Parents should make a conscientious and sustained effort to teach their children good table manners. If children are led to practice etiquette at home–by the parents’ example and their own repeated practice–they will internalize these details of civilized behavior to form lifelong virtuous habit. Good table manners, like other forms of etiquette, lead the children to exercise personal restraint (the virtue of temperance) and respect for the sensibilities of those around them. Moreover, living good manners at home underscores that family meals are a special, even sacred time together–where we call down God’s blessings on the family and treat each other with cordial respect.
Parents should realize, too, that later in life their children’s habitual good manners will bring honor to the family and enhance their children’s social and professional lives. Thus parents’ sustained effort to impart good table manners is really an important investment.
Details of Good Table Manners
- Place your napkin on your lap. Don’t put it anywhere else, especially tucked into your shirt collar like a baby’s bib. Similarly, if you’re wearing a tie, don’t tuck it inside your shirt to “protect” it from possible spills. Doing these things is immature and oafishly ill-mannered; it implies that you’re aware you slobber food as you eat but you want to keep damage to a minimum.
- If you have to leave the table during the meal, be sure to say, “Excuse me, please.” Then pick up the napkin from your lap and place it to the left of your plate. (If the table is crowded and your napkin might get in your neighbor’s way, you may put it on your chair instead.) At the end of the meal, the napkin goes unfolded to the left of your plate. If you’re a guest in someone’s house or at a restaurant, don’t put your napkin on the table until your host does.
- Don’t put your elbows on the table. Resting your forearms on the table is OK, but not the elbows.
- If the table is crowded, know which food belongs to your place-setting: your salad and bread are on your left, your drink on your right.
- Know how to use your silverware. In a fairly formal, full-course meal, the outside utensils (salad fork and soup spoon) are used first, the inner utensils for the main course and then the innermost for dessert and coffee. Try not to make unnecessary noise when using silverware; put knives and forks down gently.
- Don’t add salt or pepper to food before you’ve tasted it.
- If someone asks you to pass the salt, pass both the salt and pepper.
- If something you need is out of easy reach, just politely ask someone to pass it to you. Say “please” and “thank you.”
- If several people are conversing at the table and you must ask someone to pass you something, say the person’s name first in order to get his attention before you specify your request: “Frank, would you please pass the bread?” Then, of course, say, “Thank you.”
- Bring food to your mouth, not vice versa.
- If there’s food in your mouth, swallow it before taking a drink. That is, you shouldn’t put drink into your mouth while there’s still food in it.
- Before taking a drink of water, first clean your lips by gently dabbing your napkin on them. This is to avoid leaving an unsightly smear of grease or food particles on the rim of your glass after you’ve drunk from it. Don’t wipe the napkin across your mouth; just dab a couple of times.
- When taking up soup in your soupspoon, you should move the spoon away from you in the bowl, not toward you. This may seem awkward but it’s good manners and there’s a sensible reason for it. If you pull the spoonful of soup toward you, you might spill or drip some drops on the table or onto your lap. This is less likely to happen if you move the spoon away from you before taking it to your mouth. Also note: If crackers are served, don’t put them in the soup; eat them separately between sips of the soup. (Exception: Small crackers can be put in clam chowder.)
- Hold your knife and fork properly when cutting meat. That is, hold the fork in your left hand with the tines pressing on the meat, then cut with the first couple of inches of your knife held in your right hand. (If you’re left-handed, reverse the hands holding knife and fork.) Don’t cut more than one piece of meat at a time. After you cut, place your knife sideways on the outer rim of your plate with the blade facing toward you; no part of the knife should touch your table. Also, never wave silverware when talking; that is, don’t use silverware to point or gesture.
- Compliment the food briefly and sincerely, but don’t make conversation about it. To talk too much about food is bad manners.
- Chew with your mouth closed, and don’t talk while food is in your mouth (extremely bad manners). Swallow first, then talk. For this reason, you should try to eat small to moderate mouthfuls of food at a time. If you are asked a question while you have too much food in your mouth, you may have to keep people waiting for a reply until you finish chewing and swallowing. This is awkward for everyone. (By the same token, try not to ask a question of someone when he has just put food in his mouth.)
- Except when you’re buttering toast, you should not butter a whole piece of bread all at once. Instead, break off one piece of bread at a time and then put butter on that piece. If there’s only one butterknife for the table, use it only to put a small amount of butter on your plate, then return it and switch to your own knife to butter your bread. In other words, don’t use the table’s butterknife, which other diners will also use, to butter your bread. And above all, don’t use your own knife–which has crumbs or grease on it–to cut a piece of butter. The principle is this: The slab of butter is for everyone to use, and so you shouldn’t smear it with crumbs or grease which other people then have to ingest. Keep the butter slab clean and keep your crumbs to yourself.
- When you’ve finished with the main entree, place your knife and fork together in the center of the plate. This signals to your host or whoever is waiting on you (if anyone) that you’ve finished the course and are ready to have the plate removed. Don’t leave the knife on the plate’s edge, where it might fall off (to everyone’s chagrin) when you or the server removes your plate from the table.
- If you’re served dessert in a bowl placed on top of a dessert plate, as with pudding or ice cream, don’t leave your spoon sticking up from the bowl, especially when you’ve finished the dessert. Instead, place the spoon on your dessert plate.
- If you’re imbibing your drink through a straw, try to leave a little liquid at the bottom so you don’t make a slurping sound. If you do inadvertently make a slurping sound (and this can easily happen), stop right away. To keep making slurping sounds, straining to drain the glass to the very last drop, is annoying to people and implies that you’re a glutton.