With families constantly on the go - rush to a PTA meeting one night, shuttle kids between ballet and soccer practice the next and so on - organized meal time may more often than not be a hybrid of fast food or staggered stops by various members of the family at the dinner table.
But when forces conspire to bring families together for a mid-day or evening meal, it need not resemble a no-holds-barred free-for-all attack on the feeding trough.
Like chivalry, etiquette is not dead; it just takes a little work.
"You don't get the opportunity to specifically teach or, through role modeling, show your children about etiquette," says Erin Kline, a Frederick, Md.-based course instructor for Finishing Touches, an etiquette and style organization.
Thursdays beginning in February, Kline will teach an etiquette and finishing course at Hecht's in Valley Mall for girls ages 6 to 11 and 12 to 17.
The stay-at-home mom says even adults aren't immune from improper meal manners.
"Because as a society we're so much more casual," Kline says, "we as adults, whether at a business party or at a fancy wedding, we even tend to get uptight because we haven't been able to practice it and feel intimidated by it."
At the Hagerstown Community College Children's Learning Center two meals and a snack are served daily, and the staff uses these times to start etiquette education.
To begin with, everyone washes their hands. Even if they are not eating, the 2- to 6-year-olds sit at the table, where talk revolves around morning lessons or other warm, pleasant topics.
Children help set the table, learn to serve themselves and ask politely for seconds, and assist in cleaning up after the meal. The biggest challenge, says center Director Terry Kitchen, is luring kids to the table when it's time to eat.
"A lot of children haven't had that experience of sitting at a table and eating with people, just because of the fast pace of life," Kitchen says. "It's important to have a routine and that's hard for families sometimes nowadays."
Kline says the challenge for any parent interested in teaching proper etiquette is keeping the experience fun.
She suggests that parents can create a place mat craft project with younger children that shows where plates and silverware should go. When setting the table, children can refer to the guides they made. That will help them to absorb information in a way other than being lectured.
As with other subjects, step one in teaching manners is having the necessary patience. Step two is modeling proper behavior for the kids.
"Like everything, it's about balance, balancing the fun with the teachable moments," Kline says. "You want it to come from them naturally and the best way to do it is to have them see it come from yourself."
Hampton used the same approach when his four children, now grown, were younger.
Every Sunday, a different child would be assigned cleanup duty after the meal. To show no one was immune from the chore, Hampton's turn on dish duty came on the fifth Sunday. Today everyone pitches in, even his five grandchildren.
"It may not sound like a whole lot, but it's just us," he says. "I want to teach my children to have class. The Bible says we do all things decently and in order, and I think that's what we do at the table."
Kitchen at the Children's Learning Center says parents notice a change in their kids once they are exposed to the meal time routine.
And, she says, kids will be kids, and not every meal will be mistake free.
"There are spills, that's inevitable," Kitchen says. "And then we teach them to cleanup."
A few etiquette Dos and Don'ts
Wondering how to act at the dinner table, beyond the usual 'don't talk with your mouth full'? Here are some quick etiquette lessons from etiquette instructor Erin Kline.
HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Don't put your elbows on the table while eating; between meals, elbows are OK.
HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Always bring food to mouth, not mouth to food, which happens when leaning over a bowl of soup.
HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> When passing dishes with handles, always pass dish with handle facing the person.
HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Salt and pepper shakers should be passed together.
HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> When wondering what utensil to use, always work from the outside in. If in doubt, follow the example of the host or hostess.