5 Top Tips for Toddler Table Manners

toddler table manners

You’ve decided it’s time to introduce solids.

You bought the ergonomically-designed high chair, have state of the art plasticware and matching spoons, plus a bib in every colour, in both cloth and plastic. Well done – you’re all set to go!

But how do you make sure your hard work in the kitchen doesn’t end up all over the floor or, worse, all over you?

1.     Begin with the End in Mind

Children learn from a very early age what is acceptable in your household.toddler table manners

At this age, they are not being deliberately naughty, but you still need to lovingly teach what you consider acceptable behaviour in your family, and what is not.

“My child is so young,” you say, “I will start discipline-training when he is 18 months or more, when he can understand.”

That may be too late. And, believe it or not, your small child understands way more than you think.

“My rule of thumb for what is acceptable is usually this,” says Amanda, a mom of two from Somerset West, “If I don’t think I would like to see that behaviour when my child is two or three (like throwing or squishing up food), then I need to do something to stop it now.”

2.     Create a Moral Foundation

Whatever your language, creed or culture is, there are a few universal rules that help us function effectively in society.

toddler table mannersBelieve it or not, the highchair is the perfect place to start teaching these fundamental ‘cause and consequence’ lessons to your toddler.

“I like to include a moral lesson, as much as is possible, when my little one starts destroying the food I made,” says Tracy from Fourways, “I explain, in very simple terms, that I made the food because I love him, and when he throws it on the floor or squishes it between his fingers, it makes my heart sad. I find having a strong moral base for behaviour will help him make the right choices one day, even when I’m not there. More so than if I just said, ‘Stop it!’”
This might feel a bit higher grade for six month old children, but getting yourself into the habit from an early age will stand you in good stead when they are slightly older and more able to understand the emotional impact their behaviour has on others.

3.     Hands Off

toddler table mannersLittle hands have little control at this stage. Little hands on a bowl full of mushy food are a recipe for disaster.

Help your little one learn ‘hands off’ from the beginning by consistently and gently removing little controlling hands from the bowl and spoon. In the beginning this is hard work, but after a while they do get the message.

So, from an early age, use a loving but firm ‘hands off the spoon / bowl’ while moving their hand away. Your toddler will learn quickly enough.

4.     Food is for Tummies, Creativity is for Play Time

Finger foods are foods that have been made with eating by hand in mind. That’s perfect.

toddler table mannersIt’s a different matter, however, if junior is squishing his normal food in his little fists instead of eating it with a spoon.

Toddlers need to feel different textures and sensations for tactile stimulation, and making an effort to do so during play time will ensure your meal times are lot easier.

Likewise, do not allow your toddler to throw food at meal times, or any time for that matter. People say that this will stifle creativity – but there is nothing creative about throwing food on the floor! In a tone that lets them know you’re serious say, “no throw food” and accompany it with an attention-grabbing squeeze to the hand.

“I let Avish play with a spoon in the bath,” says Nasreen from Durban, “It gives him a chance to learn how to hold the spoon properly in a relaxed setting until he’s ready to try it out on real food in a non-play setting.”

5.     Baby Sign Language

Back arching and trying to wriggle out of the chair is not acceptable behaviour as this poses a safety risk.

Teach your child to baby-sign from about ten months old to minimise frustration. Your little one can understand words and concepts that her mouth cannot yet form.

Signing in no way slows down your child’s ability or desire to use spoken language, and may even accelerate that process.

You can make up your own signs or try these – whatever you do, just be consistent:

  1. toddler table mannersMore – purse all five fingers together and bring both hands together, touching at the finger tips
  2. All done – like a shrug; hands palm up, arms bent at the elbows
  3. Hungry – purse fingers of one hand and bring to mouth
  4. Thirsty – point to throat
  5. Thank you – flat-hand finger tips to chin
  6. Please – rub your tummy
  7. Tired/bed time – praying-hands pressed against one cheek


Now you really are all set to go, trendy highchair and child-friendly tableware in tow.

Long live good table manners!