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Eating Etiquette

Ever since people first gathered together to eat,  some sort of dining etiquette was observed. People soon learned that the strongest person had first choice. It probably didn't take too long before the strongest person learned not to eat with the knife he had used to kill the dinner.

Etiquette has evolved over the years, but most of the American rules of etiquette were shaped by 17th century European society and by military etiquette. Many of the rules of etiquette are strange and outdated, but if you want to make a positive impression in a business or social situation involving dining, you need to know a few of them.

The tips provided may be bewildering or make you more nervous than you would otherwise be, so we have used bold letters to indicate the most important tips. The real key to a successful social or business dining experience is to enjoy yourself and to help others enjoy themselves. When in doubt, follow the lead of your host(s).

  • Dress for the occasion. Formal means tuxedos and ballgowns. Business lunch or dinner usually means you should wear a suit or other professional attire.
  • Arrive at least 10 minutes early if not otherwise specified. Check your appearance.
  • Greet your host(s). Shaking hands is the usual way, particularly if it is a business function. If you are wearing a coat, ask where you can put it.
  • If there is a cocktail party first, limit your intake, especially if it is part of job interview or if you have to drive. Having a non-alcoholic beverage is a perfectly good option.
  • Be sure to leave one hand free for shaking hands or eating. You can do this by using all the fingers and palm of your other hand. Fold your napkin loosely around your little finger. Balance the hors d'oeuvre plate between your ring and middle fingers, and hold your glass or cup between your index finger and thumb. It takes a little practice.
  • Wait to go in to dinner or sit down until either your host(s) say to sit or until they are seated. Leave your jacket on until dessert comes unless you are so hot you can't stand it, then place it around the back of your chair.
  • Put your napkin on your lap. If it is a large one, fold the top half down.
  • If you are ordering from a restaurant menu, avoid asking for changes to the item, the most expensive meal option, or food that will drip or slip.
  • If you are ordering wine, the simple thing is to ask the host or waiter to recommend something. White wine is recommended for fish, chicken, and vegetables; red for red meat and heavy dishes like lasagna. Beer works with hot food. If you are there as part of an interview, do not drink more than one glass.
  • Whoever orders the wine will have a small amount poured into the glass to taste. Smell it delicately, sip it, rolling it around on your tongue, then swallow. Unless it tastes like vinegar, nod your head and say something like, "Excellent!" or "Very Good."
  • It is okay to order a drink that does not contain alcohol.
  • Use your eating utensils from the outside in. If you are unsure about anything, watch your host or others around you. Use them delicately so you avoid a lot of noise as they touch the plate.
  • Pass to your right.  If someone asks for the salt, pass both salt and pepper.
  • Your beverages should be on the right of your plate and food like bread and salad on your left. This will help you avoid eating or drinking someone else's food.
  • If soup is served, remember to spoon away from you. This helps stop the drips. Leave the spoon turned over in the bowl when you are finished.
  • Hold your knife in your palm with three fingers around it, the index finger on the top, and your thumb on the inside of it. Hold it gently and use pressure from your index finger and thumb to cut.
  • After you have cut a piece of food, put your knife down on your plate with the blade to the inside and switch your fork to your other hand to eat. Yes, it is weird and the Europeans do not do it this way, but we do.
  • Don't reach for something on the table; always ask the person nearest to it or to you to pass it.
  • When butter is being passed, cut a pat and place it on your bread plate.
  • Tear off a small piece of bread to butter. Never butter the whole slice. Lay your butter knife down with the blade to the inside.
  • Use your knife or a piece of bread to help corral the pesky vegetables, never your finger.
  • Talk to everyone around you, but don't yell at someone down the table. Of course, don't talk when your mouth is full either.
  • Don't put your elbows on the table; in fact, unless you are cutting something that requires both hands, your idle hand should be in your lap.
  • If coffee is served, it usually comes with a teaspoon you can use to add sugar or stir.
  • If you have dessert or fruit, the dessert fork or spoon will either be above your plate, or will be served with the dessert.
  • Use the restroom to pick food out of your teeth or repair your makeup. If you have to excuse yourself from the table, place your napkin in your chair. Women, if you are in a very high-class restaurant, you might find an attendant in the restroom. You are supposed to tip that person if she provides any service to you.
  • When you are finished eating, place your knife and fork in the middle of the plate with the handles resting on the plate. Fork tines should be turned down and the knife blade turned in. Place the napkin to the right side of your plate or on your chair when you get up.
  • The host(s) should pick up the restaurant tab, so don't offer. But it never hurts to have money or a card handy just in case. Thank your host(s) for a wonderful meal (unless you ended up paying for it).

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