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. The idea is always to work from the outside in. 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.
Knives, Forks and Spoons
The basics are large and small knives, large and small forks, teaspoons, dessert (pudding) spoons and forks, and tablespoons. There may be small blunt knives for butter, fish knives, soup spoons and extra small spoons for coffee, or for salt and mustard. Some people have different shaped spoons for soup and pudding, but cutlery design is not standard. If the dessert spoons are very small, then traditionally tablespoons are used for the soup.
Jam spoons or dessert spoons, not teaspoons, should be used for jam or honey (and the jars and spoons placed on small plates). Teaspoons are also for tea and coffee, or for eating grapefruit or boiled eggs, for which you may sometimes find a type with a more pointed shape.
Plates and Bowls
Soup should be served in shallow bowls. Pudding, unless there is a lot of sauce, is served on small plates. A special dessert service with a decorative pattern may be used, or the same plates as the first course.
The traditional diameters of plates are ten inches or a little more for dinner plates (main course), eight inches for pudding plates and six inches for side plates. With so many contemporary designs and shapes available this is just a guide, not a rule.
The fork and spoon are the only things that should go into the mouth. Never lick the knife or eat off it. If using a knife and fork together, always keep the tines of the fork pointing downwards and push the food on to the fork. It may be necessary to use mashed potato to make peas stick to the fork but it is incorrect to turn the fork over and scoop.
There are foods that are eaten with just a fork, including some pasta and some fish. In this case use the fork in the right hand and have the tines up, more like a spoon. It is not traditional in England, but quite usual in America, to see someone cut all their food up and then discard the knife and eat with the fork alone.
It is not correct to hold your knife like a pen. The handle lies in the palm of the hand and is secured by the thumb on the side and the index finger on top of the handle. It is permissible in a restaurant to ask for a steak knife, if the meat is tough, but rude to ask for anything extra in a private house.
When finished, the knife and fork (with tines facing upwards) or spoon etc are placed on the plate in a six-thirty position.
Spoon and Fork
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.
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.
Hold the chopsticks parallel in one hand. The thumb and forefinger hold and manipulate the top stick. The 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 the mouth. Place the chopsticks by the right-hand side of the plate when they are not in use; there may be special rests for them.
Never use personal chopsticks to pass food to people, and never use them to point at other people. It is best to use a serving spoon to take food from a communal dish if provided, or communal chopsticks (which would be a different colour).
Certain foods from different parts of the world have their own traditions, some of which have become commonplace in modern Britain, while others are only going to be encountered rarely. Of these the most obvious is pasta, which 50 years ago was little known. It would be odd today to attack it with a knife and fork or even with a fork and spoon. Learn how to eat it as they do in Italy, with the fork only, but tidily. It is acceptable to bend more closely over the plate than with traditional English food.
If eating Indian food with the hands, it is permissible to lower the head towards the food and preferable to dropping it and making a mess. Chinese food is eaten by bringing the bowl to your mouth, rather that your mouth to the bowl. If in any doubt, say, about whether to eat pizza with a knife and fork or the fingers, remember the golden rule of table manners: think of the person sitting opposite.
When taking a seat at the table, sit a comfortable distance away, so that with the elbows bent the hands are level with the knives and forks. Do not tilt the chair or hunch forward over the plate. Sit up straight, sit square with hands in the lap and do not fidget. Do not put elbows on the table.
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 (napkins are never left folded as it implies that they may be reused).
Serving and Passing
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. When things are out of reach or have not been passed along, ask a neighbour if they are going to have whatever it is, as a hint, or simply ask them to pass it (traditionally, it was bad manners to ask to be passed the salt).
Serving Spoons and Forks
Use the serving spoons and forks to take food from a communal dish. If a spoon and fork or two spoons are provided, hold one in each hand, not in just one hand like a waiter. Use any spoons or ladles for sauces, rather than tipping from the gravy boat or jug.
Salt is put on the side of the plate rather than sprinkled over the food, even if served from a grinder.
Generally do not start before everyone has been served, so look around and take a lead from others. An exception may be if it is a large party and the host asks people to start, as the food may get cold. Those who cannot tolerate very hot food should still pick up the spoon or knife and fork and look as if they are starting at the same time; this will ensure that their neighbours do not feel obliged to wait as well.
Eating and Talking
Never eat with your mouth open or talk with your mouth full. It is fine, however, to carry on eating during a conversation. This can be awkward if one person does not pick up their knife and fork out of mistaken courtesy, while the other person is talking. It is not rude just to nod, for example, or to wait a few moments for someone to finish a mouthful. Working out how to eat and talk is part of good table manners and an essential social skill. It is, however, impolite to continue eating during speeches or if there is a performance, such as singing.
Spitting Things Out
When encountering an unexpected piece of gristle, or something that may be chewed to no avail, it is polite to be brave and to try to swallow it. If it is something which would be unsafe to eat rather than just unappetising, then cover the mouth with the hand, and quickly and discreetly put the offending item on the side of the plate.
Washing Food Down
Avoid washing mouthfuls of food down with gulps of water. It is best to leave a gap between eating and drinking. By the same token take small mouthfuls or sips of water or wine.
Chewing food thoroughly, keeping the mouth closed as you do so, slows things down to a more civilised pace when eating with others. However, while bolting food is ill-mannered, so is making a production out of endless mastication or chewing in an exaggerated manner. The best table manners are always those that no one notices.
Try to avoid making noises of any kind while eating, either with implements against the plate or teeth, or with the actual ingestion of the food, such as slurping soup.
In Britain it is not traditional to say the equivalent of the French ‘bon appetit’ or American ‘enjoy’. Express appreciation but do so politely. Gestures such as rubbing the tummy or smacking the lips are inappropriate. Similarly, when refusing a second portion, avoid big gestures and decline politely: a simple ‘no thank you’ covers most situations.
Dipping and Sauces
There are foods where dipping is part of the way of eating the food, such as satay or crudités. For most food, however, dipping into any communal bowl – say of mayonnaise – is not recommended. In the case of crudités with a communal dip, never bite the vegetable and then re-dip.
It is very tempting to mop up sauce, or the last few mouthfuls of soup, with bread, but it should be resisted. Eat only what can be eaten easily with a fork or spoon.
Finger bowls should be put out if serving food such as whole prawns. The water should be tepid and may, especially in restaurants, have a slice of lemon added. Dip the fingers, rub them together gently until any debris is removed, then dry them on the napkin. When clearing the table after a course, remove the finger bowls promptly, as they look unattractive once used.