Christmas

Basic Table Manners: A Refresher

October  1, 2014

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Brush up on your etiquette basics to wow fellow diners (and make your mom proud).

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The holiday season will be here soon, and with it come tons of parties. Before the onslaught of cookie swaps, company dinners, and your mother’s holiday brunch, take a moment to brush up on your dining etiquette. Even if you’ve learned it all before, a quick refresher course will help you feel confident and in control before breaking bread with your boss or etiquette-obsessed aunt. Here's how to mind your manners at the dinner table:

Heirloom Linen Napkins on Provisions  Dinner Party

  • First things first: Mind the little details -- you've heard them all before. Respond to invitations in a timely manner; remember that it's always better to be overdressed; be fashionably on time; bring a hostess gift; and remember to silence your phone and keep it tucked away and out of sight.

  • After you sit down: The first thing you should do is place your napkin in your lap. Leave it there until the end of the meal, or until you excuse yourself from the table. There’s some debate about what to do with your napkin when you get up, but the most common practice is to place it on your seat until you return. If you’re worried that your napkin has food on it that could stain the seat or your clothes when you sit back down, place it to the left of your plate instead.

  • To locate your bread plate and drink: When in doubt, look to your hands. With your palms facing each other, connect the tip of each pointer finger with your thumbs. You’ll see that your left hand will form a lower case 'b,' and your right hand, a lowercase 'd.' These stand for "bread" and "drink," which you will find to your left and to your right, respectively.

  • What to do with all of that silverware: Your safest bet is to start from the outside (the utensils farthest from your plate) and move inward as the meal progresses. However, dessert utensils may also be found above your plate (like in the picture below).

How to Set a Table

More: Hosting your own dinner party? Learn how to properly set the table.

  • How to hold utensils: There are two proper ways to hold your utensils -- the first is Continental (or European) Style; the second is American Style. For American Style, hold your fork and knife as you would a pen. With your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right, cut a piece of food; place the knife down on the edge of the plate, then swap the fork to your right hand (if needed) and take a bite. Repeat. For continental, just keep your fork in your left hand when you take a bite.

  • Resting utensils: If you are taking a break from eating, imagine your plate is a clock and place your knife and fork down at the 3 o'clock position. You can indicate that you are finished eating by placing your utensils in the 10 and 4 o'clock positions.

  • When to start eating: Wait until the host or hostess starts to eat -- even if others at the table begin before him or her.

Porcelain Sauce Boat on Provisions

  • Foods that can be eaten with your hands, even in a more formal setting: Though this rule varies by culture, most allow that certain foods are too difficult to eat with a fork and knife: Among these are bread (which should be broken into bite-size pieces), chips, sushi (if you are not provided with chopsticks), and most passed appetizers. Otherwise, it's best to try to eat with a fork and knife when at the dinner table.

  • When in doubt: If you’re not sure about something, watch the host or hostess for cues. See how they handle the situation and act accordingly. This will almost always be the proper course of action.

  • After the party: Don't forget a thank you note. It should be sent within two weeks after the event (but a late thank you note is better than none at all).

What etiquette questions still have you stumped? We want to hear about them in the comments!

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16 Comments

Tesler October 14, 2014
I still believe in manners, the next time you go out to eat watch the people, it's sad how know one knows uses table manners anymore. I get looks all the time from people as I place my napkin in my lap lol. I found a great cookbook one day, it was from 1946, it had everything you needed to know about hosting a dinner party. it even covered ironing the linen napkins and table cloth. So when I saw this article I was glad that there are people who still have manners or at least learn how to set a table.
 
Barbara R. October 3, 2014
And a napkin is for wiping your mouth, not blowing your nose.
 
laurie M. October 1, 2014
Nice article, Hollis!<br />Laurie<br />
 
Pegeen October 1, 2014
The hostess/host have obligations too. Never serve sauce or gravy (as shown above), or a salad dressing, without a serving dish beneath it. Ideally the plate should be big enough to hold a serving spoon or ladle so that guests don't have to use their own dinnerware to spoon it.
 
Kristi S. October 1, 2014
My son is a leftie-- do I teach him to cut his food with his knife in his left hand or right hand? I'm assuming most right handers hold their knife in their right hand for better control-- I would assume it'd be true for a left hander too, but I can't remember ever seeing one cutting their food a particular way.
 
Author Comment
Hollis M. October 1, 2014
Hi Kristi! I'm actually a leftie as well, as are both of my parents -- I was still taught to hold my knife in my right hand, but it did take a bit more practice! I guess it's up to you, although most lefties I know use their right hands to cut.
 
Kristi S. October 2, 2014
Thanks Hollis!
 
Stephanie L. October 1, 2014
If someone asks for the salt -- if they are on the table -- pass the salt and pepper together.<br /><br />If the dinner is family style and someone requests the dish that is near you, refrain from dishing out a serving to yourself before passing. <br /><br />Don't reapply your lipstick at the table; go the bathroom for that.
 
Lindsay October 1, 2014
No elbows on the table, chew with your mouth closed, and certainly don't speak with food in your mouth. Also, an infraction I notice a lot these days: make sure to pass the [dish, bread, butter, etc] if it's in front of you and hasn't gone around the table yet. Keep things moving around if you're handed something.
 
CarlaCooks October 2, 2014
I don't enforce the no elbows on the table rule. After living in Europe for 6+ years, I've found that most people put their elbows on the table, and it shows your host that you are comfortable with them and are engaged in the conversation. Then again, this might also have something to do with the fact that dinners on this side of the pond often last quite long, 5+ hours, so there are long stretches of time when you're not eating but simply engaging in conversation and sipping wine.
 
Hilary October 1, 2014
No elbows on the table!! In France, hands should be kept above the table at all times.... no wandering hands under the table!
 
Bascula October 1, 2014
I believe the elbows question should be addressed: are elbows ever allowed on the table? Should any part of the arm ever rest on the table? In the US, it's polite to keep your non-eating arm in your lap, but I have heard that other cultures find it rude.
 
Hilary October 1, 2014
In the UK, a knife is held like a pen but the end is in the palm of your hand (not poking out between your thumb and forefinger). A fork is always held with the tines facing down, this includes eating peas. To indicate that you are resting your utensils, you place your fork between 7 & 8 on a clock face, your knife between 4 & 5. To indicate that you have finished eating, both knife and fork are placed at 6. It is only acceptable to eat certain foods with your fingers, such as asparagus and globe artichokes, not chips. Napkins are never 'tucked-in'.
 
CarlaCooks October 2, 2014
In this article, I believe chips refers to the American chips (crisps), not the English chips (fries). However, most people in the States eat chips/fried with their hands as well :)
 
Author Comment
Hollis M. October 1, 2014
I should also probably note that my mom was a huge inspiration for this -- mothers always know best!
 
Yael E. October 1, 2014
Related but not exactly: When i was 18 my friend taught me a trick for setting the table. All things with even numbers of letters in the word go on the Left (left has an even number of letters). Here go your fork/napkin for example. Things on the Right have an odd number (just as the word "right" does) here go your glass/knife/spoon/cup. My settings are never more complicated than this. But I guess "breadplate" is 10 letters so goes on the left :)