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Dining Out With Your Preschooler

Help Your Preschooler Form Proper Social Eating Skills

When Joel and Christie Haas of Carbondale, Colo., take their three children out to eat, they come armed with a secret weapon that will make any distracted child sit up straight at the table and behave – good old-fashioned Southern manners.

"Joel was brought up in the South, so he always learned to say 'Yes, sir,' and 'Yes, ma'am,' in public. This has helped us teach our kids that there definitely is a consequence if they don't behave when they are out to eat," Haas says. "They know how to eat nicely when they are in a social situation because they are expected to behave."

Child psychologists and nutritionists agree that most children begin to form important eating habits, such as table manners, healthy food choices, portion control and interaction with others outside of their family between the ages of 3 and 5. Since dining out has become second nature for most families today – the average annual household expenditure for food away from home in 2002 was $2,276, or $910 per person, according to the National Restaurant Association – teaching kids proper social eating skills early on is key.

"I think it's helpful for young kids to interact socially while eating," says Michele McNamara, a Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) who holds state credentials for school psychology in California, New Jersey, Florida and Indiana. "It sets up situations for important peer social interaction and creates opportunities to begin sharing and exploring new food choices and options."

Reservations for Baby

Many families like the Haas' have introduced the idea of eating out with their children as early as their infancies. Haas recalls that her oldest son, who is now 7 years old, has frequented restaurants since he was born. McNamara says this is a step in the right direction when teaching a child to be well behaved in a restaurant or other social setting.

"I would say that since eating out is such a big part of our culture, parents should start bringing their children out to eat from infancy – in family-friendly restaurants of course," she says. "This way, babies will begin to get used to the noise and activity of restaurants and friends' houses. It probably would be setting kids up for failure to expect them to behave in a restaurant if they hadn't been exposed to those types of situations much previously."

Haas says that with several years of social eating experience under his belt, her older son not only behaves well when dining out, but ventures outside of the kids menu more often than not. "He has always had more adult eating habits than most kids," she says. "He loves mussels, crab legs, pretty much any type of seafood. He also likes barbeque ribs while my other kids eat mostly chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and quesadillas."

The Manners Club

Judi Johnston Vankevich, president and founder of Manners Club & Life Skills International, is an advocate of parents playing a key role in educating their children on manners. She speaks at schools, churches and on radio programs to promote The Manners Club, a free program where children pledge to practice politeness and manners, honor and obey their parents, respect elders and authority figures, be kind and practice The Golden Rule.

"The family meal is a wonderful opportunity for parents to transfer their life skills to their children," Vankevich says. "Kids can learn conversation skills and how to say 'please' and 'thank you' and they will take that to the table even when their parents aren't there. They should always come to the table with an attitude of thankfulness instead of a right of entitlement. Parents should really stress that to their children."

McNamara, a school psychologist in San Diego, Calif., agrees that Mom and Dad play an important role in teaching preschoolers how to be polite social eaters, especially during more formal meals around the holidays. "I think parents always need to model good etiquette and good dining manners beginning at a very early age," she says. "If parents constantly model these traits day in and day out, their children should develop those habits also. As children get older, especially older elementary-age and preteen, teachers and other relatives probably would have a bit more impact than parents."

Fast Food Follies

Parents not only influence whether or not a young child shows respect at the dinner table, but they also can motivate a child to choose a chicken sandwich and fruit over a greasy cheeseburger and fries. With childhood obesity on the rise, overeating and unhealthy food choices are in the back of many parents' minds.

"I work lunches at my kids' school and I see some of their classmates eat only the snacks out of their lunch boxes and I usually tell them they need to eat at least half of the sandwich their mom made them before they can expect to eat the chips or dessert," Haas says. "It's something you really have to work on because kids will raid the snack cabinet if you let them. We as a family eat a lot of fish and I know that has rubbed off on my boys and even my 3-year-old daughter who even eats salmon. Luckily my boys eat very well and play a lot of sports, so obesity and portion control aren't issues."

Unfortunately for many kids in the United States, weight is a growing problem, even for those as young as first grade. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that up to 15 percent of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 years are overweight, and those numbers are on the rise.

"Bad habits can be started very young," McNamara says. "I think that most kids of preschool age typically do not overeat naturally; however, we are seeing weight problems increasingly at younger ages. I wouldn't worry about portion control too much for healthy, nutrient-dense food, but I definitely would limit excessive snacking and unhealthy food options. I'm sure that a child's early social eating experience affects their later eating habits. More and more, families are not spending time to sit down and have family dinners. This is an optimal time every day for families to interact, establish good eating habits and practice good dining manners."

There's no question "Judi the Manners Lady" and our Southern friends agree.

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