It’s never too early to start laying the foundation for a well-mannered eater. You can begin by modeling good table manners yourself. Show your toddler how you use utensils and a napkin, and make a point of saying please, thank you, and excuse me at appropriate times. Even if he can’t master all of this yet (right now his bib is far more useful than a napkin!), he’s learning by watching.

Keep in mind that, at this stage, your child is still struggling to hone the basics of self-feeding, so it’s best to hold a fairly flexible definition of good manners. Mealtimes should be an enjoyable learning experience for your toddler—and that means a certain amount of food play: touching and handling different textures, lining up crackers, dipping and dunking, borrowing some food from your plate, and yes, getting some of it on the floor, on his face, and in his hair during the process. As long as some of the food is getting into his mouth and providing nourishment, indulge this messy behavior for now.

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t set limits. Flinging food, dishes, or utensils across the room is a no-no. Screaming at the table? Piling food in his mouth only to spit it all out? Smearing food all over his high chair without even attempting to eat? Not acceptable! In fact, these behaviors signal that your toddler isn’t hungry or that his appetite has been satisfied. Nip these behaviors in the bud by calmly removing him from the table so he learns that’s not the way to behave while eating.

Within a year, when your child is able to feed himself and follow directions well, you can begin to work on conventional table manners, like sitting up straight and not chewing with his mouth open.

—Gary C. Morchower, MD, pediatrician and the author of The 1001 Healthy Baby Answers: Pediatricians’ Answers to All the Questions You Didn’t Know to Ask