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Dining Etiquette

Dining with Confidence

Did you know that the point of etiquette rules is to make you feel comfortable, not uncomfortable? The idea is that if there are standards that people abide by, then you can have confidence that you are behaving "appropriately." It takes the guesswork out of public behavior.

I was blessed to have parents who taught me dining etiquette, but many people are not so fortunate. When I started traveling for business as a young man, it really made corporate dinners less intimidating.

Bread on the Left, Drink on the Right

Which drink is yours? This is one of the first decisions at the dinner table because oftentimes, napkins are in the glass when you arrive at the table.

b  d

Here is an easy tip to help you remember. Hold both hands in front of you, palms facing each other. Using the tips of your thumb and forefinger, make circles on each hand. The remaining three fingers in each hand point upwards. Your left hand will form a "b" and your right hand will form a "d". Bread (b) is on the left, and drink (d) is on the right. Thank you Martha Stewart for that tip.

If your neighbor has already taken your bread plate or drink, quietly ask the waiter for another.


Napkins belong in your lap. Large napkins can be folded in half or with a quarter folded over the top. They should never be tucked into your shirt like a bib.

Wait for the host to unfold his napkin before unfolding yours. In a banquet setting or at a restaurant, simply place your napkin in your lap as soon as you are seated.

If you excuse yourself from the table, loosely fold the napkin and place it to the left or right of your plate. Do not refold your napkin or wad it up on the table either.

Note: Some respected etiquette experts will disagree and flatly state that when leaving the table, you should hang the napkin over the back of your chair. Whatever you do, do not place the napkin in the seat of your chair. You don't want to wipe your mouth with a napkin that has been left on the seat.

Place Settings Etiquette

Place settings can be confusing. The general rule for silverware is to work from the outside in as the meal progresses.

  1. Dinner plate - The center of the place setting. When finished eating, do not push the plate away from you. Instead, place both your fork and knife across the center of the plate, handles to the right. . Between bites, your fork and knife are placed on the plate, handles to the right, not touching the table.
  2. Soup bowl - May be placed on the dinner plate. If you need to set your soup spoon down, place it in the bowl. Do not put it on the dish under the bowl until finished.
  3. Bread plate - Belongs just above the tip of the fork. Bread should be broken into bite -sized pieces, not cut. Butter only the piece you are preparing to eat. When butter is served, put some on your bread plate and use as needed.
  4. Napkin - Placed to the left of the fork with the fold on the left. Sometimes placed under the forks or on the plate.
  5. Salad fork - If a salad fork is used, it belongs to the left of the dinner fork.
  6. Dinner fork - Placed to the left of the plate. No more than three forks to the left of the plate. If there are three forks, they are usually salad, fish, and meat, in order of use, from outside in. An oyster fork always goes to the right of the soup spoon.
  7. Butter knife - Place horizontally on bread plate.
  8. Dessert spoon - Above the plate.
  9. Cake fork - Above the plate.
  10. Dinner knife - To the right of the plate. Sometimes there are multiple knives, perhaps for meat, fish, and salad, in order of use from outside in.
  11. Tea spoon - To the right of the dinner knife.
  12. Soup spoon - If needed, to the right of the tea spoon.
  13. Water glass - Just above the tip of the knife.
  14. Red wine glass - To the right of the water glass.
  15. White wine glass - To the right of the red wine glass. A glass of white wine is held on its stem to preserve the chill. It should be served at 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
  16. Coffee cup and saucer not pictured - If needed, bring at time of coffee service.

Serving Food

  • Pass food from the left to the right.
  • If asked for the salt or pepper, pass both together.
  • Food is served from the left.
  • Dishes are removed from the right.
  • Butter, spreads, or dips should be transferred from the serving dish to your plate before spreading or eating.

General Dining Etiquette

  • Start eating hot food when it is served, do not wait for everyone else to begin.
  • For soup, dip the spoon into the soup, from the edge of the bowl to the center, moving away from you. Only fill it 3/4 full to avoid spilling. Sip, not slurp, from the edge of the spoon. Do not insert the whole bowl of the spoon into your mouth.
  • It is proper to tip a soup bowl slightly to get all of the soup.
  • Never turn the glass upside down to decline wine. It is more polite to let the wine be poured and not draw attention to yourself. If you are asked about wine and will not be drinking, quietly decline.
  • Do not ask for a doggy bag unless it is an informal dining situation.
  • Do not smoke at the table.
  • Do not ask to taste someone else's food. Similarly, do not offer a taste of your food to someone else.
  • Taste your food before seasoning it.
  • For hard to scoop items like peas, use your knife or a piece of bread to push the items onto your fork. Do not use your fingers.
  • Do not talk with your mouth full.
  • Cut only enough food for the next mouthful.
  • Chew with your mouth closed.
  • If soup is too hot to eat, let it cool in bowl. Do not blow on it.
  • Practice good posture. If not eating, place your hand in your lap or rest your wrists on the edge of the table. Do not put your elbows on the table.
  • If hot food is burning your mouth, discretely drink something cool to counteract the food.
  • When dining out, order foods that can be eaten with utensils.
  • Meeting materials or briefacases should be placed under your chair until it is time to discuss business.
  • Try to pace your meal to finish at the same time as your host or the majority of the group at the table.
  • Do not blow your nose at the dinner table. Excuse yourself to visit the restroom. Wash your hands before returning to the dining room.
  • If you cough, cover your mouth with your napkin to stop the spread of germs and muffle the noise. If your cough becomes unmanageable, excuse yourself to visit the restroom. Wash your hands before returning to the dining room.

Casual Dining Exceptions

Eating out with your friends is not an excuse to become a slob. However, dining etiquette guidelines are not as important when eating a burger and fries at Chilis.

  • Do not worry about ordering foods that are eaten with your hands - burgers, fajitas, sandwiches, etc.
  • When sharing chips and salsa at your favorite Mexican food restaurant, do not concern yourself with transfering salsa to your own plate. However, do not double dip. In other words, do not dip your chip, bite off a piece, and then re-dip your chip.


James G. Lewis


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