Dinner Decorum: A Guide to Table Manners

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Dinner Decorum: A Guide to Table Manners

By Cindy Edwards

Dinner Decorum

Remember Julia Roberts’ character in the movie “Pretty Woman”? Before her big dinner date with Richard Gere’s character, a hotel manger gives her a crash course on eating “from the outside in” at the dinner table. However, at dinner that evening, she finds herself in a dilemma when she glances down and does not see the fork that she is expecting. The kind, older gentleman sitting at her table notices her confusion and discreetly demonstrates how to properly eat pâté. Perfect!!! Although it may be rare for you to be served pâté or escargot, it is nice to know how to navigate at the dinner table.

Good table manners begin at home. Most likely, your table setting at home is fairly basic, so the “outside in” approach is easy to follow: Begin with the silverware that is on the outside and work your way in as you progress during the meal. If the first course is a salad or soup, you should find those utensils on the outside. If the meal includes a third course (dessert), you may find that fork or spoon placed above the dinner plate instead of the side.

Holding silverware

There are two recognized styles for holding silverware: The American style, where you hold the fork in your right hand with the tines up, and the Continental style, where you hold the fork in your left hand with the tines down. The fork and knife simply rest on the middle finger with your forefinger and thumb holding the handle. The forefinger is always directing the movement of the utensil whether using Continental or American style. I had always heard that you should begin and end a meal in the same style; however, today there is more and more crossover during a meal. And, both styles seem to be equally acceptable.
The American Style

The Continental Style

Both styles call for cutting the food the same way: knife in the right hand with the fork in the left hand, forefingers guiding the motion as the utensils rest on the middle fingers, secured by the thumb. 

In the American style, after cutting, the fork is transferred to the right hand. In the Continental style, the fork remains in the left hand. You may continue to hold the knife or rest it on the plate.

What should you do with silverware during the meal?

Never put a piece of silverware back on the table once you have picked it up.  It should just “rest” on your plate.  You should also rest your silverware between bites and during conversation. When you are finished, lay your knife and fork together on the diagonal of your plate.  I tell my sons to make railroad tracks with their silverware and place them on the plate at the four o’clock position.

When do I start eating?

In most situations, you begin eating when the hostess does.  Follow her lead: Sit down when she does and wait for her to place her napkin in her lap. She may also signal the beginning of dining by simply picking up her fork and placing it on her plate. If there is a slow start in service, the hostess may urge you to begin your meal. Then, you may do as she says.

Which way should the food be passed?

Pass food to the right, and only pass it in one direction. If you are at a restaurant, your server will present your plate to your left and remove it from your right.

What about the bread and butter?

If you have a bread and butter plate, always place your bread on it. It will be on the upper left-hand side of the place setting. When the bread is passed, take a piece and a small amount of butter and place both on the dish. Break the bread into bite-size pieces, and butter each piece as you eat it.

Think of table manners like a game of bridge: If you know the rules, you can communicate in a completely different language. Please check out next week’s posting for more dinner decorum. Again, thanks for reading.

Properly yours,

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Reader Comments:


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By big dinner table on May 11, 2013


Thanks, Cindy, for a wonderful article. It brought back memories of my mother. Good table manners were of utmost importance to her and she ensured that this was instilled in her children. I will make this required reading for my sons. Thanks again, Andrée

By Andrée Walsh on June 16, 2012


LOVE this post. I cannot believe how many people don't know (or just don't use) basic table etiquette these days. I am so thankful that my mother made me use good table manners at every meal so that it became a habit. Good table manners really do make a meal more enjoyable for everyone. I wish this post was required reading for everyone!

By Amy on February 03, 2012


@Patricia. Thank you for your question. Years ago grape scissors were provided. However, I do not see those very often. I would not recommend plucking individual grapes from a buffet table. Instead, I suggest that you remove a cluster and place it on your plate. I think that your friend's advice of gently twisting is perfectly fine after the cluster is on your plate. Cindy

By Cindy Edwards on September 29, 2011


Ms. Edwards, Hopefully you can answer this. If there is a dining etiquette procedure when removing a grape from its stem. My friend said that her grandmother taught her to gently twist the grape as this was how a young lady should do it. Could not find anything in etiquette books at library, so I'm asking your help. Thank you, Patricia

By Patricia Balinski on September 27, 2011


Oh, what a wonderful article. It invoked fond memories of my mother's proper table settings (almost daily) and her continuing reminders of proper table manners. She insisted on a full table setting most dinners. Thanks, Cindy, for your articles. I look forward to each one.

By Viki on August 30, 2011


Dear Ms. Mitchell, Thank you for your comment and concern. I try to research every topic very thoroughly and sometimes find many points of view. The majority of my research recommends that food be passed to the right. "Good Manners for Every Occasion" written by Emilie Barnes seconds this. I also checked with Emily Post's 17th edition and she concurred. If I am the hostess I begin and pass to the right. But, if I am a guest and it begins to the left, I just smile and continue to the left. Thank you for reading. I welcome you thoughts. Cindy Edwards

By Anonymous on August 26, 2011


Dear Ms. Edwards: Thank you for your article on table manners. I did have one concern, though. I was always taught to pass the food to the left and not to the right. Is passing to the right considered the American Style? Once again, thank you for taking the time to write on such a topic. Sincerely, Barbara Mitchell

By Barbara Mitchell on August 25, 2011


Would love to see a blog on setting the table.

By Linda on August 25, 2011


Enjoyed the dinner party etiquette. It wil being new style to my dining vocabulary. Sometimes, I just overlook what it proper and this review helped me recall what is appropriate when presented with their routine challenge. Thanks Cindy!

By Michael Sobota on August 24, 2011


Brilliant! I was raised in the South, but have lived in the UK for the past 8 years. Dinner party etiquette is a must in both locations! I tend to switch between American and Continental style, but have recently been preferring the Continental style. I will teach my 4 year old daughter this method. Would love for you to do an article on the 'cheese' course. Very popular over here, but seems to be rotate between being the last course (if you do not count coffee/mints) and the next to last course. Is it a personal preference whether it comes before or after dessert? Great job Cindy! Will share with my fellow UK dinner party friends!

By Liz Macfadyen on August 24, 2011


I think it's right with the times...... not too stuffy........... and I'm anxious to share this with my friends and family. Thanks to Cindy

By Carolyn H on August 23, 2011


This was great and very useful information .

By Karen on August 23, 2011


I'm left handed, all my life I had worried about my table manners because it is hard to follow those rules eating backward. Finally I just rearranged the table setting to suit my needs. Better to be barkward to everyone else that sloppy!!

By Virginia Hickman on August 23, 2011


What is the proper way to hold fork and knife if left handed?

By Judy on August 23, 2011


Love your blog! I cannot wait to share this with my teenage children. They will love the reference to Pretty Woman and will especially love following your handsome young man as a model.

By L. Buckley on August 23, 2011


Love this! When I taught character education, I did a series of lessons on table manners, table setting, and napkin folding right before Thanksgiving. Families are so busy any more and parents working long hours that they rarely eat together, so learning table manners has gone by the wayside. I've had students from years back (and their parents) tell me how much they appreciate these lessons and how they've come in handy in later years.

By Kathy on August 23, 2011


Very good, I was brought up the English way! Also never to talk with your mouth full, which I am afraid the Chefs on foodnetwork do!

By di clarke on August 23, 2011


Wonderful article. Everyone needs reminding about table manners! I am sending it to my college daughter. I really enjoy your blog.

By Linda Cauley on August 22, 2011


Great article!! We must have gone to the same school of etiquette.

By John C. on August 21, 2011

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