If you’re like most parents, you spend more time dodging flying peas and mopping up spilled milk than worrying about napkins on laps and which fork goes where. In this day and age, it’s enough to get the entire family to the table at the same time, right?
Wrong. Dining etiquette isn’t about showing off or following an outdated set of arcane rules; it’s about making mealtime more pleasant for everybody.
If you don’t want your kids to act like barbarians, set the stage for a civilized meal. It’s perfectly okay to use paper napkins and forgo the candlelight, but why not teach your kids to set the table correctly while you're at it? Assuming you’re having a one-course meal, that means salad fork (if desired) and dinner fork on napkin at the left, plate in the middle, and knife with blade facing plate, plus spoon at the right. The water glass goes to the top right of the plate; the wine glass goes to the right of that.
Sharing, of course, is a good quality. But provide plenty of serving utensils; no one should ever dig into a communal bowl with their own spoon. Use a butter knife to place a pat of butter on each plate. Teach your kids to take small portions until everyone has been served, and remind them that they can always have seconds. And for goodness sake, don’t clutch your fork like a spear; put your index finger on top of the handle, your thumb to one side and your fingers to the other. Do the same to the knife handle, and cut away!
The rules of gracious eating are designed for health and comfort: put a napkin on your lap, chew with your mouth closed, don’t talk until you’ve swallowed, and take pauses between bites. Tailor your expectations to your child’s abilities; a preschooler may still eat with her hands, but she’s learning from your example.
Of course, the most important code of conduct involves how we treat each other. Show your children the respect you expect to receive: don’t interrupt someone mid-sentence, say “excuse me” before leaving the table, ask for the jam instead of reaching across someone else’s dinner plate, and express sincere interest in others. Who knows? Your kids may be so polite they’ll clear the table afterwards… but don’t count on it.