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Mealtime Manners

My entire extended family had gathered at our house for dinner, and our 2-year-old daughter was enjoying every bit of the holiday feast. Miranda lathered her hair with mashed potatoes, finger-painted cranberry sauce and gravy all over her high-chair tray, and carefully rolled each morsel of turkey into this creation before popping it into her mouth. At the end of the meal, as I surveyed her clothes and high chair, I wondered how old kids had to be before you could sign them up for Etiquette 101.

Teaching manners is an ongoing process, but you can lay the foundation while your little darling is still in diapers. It will make mealtime more pleasant for all of you and help your child learn how to be considerate of others.

That doesn't mean you need to turn into the etiquette police every time the family sits down at the table. Instead, try these easy ways to teach the basics:

Be Realistic A child's behavior is intrinsically tied to his development, so don't expect too much too soon. It's meaningless to tell your baby not to play with his food. "That's the way he learns about it  -- by getting his hands in it and smearing it all over himself," says Jan Faull, a child-development specialist with a private practice in Seattle.

Once your baby is around 2, you can start to set limits, as Chris and Lisa Ross of Congers, NY, did. Tired of constantly cleaning up the food that 22-month-old Ryan tossed on the floor once he'd eaten enough, they told him, "When you're finished, tell us, and we'll take away the plate," says Chris. Now when Ryan is through eating, he removes his bib and says, "Bye-bye." That's the cue to get him down quickly  -- before he heaves the leftovers off his tray.

Rosemary Black is the food editor of the New York Daily News.