Thursday, September 27, 2007


Tonight I had to teach a group of teenagers table manners and dinner etiquette. It wasn't as painful as I thought it would be, they were genuinely interested and excited to learn. I volunteer with the Young Women at my church, and I thought it would be fun to teach them proper eating techniques. I didn't think there would be so much to it when I started to read up on it! How many adults actually know proper dinner table etiquette and use it. There are several versions out there, but I found the best information on Here is an excerpt from the site - some of it is common sense, but a lot of it was new to me. This is something great to know before throwing your own fancy dinner party!

Formal Place Setting
There is a general consensus among writers of etiquette manuals that too many people are afraid they will fail to choose the proper utensil for the appropriate stage of the meal. Book after book provides reassurance on this point: use the outermost utensil or utensils, as necessary, one set for each course, and you can't go wrong (unless the table has been improperly laid to start out with). For a formal place setting, you will receive exactly as much silverware as you will need, arranged in precisely the right order. Good etiquette requires you to assume (and this ought to ease most people's worries) that the host has correctly assigned each utensil to its task, rather than attempt to point out that a fish fork is improperly being supplied for your salad. As each course is finished, the silverware will be removed with the dish, leaving you with a clean slate, all ready for the next item to arrive. Common sense forbids arranging battalions of forks and knives at the sides of the plate, so on the extremely rare occasions that more than three or four courses are planned, new silverware will be brought to you after all of the original setting has been used. The plate setting is known as a "service plate," and is never actually eaten from. It will either be removed when the first course is brought, or the dish will be set on top of it. A person faced with this array can expect to dine on:

Oysters, as appetizer
Use the small fork angled into the soupspoon at right. This is the one exception to the rule of placing forks to the left of the plate.

The soupspoon is commonly the only spoon provided for the initial place setting.

Note the thicker tine at the left of the fork, which strengthens the tool -- for right handed people -- for use in cutting large salad greens without having to resort to the knife.

FishBoth a fork and a knife are provided for fish. Sometimes the fish knife has a silver blade, because fish, which is often served with lemon, reacts with the steel in old knife blades, causing an unpleasant taste (the invention of stainless steel in the 1920s made this problem obsolete). The fish fork is usually shorter than the meat fork.

The inner fork and knife are provided for the meat course of the meal.

In this case, the dessert utensils will be brought in with the dessert. However, you may encounter the dessert spoon -- and fork, if needed -- as part of the initial place setting. They would be placed horizontally over the plate and parallel to each other, with the bowl of the spoon pointing to the left and the tines of the fork pointing right. When coffee and tea are served, a teaspoon will be provided; it is brought in on the saucer.

Serving and Being Served, a Few Pointers
Serving Order

At a formal restaurant or banquet, food should be presented to guests in the following order: guest of honor, female guests, male guests, hostess, host. After the guest of honor, first the women, then the men, are served in one of two ways: (1) dishes can be presented to guests in the order of their seating, starting at the host's right; (2) dishes may be presented in order of seniority, starting with the most influential and proceeding down to the least prominent guest. Clearly, using the latter system requires the hosts to furnish information regarding the order of service ahead of time. In restaurants, most groups include neither guest of honor nor hosts, so the meals will simply be served first to the women, then to the men.

From the Left

In general, the diner is approached from the left for three purposes: (1) to present platters of food (from which the waiter will serve or the diner will help herself); (2) to place side dishes such as vegetables or dinner rolls; (3) to clear the side dishes that were placed from the left. The reason most often given for this is most people are right handed. So, for example, when a waiter must use his right hand to serve from a platter, it is least intrusive if he stands to the left. This way, the platter can be held safely away from the guest as the waiter leans forward (slightly) to reach her plate. And, in the case of placing side dishes, it makes most sense to put them to the side which is less in focus, leaving the right side free for the main dish.

And from the Right

(1) These days it is nearly universal practice, even in very formal circumstances, for food to arrive already arranged on the place (rather than to be presented on a platter). Preplated food (except for side dishes), as well as empty plates and clean utensils brought in preparation for upcoming courses, are always placed from the guest's right side. At the end of the course, these plates are also cleared from the right.
(2) Wine (and all beverages) are presented and poured from the right. This is a logical approach, since glassware is set above and to the right of the guest's plate, and trying to pour from the left would force the server to reach in front of the diner.

Clearing Order
Just as the ideal of service is to present each course to the entire party at once, it is best to clear the plates at the same time, too. It has become common for waiters to remove plates as each guest finishes, in violation of this rule of serving etiquette, perhaps because it can be interpreted as extreme attentiveness on the part of the waiter. Nevertheless, the rule holds firm. The most elegant service facilitates the progress of a synchronized meal for the whole table.

How to Use a Knife, Fork, and Spoon
An Introduction

The rules that specify how knife, fork, and spoon must be used have evolved along with the forms of the utensils themselves. In general, these rules are explicitly intended to prevent the utensils from appearing threatening. Margaret Visser, in her book The Rituals of Dinner, points out that etiquette and the ritual it imposes helps to control the violence inherent in the preparation and serving of meals. Animals are slaughtered and consumed, the guest-host relationship is, in itself, a complicated interweaving of the imposition of obligation and suspension of hostility, and the ordinary table knife is related to actual weapons of war. Consequently, flatware is held delicately, carefully balanced on the prescribed fingers and guided by the fingertips. To hold any utensil in a fist or to manipulate it in such a way that is pointed at anyone would hint at potential danger, as would even setting it down in an inappropriate way.

Holding a Utensil

In general use, both spoon and fork are held horizontally by balancing them between the first knuckle of the middle finger and the tip of the index finger while the thumb steadies the handle. The knife is used with the tip of the index finger gently pressing out over the top of the blade to guide as you cut.

The Zig Zag Method

By American custom, which was brought about partly by the late introduction of the fork into the culture, all three utensils are intended for use primarily with the right hand, which is the more capable hand for most people. This leads to some complicated maneuvering when foods, such as meat, require the use of knife and fork to obtain a bite of manageable size. When this is the case, the fork is held in the left hand, turned so that the tines point downward, the better to hold the meat in place while the right hand operates the knife. After a bite-sized piece has been cut, the diner sets the knife down on the plate and transfers the fork to the right hand, so that it can be used to carry the newly cut morsel to the mouth. Emily Post calls this the "zig-zag" style.

European Style

The European, or "Continental," style of using knife and fork is somewhat more efficient, and its practice is also common in the United States, where left-handed children are no longer forced to learn to wield a fork with their right hands. According to this method, the fork is held continuously in the left hand and used for eating. When food must be cut, the fork is used exactly as in the American style, except that once the bite has been separated from the whole, it is conveyed directly to the mouth on the downward-facing fork. Regardless of which style is used to operate fork and knife, it is important never to cut more than one or two bites at one time.


Another significant difference between the American and the Continental styles of using knife and fork is the American insistence that even the most awkward and contrary foods (peas being the traditional example) must be captured by the unaided fork. In Europe it is permitted to use the knife or a small bit of bread to ease a stubborn item onto the fork.

Once-Used Placement

There are numerous rules and prohibitions regarding the proper placement of eating utensils once they have been used. Essentially, used flatware must never be allowed to touch the surface of the table, where it might dirty the cloth. It is not proper to allow even the clean handle of a knife or fork to rest on the cloth while the other end lies on the plate. At the end of a course, a utensil must not be left in any dish that is not flat -- the soup bowl, for example, or a shrimp cocktail dish, a teacup or a parfait glass. All these items are usually presented with a plate underneath the bowl or cup, on which the utensil must be placed after use.

Placement in General
The positioning of knife and fork when not in use acts as a sort of semaphore, allowing the diner to indicate the degree to which he intends to pause in eating. Flatware should always be placed on the plate during pauses between bites. If this is to be a very short time, there is no set pattern. For longer waits, perhaps caused by a diverting twist in the table conversation, the diner places the fork on the left and knife on the right, so that they cross over the center of the plate. The diner preparing to pass his plate for a second helping places the fork and knife parallel to each other at the right side of the plate, so that there is room for the food. When the diner has finished, he signals this by setting the fork and knife parallel to each other, so they lie either horizontally across the center of the plate or are on the diagonal, with the handles pointing to the right. The cutting edge of the knife blade should face toward the diner (again, avoiding all possible aggressive implications), and the fork may be placed with the tines either up or down.

How to Use a Napkin

Using the napkin at formal occasions, as with much else associated with etiquette, should be a delicate affair. It is meant only to be dabbed at the lips and should not get dirty in the process. It might seem that the napkin is provided precisely so that it can help the diner clean up any mess that might occur during the course of the meal. Of course, this was its original use, (once the tablecloth itself ceased to be used as a napkin), and at an informal occasion such as a barbeque, it still performs this service. But the more formal the event, the more vestigial the presence of the napkin, because the purpose of nearly every aspect of table manners is to preserve cleanliness and proper appearance. If all other elements of the meal are going well, there will be no danger of smudging the linen.

To Start
As soon as you are seated, remove the napkin from your place setting, unfold it, and put it in your lap. At some very formal restaurants, the waiter may do this for the diners, but it is not inappropriate to place your own napkin in your lap, even when this is the case. If your napkin falls on the floor during a very formal event, do not retrieve it. You should be able to signal a member of the serving staff that you need a fresh one.

To Finish

When you leave the table at the end of the meal, place your napkin loosely next to your plate. It should not be crumpled or twisted, which would reveal untidiness or nervousness, respectively; nor should it be folded, which might be seen as an implication that you think your hosts might reuse it without washing. The napkin must also not be left on the chair. There is a European superstition that a diner who leaves the napkin on his chair will never sit at that table again, but other, less supernatural, reasons are often cited for this: it might seem as if you have an inappropriately dirty napkin to hide -- or even that you are trying to run off with the table linens.

Tips and Pitfalls

Developing the habit of taking a moment to observe which starting method will be operative at an event can be very useful in preventing awkward mistakes. It will ensure, for example, that an agnostic guest never finds himself with laden fork pushed halfway into his mouth just as the host begins to say grace.

There are two common approaches to determining how to begin, and, whichever method is used, it should be followed at the start of each course of the meal. At smaller events, it is common to wait to take a bite until everyone at the table has received a serving and the hostess has begun eating. Sometimes a hostess may urge her guests to eat immediately upon receiving the food. This is especially true at larger events, where waiting for everyone would allow it to get cold. In this case, wait until one or two of the other guests are ready to begin as well, so that you are not the only person at the table who is eating.


("Elbows, elbows, if you're able -- keep your elbows off the table!")Proper posture at the table is very important. Sit up straight, with your arms held near your body. You should neither lean on the back of the chair nor bend forward to place the elbows on the table. It is permissible to lean forward slightly every now and then and press the elbows very lightly against the edge of the table, if it is obvious that you are not using them for support.

Eating Soup

Dip the spoon into the soup, moving it away from the body, until it is about two-thirds full, then sip the liquid (without slurping) from the side of the spoon (without inserting the whole bowl of the spoon into the mouth). The theory behind this is that a diner who scoops the spoon toward himself is more likely to slosh soup onto his lap, although it is difficult to imagine what sort of eater would stroke the spoon so forcefully through the liquid that he creates waves. It is perfectly fine to tilt the bowl slightly -- again away from the body -- to get the last spoonful or two of soup.

Eating Bouillon

It is not very well known, undoubtedly because it is no longer in fashion to serve it, that if you are given bouillon in a soup cup with a handle, you may pick up the cup and sip the broth directly from it, even if a soupspoon has been provided. If there are any bits of vegetables or meat in the bouillon, they should be eaten with the spoon before you begin sipping.

Offering Food

Take note, when you are the host of a party, of the way you offer additional servings to your guests. Urging someone to "have another (or a second or third) helping" can be seen as an unpleasant insinuation that the guest has eaten too much. It is best to phrase each offer of food as if the dish has just been brought out for the first time.

"Please Pass the Salt"

The proper response to this very simple sounding request is to pick up both the salt and the pepper and to place them on the table within reach of the person next to you, who will do the same, and so on, until they reach the person who asked for them. They are not passed hand-to-hand, nor should anyone other than the original requester sprinkle her food when she has the shakers in her possession. The reason for this, as Judith Martin points out more than once, is that American etiquette is not about efficiency. Often, the most refined action is that which requires the greatest number of steps to carry it out (as in, for example, the zig-zag method of handling a fork and knife).

Removing Inedible Items from the Mouth
The general rule for removing food from your mouth is that it should go out the same way it went in. Therefore, olive pits can be delicately dropped onto an open palm before putting them onto your plate, and a piece of bone discovered in a bite of chicken should be returned to the plate by way of the fork. Fish is an exception to the rule. It is fine to remove the tiny bones with your fingers, since they would be difficult to drop from your mouth onto the fork. And, of course, if what you have to spit out will be terrifically ugly -- an extremely fatty piece of meat that you simply can't bring yourself to swallow, for example -- it will be necessary to surreptitiously spit it into your napkin, so that you can keep it out of sight.

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