If most of your dining has started at the drive-thru or over the kitchen sink lately, you probably need a refresher course in proper etiquette at the table. In spite of the hurried nature of most people’s lives today, slowing down long enough to eat a meal in a civilized manner will give you a sense of peace and a chance to recharge your energy. The subject of dining etiquette can get quite lengthy if you let it; however, here are a few pointers that I feel will help you be successful. Using proper etiquette at the table will also help you socially and professionally, and who doesn’t want that?
In my personal experience, the best “refresher courses” are on what take place at the table. So, that being said, one of the first lessons I learned at the table is how to use the napkin. As soon as you’re seated, unfold your napkin and place it in your lap. Don’t shake it open, and don’t tuck it into your collar. At some formal restaurants, the waiter may place the napkin on your lap, but it is always appropriate to place your own napkin if you wish. Leave the napkin in your lap until the end of the meal. If you need to use it to dab or wipe your mouth, do so discreetly and replace it on your lap, this does not need to be a grand gesture. Never use your napkin to wipe your nose.
When your food arrives, wait until everyone at the table is served before you begin to eat – this is a common courtesy. In regard to the plating, it is good to remember, “food to the left, drink to the right.” Any food dishes to the left of your plate are yours, as are any drinking glasses to the right. For a formal place setting, use the silverware furthest from your plate first. Start with the salad fork on the outermost left, followed by the soup spoon on the outermost right. That leaves your dinner fork to the left, and your beverage spoon and dinner knife to the right. Your dessert fork or spoon will either be above your plate or brought out with dessert.
There are two acceptable methods of using a fork and a knife, but for the same of simplicity, let’s just focus on the American style as it is the one with we are most familiar. American style is a knife in the right hand and a fork in the left hand, holding the food. After you cut a few bite-sized pieces of food, set the knife down on the edge of the plate and switch the fork over to your right hand (unless you’re left handed). A left hand, arm or elbow on the table is always considered bad manners.
I don’t expect you to use these manners at all times and in all places. Dinner at home or a casual dinner with family is completely different than dining at the Ritz – but always use your best judgment. At times this may feel extremely technical and you may get overwhelmed trying to remember all the nuances in dining etiquette. Let me offer you a word of advice, just breathe. As long as you are not at the table throwing around utensils and creating a mess, your behavior will be acceptable. Dining etiquette is an art, and like all good art it takes time to master.