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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.

Be a Good Role Model

Teach by example. When your child eats with you, demonstrate simple manners, such as wiping your mouth with a napkin and asking to have food passed, says Letitia Baldrige, author of nine etiquette books, including More Than Manners: Raising Today's Kids to Have Kind Manners and Good Hearts. And while you're at it, explain why: "We wipe our mouths with a napkin when we eat so that we don't look messy."

If you and your family don't eat dinner together regularly, your child will pick up manners from whomever she's dining with. So let her caregiver know which behaviors you'd like emphasized.

Start Slowly It's better to concentrate on one or two manners at a time rather than overwhelming your child. Begin with a couple of easy concepts, such as using a napkin and asking to be excused, then show him how you do it. Sticker charts can work well as an incentive; after any meal in which your child's shown good manners, he can pick a sticker and put it on the chart himself.

Once your child masters those first rules  -- which can take several weeks, at least  -- introduce two more rules.

Play Games No, not food fights, but you can still have some fun. Try role-playing. "Little kids love to pretend they're the mommy or the daddy and to show you what you're supposed to do at the table," says Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too! Or throw a tea party with your toddler and practice saying "please" and asking for pretend cake.

Preschoolers love wordplay. "Instead of nagging to get a 'please' out of your child, use exaggeration when you're prompting her. For example, you can say, 'I would be pleased to pass you the crackers,' " says Lucien Winegar, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Susquehanna University, in Selinsgrove, PA.

You can also turn one dinner every few weeks into a formal affair for the whole family. Dressing up and setting an elaborate table (candles, flowers, even good china) tend to bring out everyone's best behavior  -- including your own.

Remember to Remind

While you shouldn't attempt a crash course before a big holiday get-together, it doesn't hurt to give your preschooler a few last-minute tips. Before you go to an event, lay out your expectations  -- still keeping them realistic. If your child is over 3, you can go over the basics with him: saying "thank you" at the end of the meal, remaining seated until he finishes eating, and asking to be excused before he leaves the table. Just keep in mind that when the time comes, you'll probably need to prompt him to do all three.

Compliment Often When Charlotte Crystal notices that her son, Ben, 6, has waited until he's finished chewing to talk, she tells him what nice manners he has. "I don't like to nag him constantly," says the Charlottesville, VA, mom. "I think Ben tries harder when we don't come down on him all the time."

As Crystal has discovered, reinforcing positive behavior is probably the most effective way to teach manners. So instead of dwelling on the times your child doesn't say "excuse me," praise her when she uses her napkin. Any scolding and nagging you do is pretty much in vain  -- your little one will just tune you out. Instead, give gentle reminders about what you expect from her.

And if she tunes those out? Then, says Faull, overlook her slipups; if you make it a point not to nag, her behavior will improve on its own in a couple of weeks. If your child is older than 5, don't overreact: Just tell her to leave the table. But do this sparingly: "I wouldn't recommend ruining dinnertime by overdisciplining your child," says Faull.

Make Mealtime Pleasant Which brings us to the bottom line: Spending time as a family and enjoying one another's company is the real payoff for gathering at the table. Manners, while important, should be secondary. Mealtime shouldn't be a battleground.

Above all, keep your perspective. When my six children were little, I sometimes felt as if I was eating with barnyard animals. Mostly I tried to keep the mood light by asking them what the best (and worst) part of their day was and only occasionally issuing a subtle reminder. And it's paid off. Even my youngest, now 8, has the fundamentals down: chewing with her mouth closed, sitting up straight, and not talking with food in her mouth. For this I give heartfelt thanks when we all sit down to eat.