These thirteen tips will get you through any dinner party. Here is a quick refresher.
1. Leave The Cocktail Glass Behind:
If you are attending a dinner party, there may be cocktails offered before the meal begins. When the hostess signals it is time to head to the dining room, leave your drink behind. Why? The dining table has been pre-set with the glasses you will need and adding another to your place setting will only clutter the minimal real estate in front of you. Your palate is another reason to leave the cocktail behind. Many hostesses go to great lengths to pare wine with the food being served. Once seated at the table it is time to switch to wine or water.
2. Bathroom, Purse and Phones:
Yes, No and No! Before you head to the table, stop in the powder room. It is best not to leave the table during a dinner party and making a quick trip to the loo before the meal might alleviate this necessity. If the dinner is in someone’s home, the hostess will tell you where you may store your personal items for the evening. If you prefer to keep your purse with you leave it in another room during dinner. This holds true for cell phones. At a private dinner party, the cell phone should be in another room. If you are attending a dinner party in a restaurant, place your phone in your purse or in your lap and cover it with your napkin.
3. Where Do I Sit?
Most hostesses will have place cards at each setting to tell guests where to sit. Find your spot and stand behind your chair until the hostess takes her seat. If there are no place cards, wait for the hostess to direct you.
Side note: If there are place cards present, NEVER switch them even if you rather sit by someone else. Where you have been placed is no accident. A hostess works hard to match people based on personalities, similar interests, and/or business associations. If you switch the cards, you potentially disrupt the dynamics of the table.
Once your hostess places the napkin in her lap you place your napkin in your lap. (Fyi: Your napkin is the one to the left of your fork or found in the center of your plate.) The napkin stays in your lap the entire meal. Should you need to excuse yourself during the meal, place your napkin in your chair. Why the chair? No guest wants a dirty linen next to their food. Once dinner is completed, fold your napkin, and place it on the table where your forks used to be (which is to the left of the plate).
There are exceptions to this rule, but for simplicity’s sake, remember you use your utensils in the order they are placed, working from the outside in.
Example: The fork sitting farthest to the left of your plate and on the outside will be for salad.
Why? Because salad will be the first course served. The fork directly to the left of your plate, but to the right of your salad fork, will be for the main entrée. Why? Because this is the next course served. Dessert utensils are placed at the top of your plate or brought to you when that course is served.
The salad plate is directly to the left of your forks and the bread plate is placed above your forks. Here is a little trick to help you remember. Bring both of your index fingers and thumbs together in an “OK” symbol. Your left hand makes a “b” for bread and your right makes a “d” for drink. Bread plates (partnered with salad plates) are always on the left and your drinks are always on the right. Or just remember: BMW (bread, meal, water).
Drinking glasses are placed to your right and above the knife and spoon. If wine is served the order of glasses from left to right will be water; red wine; white wine. I remember this by mentally alternating the color of the beverage: white-red-white (water (white); red wine (red); white wine (white)).
8. Bread and Butter:
If butter is being passed use the knife on your bread plate or the butter knife accompanying the butter. Do not take butter from a community bowl and place it directly onto your bread. Instead, place a small serving of butter onto your bread plate. When you are ready to eat your bread, tear off a bite-sized portion and butter it. Never butter the entire roll, and do not bite into a roll. Nothing good comes from this. Why? If you bite into a buttered roll, you end up with food stuck to the front of your teeth. This is unsightly to the person you are speaking with. Also, bread can be chewy. Biting into a roll will necessitate tearing the bread away from your teeth. I made the mistake once of biting into a roll only to end up having to use both hands to rip the bread away. It was not pretty!
9. Set It Down:
In between each bite set your utensils down. Do not hold them in your hands. This accomplishes two things. First, if your utensils are in your hands, you will unintentionally swing them around while carrying on a conversation. This can cause food to fly and make people uncomfortable when fork tines come close to their face. Secondly, when you set your utensils down between bites, it forces you to eat slowly. This helps avoid shoveling food. Utensils are used for two purposes: to cut food or place food in your mouth. Any other time they should be out of your hands.
10. Resting Position:
In between bites, place utensils in the resting position. The knife is placed at an angle at the top right corner of your plate with the blade facing toward you, and the fork is placed in the middle of your plate, tines up, with the handle pointing at 4 o’clock. If you are in a restaurant, this will signal to the waiter you are just taking a break, and they will not remove your plate.*
Try to pace your courses with that of your hostess. If you are a slow eater, pick up the pace, or tell yourself you will not worry about finishing that portion of the meal. A hostess will watch her guests to see if they are finished before bringing out the next round of food. You do not want to be the reason everyone at the table must wait.
12. Passing Food:
If you are asked to pass a dish, do so by handing the food to the person on your right. Everything at a table moves counterclockwise. Why? Because most people are right-handed. Whatever dish is being passed, it will be easier for the guest to serve themselves using their right hand. If you pass a bowl of mashed potatoes to the right, and you offer to hold the bowl while the guest serves herself, she will now be able to use her right hand. If, instead, you pass the bowl to the left, your tablemate must use her left hand to serve herself. This works if she is left-handed, but most people are right-handed. Thus, the reason we pass to the right.
When you complete your meal utensils should be placed in the finished position. This is with the knife and fork laying parallel in the middle of your plate, handles pointing at 4 o’clock. The tines of the fork will face up. *
With most dinner guidelines there are historical reasons that form our modern protocol. I do not like to follow a rule without knowing the why. When we can answer the why, it gives us greater understanding. It also commits that rule to memory. If you want to explore some interesting “why’s” read our History of Etiquette.
If you can master these thirteen tips you will be able to successfully, and confidently, coast through any dinner party. And if you make a mistake, do not panic! I attended a black-tie dinner one time, and my husband and I were seated at the head table. While I was gently trying to cut through the very rubbery meat, my fork slipped, and my chicken went airborne landing on the OTHER side of my husband’s plate! He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Aren’t you the etiquette lady?!?” I shrugged my shoulders, laughed, and said, “…life happens.” We are going to make mistakes. Shrug it off. If someone else judges you, then THEY are the one with poor manners, not you. Do not take life too seriously and learn to laugh at yourself. A cheerful heart makes our world much easier to navigate!
Together with you,
(*European dining etiquette, otherwise known as Continental Dining, manages certain aspects of the utensils differently. Everything in this post addresses American protocol.)