showing that you like to write and draw is a great way of helping your child develop skills.


How this activity helps your child:

  • Hand-eye co-ordination – Drawing, colouring and making letter shapes helps to develop your child’s hard skills.

  • Emotional development – Doing simple activities together helps your child feel secure and therefore more confident.

  • Creativity – Working out what to draw or write will encourage your child’s creativity.

What next? – Make menus or name holders when you have a family get together.

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