Regardless of where you are eating, proper etiquette at the table is important. Even when it's just you and your family having a meal together, you still want to set an example for your kids.
Although dining out has become more casual, it still isn't acceptable to talk with your mouth full of food, rock the table with your elbows, or interfere with other diners' experiences by displaying improper etiquette. It's important to follow certain manners guidelines in both formal settings and fast food restaurants.
Learn Table Manners Basics
Table manners are important in both professional and social situations, so it's a good idea to know some basics. There may be some slight variations, depending on your region and what is locally acceptable. So if you are at a dinner party, pay close attention to the host or hostess and take cues from them.
Whether no one ever taught you dining etiquette or you've forgotten what you learned, here are some tips to show that you know how to behave at the table. Using proper etiquette at the table will also help you socially and professionally in a restaurant or in someone's home.
Before the Dinner
If you are invited to have dinner with someone, it is always a good idea to respond, even if an RSVP is not requested. This helps with planning. Don’t ask if you can bring extra guests if the invitation doesn’t make the offer. However, if your family is invited to someone’s home for dinner, it is okay to ask if your children are included. If they are, make sure your children know good manners before they go.
When you are dining at the home of a friend, it is a good idea to bring a host or hostess gift. Don’t expect your gift to be used during the meal. Most dinner parties have carefully planned menu items, and your gift may not go with the meal.
Some dinner parties are formal and have place cards where the host or hostess wants you to sit. If not, ask if there are seating preferences. Wait until the host sits before you do. In some cultures, a blessing will be said. Even if you don’t follow the beliefs of the prayer, show respect and be silent. If the host offers a toast, lift your glass. It is not necessary to “clink” someone else’s glass.
As soon as you sit down, turn to your host or hostess and take a cue for when to begin. Once the host unfolds his or her napkin, you should remove your napkin from the table or plate, and place it on your lap. If you are dining out, you should place your napkin in you lap immediately after you sit down.
Keep your napkin in your lap until you are finished eating. If you must get up at any time during the meal and plan to return, place the napkin on either side of your plate. After you are finished, place your napkin on the table to the left of your plate.
When to Eat
If you are eating out, you should wait until all the members of your group have been served before picking up your fork. At a private dinner, observe the host or hostess and pick up your fork when he or she does. However, if you are at a buffet, you may start when there are others seated at your table.
One of the most common issues to confuse today’s diners is which utensil to use for each course. A typical rule of thumb is to start with the utensil that is farthest from your plate and work your way toward the center of your place setting.
If you see the host or hostess doing something different, you may follow his or her lead. The important thing is to remain as inconspicuous as possible. You don't want to call negative attention to yourself.
For dinners where food is served at the table, the dishes should be passed in a counter-clockwise flow. Never reach across the table for anything. Instead, ask that condiments be passed from the person closest to the item. Salt and pepper should be passed together. Always use serving utensils and not your own to lift food from the serving dish.
Table manners were designed to keep people from scarfing food down like animals, so learn them before you eat with others. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you should never call attention to yourself by blatantly breaking the rules set by society.
Here are some essential dining etiquette rules that you should follow:
- Turn off your cell phone before sitting down. It is rude to talk on your phone or text while in the company of others.
- Never talk when you have food in your mouth. That’s just gross. Even if someone asks you a question, wait until you swallow before answering.
- Taste your food before you add salt, pepper, or other seasoning. Doing otherwise may be insulting to the host or hostess. If you are dining with a prospective employer, the person may perceive you as someone who acts without knowing the facts.
- Don’t cut all your food before you begin eating. Cut one or two bites at a time.
- Never blow on your food. If it is hot, wait a few minutes for it to cool off. Scoop your soup away from you.
- Some foods are meant to be eaten with your fingers. Follow the lead of the host or hostess.
- If you are drinking from a stemmed glass, hold it by the stem.
- Break your bread into bite-sized pieces and butter only one bite at a time.
- Try at least one or two bites of everything on your plate, unless you are allergic to it.
- Compliment the hostess if you like the food, but don’t voice your opinion if you don’t.
- Use your utensils for eating, not gesturing.
- Keep your elbows off the table. Rest the hand you are not using in your lap.
- Eat slowly and pace yourself to finish at the same approximate time as the host or hostess.
- Avoid burping or making other rude sounds at the table.
- If you spill something at a restaurant, signal one of the servers to help. If you spill something at a private dinner party in someone’s home, pick it up and blot the spill. Offer to have it professionally cleaned if necessary.
- When you finish eating, leave your utensils on your plate or in your bowl.
- Never use a toothpick or dental floss at the table.
- You may reapply your lipstick, but don’t freshen the rest of your makeup at the table.
After the Meal
After you finish eating, partially fold your napkin and place it to the left of your plate. Wait until the host or hostess signals that the meal is over, and then you may stand. After the meal is over, don’t eat and run. If nothing is planned after dinner, stick around for approximately an hour before saying good-bye to the host and thanking him or her for the dinner. If the event is informal, you may offer to help clean up.
Always send the host or hostess a thank you note or card in the mail, and don’t wait more than a day or two after the event. Address the host or hostess, thank him or her for the lovely dinner, and add another short, positive comment to show your appreciation. Your note may be brief but heartfelt.