Do table manners apply when you’re eating dinner outside? That depends on how concerned you are about politeness and how steep the slope you’re fighting your way up towards the habituation of “please” and “thank you.” But I would argue that they don’t have to apply. Outdoors is a different space with different rules. It’s not a free-for-all, but it is meaningfully different than inside. When it comes to eating a meal and dinner in particular, the key difference is that eating outside is better. Much better. Almost incalculably better. Dinner outside is never just dinner. It might not be a picnic (in any sense), but it’s a departure. And fresh air is the best appetizer we’ve got.
Why don’t we always eat outside? I’d argue that the answer has everything to do with the wind. A breeze can shift a plate off the table or send a napkin soaring. It can take the spice of a chicken (if it’s really blowing) or salt the plate of the person sitting one space over. It cannot be meaningfully controlled. Likewise, yellow jackets, ants, and confused terriers can’t be controlled. Pollen. Rain. Life itself. There are variables we have to face when we eat outdoors. But in those variables lies the point: It’s an activity not an obligation. We don’t do it because it’s easy, but because it’s hard (but not so hard it’s unappealing).
Here’s the big claim: When the weather is good and the table is stable, families should eat outside every night. Make a habit of the thing and it becomes a project. Make a project of the thing and it becomes a guaranteed success. Sure, it might be easier to teach kids to communicate gratitude within the controlled confines of the dining room, but it’s easier to make them feel gratitude outside. It’s easier to let dinner become part of a family moment rather than hoping that a family moment might occur during dinner. Also, it feels like food tastes a bit better.
The informality of outdoor dining also allows parents to relax on other fronts. No need for silverware, eat with your fingers. No need to stay put, if you need to run away from the bug, feel free. No need to mind your manners. Not really, the burp sounds less drastic in the open air anyway. Without rules to strictly adhere to, then, the only thing left to do is talk about the day, the climate, the insects and eat, or not.
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Interestingly, this is pretty much how child nutritionists believe dinners should be conducted: unstressed, without pushing kids to eat, but full of family conversation and enjoyment. The dinner table and dining room tends to prompt just the opposite. Parents at a table with a child are prone to beg or cajole a kid to eat. Stress runs high on all sides. Dinner becomes an unpleasant experience that isn’t conducive to bonding or good nutritional outcomes.
That unpleasant experience makes kids dread coming to the table. They know it will simply be an hour of poking at their plate while being yelled at for not eating. Eating outside, though, is fun. It turns dinner into an experience. The focus is less on how much and what a kid is eating than it is about the novelty of the shared experience. The parent’s job when eating outside is to provide the food and enjoy the fun. That’s exactly how it should be inside too.
So it may be that eating dinner outside, with all its inherent chaos, is actually a healthier option for many families than eating at the dinner table. The trick then is to bring the ethos of the outdoor dinner back into the dining room.
Eating outdoors reminds us that eating together can be fun. And it should be just as pleasant indoors as well.