Most people have been taught table manners as children, but surprisingly often such tenets have been forgotten, or are conveniently overlooked, in adulthood. It is not advisable to keep certain manners for ‘best’ and, even when eating informally or alone, good table manners should still apply. Constant practice will make manners easier to remember so that they come naturally when it really matters.
Basic Rules of Table Manners
A few tips and rules for basic table manners…
Napkins should be placed on the lap as soon as you are seated. When you get down from the table, leave the napkin, unfolded on the table, to the left of the place setting.
Sit a comfortable distance away from the table, so that with the elbows bent the hands are level with the knives and forks.
Sit up straight, sit square with hands in the lap and do not fidget. Do not put elbows on the table.
If you are served a meal that is already on the plate, wait until everyone has been served before picking up your cutlery, unless invited by your host to start.
Make sure others have been offered anything they might want from the table, such as butter, water, salt or pepper. Help yourself last and never stretch across people.
Do not begin eating until everyone has been served, unless the host or hostess gives their permission for diners to start.
Eat at a relaxed pace and pace yourself to match your fellow diners.
Keep your mouth closed and try to avoid making noises of any kind while eating, either with implements against the plate or teeth, or with actual ingestion of the food, eg slurping soup.
Talking while there is food in your mouth should be avoided at all costs – even when you have a conversational gem up your sleeve.
When you have finished, place your knife and fork – with the tines facing upwards – together on your plate.
If you are confronted with a plateful that is not to your taste, try to soldier on to avoid hurt feelings. Always compliment the cook.
How to Use Cutlery
A knife should be held firmly in your right hand, with the handle tucked into your palm, your thumb down one side of the handle and your index finger along the top (but never touching the top of the blade). It should never be eaten off or held like a pencil.
When used with a knife or spoon, the fork should be held in the left hand, in much the same way as the knife, with the prongs facing downwards. On its own, it is held in the right hand, with the prongs facing upwards, resting on the fingers and secured with the thumb and index finger.
A spoon is held in the right hand, resting on the fingers and secured with the thumb and index finger. Food should be eaten off the side of the spoon; it should never be used at a right angle to the mouth.
When eating, bring the fork or spoon to the mouth, rather than lowering the head towards the food. Bring the food promptly to the mouth and do not gesticulate with the knife and fork.
Cutlery should be rested on the plate/bowl between bites, and placed together in the bottom-centre when you are finished.
Never gesture with your cutlery, and don’t scrape or clatter it noisily against your plate or bowl. Equally, it is bad manners to loudly clank your utensils against your teeth.
Laying the Table
Whether it is a formal dinner or a much more casual occasion, the basic rules do not vary when laying the table. Give each person as much elbow room as the table permits. Leave an even amount of space between places. Knives and spoons go on the right, forks on the left. Formally, it is correct always to lay side plates – even if they are not going to be used – with the napkins simply folded on them.
The range of a cutlery arsenal will depend on the formality of the occasion, but the layout should always be the same – fork to the left, knives and spoons to the right. Work from the outside inwards, course by course, finishing with pudding implements. Pudding spoons and forks may sit above the place setting on less formal occasions, or may be brought out when the main course has been cleared.
Always eat puddings with a spoon and fork (both should always be laid); the spoon should be a dessert spoon. Ice cream may be eaten with a teaspoon, or a long teaspoon if served in a tall glass. Sorbet, served between courses, is eaten with a teaspoon.
How to Use Chopsticks
If your chopstick technique is unreliable and you find yourself asking for a fork when in a restaurant it would be a good idea to practise at home.
Hold the chopsticks parallel in one hand. Your thumb and forefinger hold and manipulate the top stick. Your middle finger rests between the sticks, keeping the bottom stick held still. The top stick is manoeuvred by the thumb and forefinger to grip food and bring it to your mouth.
Place your chopsticks by the right-hand side of your plate when you are not using them; you may be provided with special rests. Never use chopsticks to pass food to people, and never use them to point at other people.