Use large place mats to create “superhero force fields” that the kids aren’t allowed to reach beyond.

You can also try a little peer pressure. “When my daughter was 8 years old and doing the whole burping thing,” recalls Dr. Carter, “I told her how one of her boy cousins, who was the same age, burped in front of their three teenage cousins and they looked at him as if to say, ‘How gross and childish.’ She idolized those teenagers, so burping lost a lot of its cool.”

The goal: eating with utensils instead of fingers

“Using a utensil can be a challenging skill to master and especially frustrating for a child, even a 9- or 10-year-old, when she’s hungry,” says Dr. Carter. Technology may not be helping either. “Basic table skills, like properly using a fork and knife, seem to be showing up later,” says Robbie Levy, a pediatric occupational therapist in White Plains, New York. “One theory is that electronic games don’t develop the fine motor skills needed for these tasks,” she notes. Plus, they take away time previously spent on activities that do help, such as cutting out snowflakes or molding with Play-Doh.

Description: Eating with utensils instead of fingers

Eating with utensils instead of fingers

How to get there: Start by being flexible about the utensil a young child wants to use. Ditch the toddler fork if she’s begging for the big fork, for instance. Or if she’s having trouble maneuvering a fork, stick with a spoon a bit longer. “The more they watch what other people are eating with, the more they’ll want to use the appropriate utensil,” says Dr. Tankersley. Fun little plastic appetizer forks from a party store or even a fast-food spark can also help bridge the gap between using fingers and utensils. Setting out two forks or two spoons can help, too, especially if your child doesn’t like different foods to touch.

The goal: putting his bottom on the chair

Got a kid who eats standing next to his chair or rests one knee on it as if he has a train to catch? Your little commuter may want out of his adult-size chair because it isn’t comfy. “When a child’s feet are dangling and his posture is off, it’s harder for him to use his hands and to sit long enough,” says Levy.

How to get there: First, if necessary, put a step stool underneath his feet or a pillow behind his back so his whole body is better supported. “Ideally, he should be sitting upright with both his hips and his knees at a 90-degree angle,” notes Levy. Next, make sure you’re not expecting your child to sit for periods outside his developmental league. “Abilities will vary, but a 3-year-old can probably last for seven to ten minutes,” says Dr. Harlow.

Description: “Somewhere in the 6- to 8-year-old range, a child should be able to sit through the duration of a normal family dinner”

“Somewhere in the 6- to 8-year-old range, a child should be able to sit through the duration of a normal family dinner”

Then steal these preschool-teacher tips: “When one of our students stands or starts wandering away at snack time, I’ll say, ‘When you get up from the table, I assume that you’re done. Let’s clear your plate.’ After a while, hungry kids learn to stay seated,” says Dr. Tankersley. Or tell your jack-in-the-box that he’s frozen in his chair until you come around and unstick him with a magical tap, she suggests.

Got a bigger kid? “Somewhere in the 6- to 8-year-old range, a child should be able to sit through the duration of a normal family dinner,” notes Dr. Harlow, “which means 20 to 30 minutes.” If you have an older kid who stands put him in charge of cleaning up all the food crumbs that got dropped on the floor during the meal (sweeping up is fun for preschoolers, but not so much for grade-schoolers).

The goal: doing more eating and less playing

Description: Doing more eating and less playing

Doing more eating and less playing

When a child is blowing bubbles into milk or piling all her food together into a disgusting mix, she could be bored, full, not really feeling the night’s menu, or just plain curious, says Dr. Carter.

How to get there: One of your main goals is to create positive feelings about food – which also helps encourage more adventurous eating – so kids should be able to have a little fun at the table when it’s appropriate, says Dr. Tankersley. “Our preschoolers love diving their Teddy Grahams into pudding or making little hammers out of cheese cubes and pretzel sticks,” she notes. You just have to decide where your family’s line is about what’s unacceptable – say, building a green bean fort – and let your child know. If the antics don’t stop, jump right to: “It looks like you’re done eating,” and take away the misused food or drink.  If boredom seems to be to blame, steer the conversation toward a topic she’ll be more interested in. When all else fails and your child is clearly done eating, consider an early dismissal so you at least can finish in peace.

How I tackled table manners

Moms dish their best tips for mealtime etiquette.

Involve everyone

“My husband and I made up a game where we’d all police each other’s manners. It’s a fun way to address the problem and it prevents the parents from being seen as the bad guys!” Therese Coffer, mother of five; Charlotte, NC

Make a pass

“When my girls were 3 and 6 years old, we began passing a toy flower in a pot around the table to prevent constant interruptions. Whoever had the pot would be able to talk, and we would give that person our full attention. When we find ourselves starting to talk over each other at the table, my younger daughter now says, ‘We need the flower.’ ” Pearl Peszeki, mother of two; McLean, VA

Dine out

“Taking our kids to casual restaurants gave them great practice. We’d all put our napkin on our lap, keep our elbows off the table, and use our indoor voice. We told them in advance that we’d have to leave if they didn’t behave. Sometimes we wound up taking our dinner to go, but following through paid off.” Jodie Fratantuno, mother of two; Los Angeles, CA

Put it in writing

“I keep the rules that I expect my 4-year-old and my 10-year-old to follow written on a chalkboard next to our table. Some reminders are still necessary – and occasionally, consequences.” Zshila Alsop, mother of two; Charlotte, NC.



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