Eating Your Way to Civility: 6 Dinnertime Tips for Raising Children With Good Character

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Dinner time is a special event for your family. You've all had a busy day and now everyone is coming together to share a meal before the night is over.

It's also a prime time to have meaningful conversations with your children and guide them in the right ways.  

Below are six tips and strategies you can use to optimize the benefits of eating together.

1. Learn to be hungry

Who does not love dinner even more when they're absolutely famished?!

Yet with all the snacking children are seldom super hungry when they arrive at the dinner table.

Children eat a lot between meals. If you've ever been to a country where the family structure is still intact, one of the things you notice is that there is not any snacking. Children learn to wait for meals to eat.

Unless they're very young, a morning and afternoon snack of fresh fruits or vegetables like celery or carrots is all children need. They won't starve to death if they go a few hours without eating.

It's better for their health if they do wait because their stomachs need a nap too.

Let them get famished and they'll appreciate the ring of the dinner bell even more and benefit their health at the same time.


If you follow the rule of not allowing your children to snack, then they need to know that you'll have dinner at a certain time each day otherwise they'll get anxious and irritable.

You can't leave a famished child wondering when he's going to get food again. He needs to be able to look at the clock and assure himself that dinner is coming soon.

(It's amazing the amount of discipline that's required for effective parenting!)

2. Learn to arrive at the dinner table on time

It's disrespectful towards whomever cooked and for those who are waiting at the table not to answer to the call of dinnertime.  Insist that they show up on time.

It's good for your children to learn to go against their own desires too and stop whatever their doing, because it teaches them patience and patience is a virtue. There is little, if anything, in life they will be successful with unless they learn patience.

Be firm on this last point and remember that punctuality is also showing courtesy towards others. It can be tempting to finish the last two pages of an enthralling book, but there are times for reading and times for not reading, and they need to know the difference.


3. Learn a few table manners

Dinner time is prime time for teaching table manners.

You don't want to harp at them during the entire meal, but you want to use the opportunity to teach them good table manners.

There are some key manners you want to be sure your children learn.

Teach them to wait until everyone is seated, and the adults have signaled that dinner has started before they being to eat. Some people do this by saying grace or expressing some form of gratitude for the meal.

The declaration of "bon appetite" might signal that everyone can begin eating. If you believe in God, you might say a mealtime prayer. If you don't, you can still express gratitude for the family meal, and for those that worked to put it on the table.

Gratitude should always include your children's father too,  because he worked hard to put food on the table. It's easy to overlook the father's efforts, because they aren't as obvious, but they should be acknowledged.

At dinner, you can also express gratitude that you have a family and people to share a meal with. Remind your children that many people are lonely, and they eat by themselves every night.


Because of the breakdown of the family in the West and the lack of family loyalty that precedes this breakdown, it's important to reflect on the meaning of family when the opportunity arises.

You don't have to do this directly, and it's probably better that you keep prayers and appreciation on the positive side, but you could say something like, "We're grateful for the gift of family and that we have someone to share our meal with because many people are alone tonight."

Keep it subtle but drill in the point of the importance of family whenever you get the chance.

Another table manner you can teach your children is to put their napkins on their laps as soon as they sit down, and to leave them there until they're finished or leave the table for any reason.

Teach them not to reach across the table, but to ask someone politely to pass what they need, "Sophia, please pass the salt," or "Please pass the gravy."

Remind your children not to eat with their mouths open, and not to speak with food in their mouths.

They shouldn't drink until they've swallowed their food either.

These are the basic table manners practiced throughout most of the English speaking countries.

4. Learn how to carry on a conversation

Another crucial component to a dinner meal well-enjoyed is engaging in pleasant conversation. It is not the time to reprimand anyone for bad behavior (other than to correct table manners) or discuss topics that can become inflammatory.

Stick to subjects that everyone can enjoy and that bring out the best in people.

Joe and Rose Kennedy, the parents of President Kennedy, had a large family of nine children. While dinnertime in their home was not always light-hearted, they did teach their children how to discuss topics politely at the dinner table.

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Joe Kennedy was known to pick a topic like Paul Revere's ride and delegate one child with the task of presenting the story at the dinner table. The other children then had to ask the designated child intelligent questions about it, which implied that they had to study up too.

Keep in mind that the children rose when their mother came to the table, too, so it was a very different time. The level of respect was immense, but there was also some fear, too, which may not be that helpful for children who are trying to digest a meal.

Unpleasant conversation will impede the digestive process,  which in turn impedes the uptake of nutrients, so pleasant conversation is not only crucial for sharing happy meals, but it's a health factor too.

Whether you delegate a topic like Joe Kennedy did, or let the conversation develop naturally, teach your children to make an effort towards interesting conversation at dinnertime.

It could be the time children ask you about questions with school. Maybe they want to discuss a topic in history or talk about science. There's no limit to what you can talk about as long as it's pleasant.

5. Learn a moral lesson or two

Dinnertime is also an excellent time for teaching children moral lessons. It would probably appear pedantic if you did this every night, but sometimes you can come to the table prepared to share a story that teaches them a moral lesson.

Talk about the lesson and discuss the characters and the choices they made. Ask your children if they agree or don't agree and what they would have done if they faced the same choices.

Conversations like this are fascinating to have with children, as they usually have a lot to say, and they also have an innate sense of right and wrong.

6. Learn to live without technology while eating

The # 1 rule for dinnertime is absolutely, without fail, even if someone is dying,  forbid any kind of technology use at the dinner table.

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Make sure the children know this is a dinnertime rule they cannot violate. Give them consequences (later, not while they're eating) if they disregard this rule.

Which means that you have to follow it too. Maybe you're waiting for a timely text or email that could make or break you.

Don't. Nothing can replace a broken family. There are times when you have to put work aside, and dinnertime is one of them. Be religious about it. Dinner time is a sacred time for the family.

"Family meals offer routine and consistency and provide an opportunity to socialize children and teach them about communication skills, manners, nutrition, and good eating habits," according to an article published by the Jama Pediatrics.

The parts are equal to the whole

It's the little things that add up to the whole and dinnertime is one of the parts that will determine the whole of your family. Is your family a predominantly happy and functional family or does it fall on the side of melancholy and troubled?

Something that takes relatively little time to do compared to the lifetime value it provides should put family dinnertime at the top of every parent's list.

If all investments were this simple and this rewarding!


But too many of us let dinnertime slide too often because time is short, we are unprepared, and we skip one day and then another and then another.

You don't want to do this! You want to make dinner time a priority by planning ahead, and making a firm intention to spend this time with your family every single evening with only minor and unusual exceptions allowed.

Your children will treasure these family memories when they're grown. You'll also set a good example of how to manage their own family when the time comes because you want your grandchildren to grow up in a happy home too.

It begins with you. You will make all the difference.

Happy meals!


☛ Don’t forget to leave a comment below and let me know what resonates with you!

If you liked this, you might enjoy my free download 7 Steps to Raising Children Who Love to Read.

Elizabeth Y. Hanson is a veteran homeschooling consultant and certified parenting coach.