Before we learn the “How” of manners, etiquette, and table settings, here is my “Why.”
What you do at home you will do in public, so practicing proper manners and etiquette at home is in your best interest. As my father used to say, “Poor manners and etiquette are not ALWAYS wrong, but good manners and etiquette are NEVER wrong.”
Like water, we all take the path of least resistance, including fast food, delivery, microwave meals, corner cutting on manners, etc. Guilty! We ALL do it, and that’s OK.
However, I suggest a regular practice of proper manners. Scheduling a quarterly “Formal Meal” for the family, where proper attire is required, is always fun. There is something about dressing up that makes it more special.
Once a quarter, I try to have a formal meal for family and guests. It’s fun, relaxed, and a chance to practice proper manners and etiquette without pressure. When the kids were little, they REALLY loved it, and their manners are impeccable to this day!
I believe that being comfortable in a formal setting makes the experience a joy rather than one of stressful self-introspection. It should be as relaxed as the dinner scene in “Pretty Woman” where the escargot goes flying. Fun and not pretentious. However, BAD manners make everyone uncomfortable.
As this site is all about the food, I will not go into table manners except for the critical four:
- Don’t speak with food in your mouth.
- Don’t chew with your mouth open.
- Keep your elbows off the table.
- Don’t interrupt or speak over people.
If you follow these four critical manners religiously, you are 90% there. Oh, and ALWAYS say “Please” and “Thank you.” You will be surprised at how always doing these will elevate how others see you and make your parents (and your children) proud.
When you are hosting guests for dinner, here are the top four focus areas. Number four, a welcoming host, is the MOST important. It can be difficult sometimes due to the stress of hosting guests, but remember, your guests are there to see you and would much rather have a happy and welcoming host than anything else. So, relax and have fun! Oh, if it is a casual or less formal gathering, there is nothing wrong with inviting your guests to assist. Not so with a formal meal. For formal meals, if you are stressed, hiring a caterer or professional servers is perfectly reasonable.
- A well-planned menu.
- A table with ironed linen, polished silver, and sparkling glassware.
- Well-prepared food.
- A welcoming host.
Plan a well-balanced meal. Don’t serve heavy, sweet, or spicy dishes back to back. Balance rich dishes with simple ones.
Light foods, such as main-course salads and cold soups, are good choices in the summer.
Heavy foods, such as stews and roasts, in winter.
Two or three varieties of cocktails should be offered:
- Soda, Juices, and Sparkling Water
Guests should be given enough time to have a couple of cocktails.
You may serve light snacks or hors d’oeuvres with drinks. They should have compatible flavors with the food to be served at dinner.
When dinner is ready to be served:
- Have the table prepared. The candles should be lit and water glasses filled.
- If possible have the first course on the plates before guests arrive at the table (but not if it is a hot dish).
- For a small group announce: “Dinner is ready; shall we go in?”.
- For large groups, ask a few friends to help guide the guests to the dining room.
- Lead the way to dinner.
Order of Service
The guest of honor seated on the host’s right is always served each dish first. If there is serving help, servers move around the table counter-clockwise from her, serving the host last. When food is served directly from the kitchen, service is also counterclockwise from the host’s right, with the host served last. Plates are served from the guests’ left side and removed, if possible, from the right.
Dishes are passed counter-clockwise to the right and should be passed in the same direction.
A guest helps himself to the bread basket with his fingers and lays the roll or bread on his butter plate.
If there is a choice of two or three sauces or other condiments, placing them together in a divided dish, or on a small, easily managed tray, ensures that they are passed together.
If you have a sideboard or serving table, use it as a halfway station between the dinner table and the kitchen. On it, you can have plates for the next course and extra flatware.
Serving dishes, after being passed, can be left on the serving table on a warming tray or taken to the kitchen and kept warm on the stove.
When you see that guests are ready for another portion, get up, get the serving bowl and pass it around.
Dessert may be served already placed on individual dessert plates, or the hostess may serve it at the table.
Clearing the Table
When the table is cleared, dishes are removed two at a time, never stacked. Salt-and-pepper containers and condiment dishes are cleared also.
Salad plates as well as the plates used for the entree are removed before dessert is served.
To accelerate the clearing process, bring back dessert plates, or whatever is needed for the next course, when you return from the kitchen. Or have a friend serve the dessert while you finish clearing.
Any salt-and-pepper shakers, unused flat silver, and dishes of nuts are taken off (on a serving tray, if you like).
To guests who offer to help you clear, just say, “No, thank you, really it is easier to do it myself”-or you may find that everyone is suddenly on his or her feet and in the kitchen. It’s better to designate a serving and cleaning buddy in advance to help.
After-dinner coffee may be served either at the dining table or in another room to which the diners have moved.
The hostess pours the coffee right at the dining-room table or from a tray that has been carried to the living room or den.
If coffee is served at the table, bottles of after-dinner drinks may also be placed on the table.
If coffee is served in the living room, a tray containing bottles and glasses is placed on the coffee table.
The Formal Table Setting
To avoid clutter, the general rule for any table setting is to include no more than three utensils on either side of the dinner plate at a time. The exception is the oyster (or seafood) fork, which may be placed to the right of the last spoon even when it is the fourth utensil to the right of the plate. A full formal table setting looks like this:
- Place the service plate in the center of the place setting.
- A small bread plate is placed above the forks, above and to the left of the service plate.
- Water Glass. The water goblet is placed above each guest’s dinner knife. The other glasses are then arranged around the water glass as follows:
- Champagne Glass. A champagne flute may be located between the water glass and the wine glasses.
- Red Wine Glass. Red wine glasses have a wider globe and may be cupped in the palm of your hand if you choose.
- White Wine Glass. The glass with a longer stem and cylindrical globe is the white wine glass. White wine glasses should only be held by the stem.
- Sherry/Port Glass. A small sherry/port glass may also be present to the right of the wine glasses. This may signal that sherry will be served with the soup course.
- Salad Fork. Directly to the plate’s left. One (1) inch from the plate.
- Dinner Fork. Left of the salad fork.
- Fish Fork. On the dinner fork’s left.
- Dessert Fork. Directly above the serving plate.
- Seafood Fork (also called an Oyster Fork). Right of the teaspoon, the soup (or fruit) spoon.
- The only fork placed on the right side of the place setting.
- The fork tines are placed in the bowl of the soup spoon with the handle at a 45-degree angle.
- It may also be laid next to the soup spoon in a parallel position.
- Salad Knife. Directly to the right of the plate. One (1) inch from the plate.
- Dinner Knife. (Or meat knife if meat will be served.) Directly to the right of the plate if no salad knife, otherwise, directly ro the right of the salad knife. One (1) inch from the plate.
- Fish Knife. On the dinner knife’s right.
- Butter Knife. On the butter plate, diagonally with the handle toward the guest.
- Soup Spoon and/or Fruit Spoon. Right of the knives.
- Dessert Spoon. Directly above the dessert fork above the serving plate.
Dessert Spoons and Forks
- A dessert fork and/or spoon may be placed horizontally above the dinner plate.
- These utensils may also be provided when dessert is served.
Salt and Pepper
- Salt Shaker. The salt shaker is placed to the right of the pepper shaker.
- Pepper Shaker. The pepper shaker is to the left of the salt shaker and is angled slightly above the salt shaker.
- Salt and Pepper Shakers. They are placed above the cover or between two place settings.
- Salt Cellars. At formal affairs, salt is always applied from a salt cellar, a method that provides controlled use of salt. A small spoon is presented in the salt cellar and used to sprinkle salt over food.
- Finger bowls may be placed on the table at the end of the meal.