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Table Manners 101

Napkins in your laps, guys.
Napkins in your laps, guys.
Simon Bremner/Getty Images

Table manners are learned. And, like anything else, they get easier with practice. If you keep these points in mind while you dine, you can relax (and quit copying your neighbor) at your next dinner party:

When you first sit down at the dinner table, remove the napkin and place it in your lap. A large napkin should be folded in half first. If the meal is served, expect to receive the food from the left and the drinks from the right. If the meal is passed, you should pass everything to the right (counterclockwise).

Watch your hostess for the signal to begin eating. Once she picks up her utensils, you can begin as well. Not sure what fork or spoon to use? Start at the outside and work your way toward the plate. Salad forks and soup spoons are on the outside; utensils for the main dish are one step in, and dessert utensils are closest to the plate. Occasionally, dessert utensils will be above the plate.

Elbows Off the Table, Et Al

Dinner etiquette dictates that elbows remain off the table, but that's only one part of proper positioning. Keep both feet flat on the floor and sit up straight. Your free hand should remain in your lap or rest gently on the table. Don't throw your entire arm up there.

Cut your food into one bite-sized morsel at a time. Take the time to chew the bite thoroughly and swallow before taking another bite. Bread should be broken into bite-sized pieces as well and buttered one sliver at a time. If someone requests the bread basket, don't grab a slice yourself as it's passed around the table. Wait until the other person has selected their slice and then request the basket. Put butter, jam or other spreads onto your plate rather than slathering them directly on your bread.

If you need to leave the table at any time, excuse yourself and place your napkin in your chair, not on the table. If you're served something you don't like, it's polite to at least give it a taste. If food allergies are an issue, it's fine to decline.

At the end of the meal, place your knife and fork beside each other across the top of the plate, with the knife on the outside and its edge facing in. After the meal is over, place your napkin on the left side of your plate, loosely gathered, not folded.

Eat Messy Foods with Elegance

Some foods are more difficult than others to eat gracefully. It may be tempting to avoid these foods altogether in social situations, but it's not necessary. With a little practice it's possible to eat elegantly no matter what's on the menu.

  • Olives: It's acceptable to discretely remove the pit from your mouth with your fingers.
  • Artichokes: Pull the leaf from the artichoke, and, holding it by the narrow end, scrape your teeth along the surface of the leaf. After you eat the leaves, cut up and eat the heart.
  • Soup: Tilt the bowl away from you and push your spoon away from you with each bite.
  • Chicken: At a picnic or other casual meal, fingers are fine. Otherwise, remove the meat from the bone with a knife and fork and eat it one bite at a time.
  • Ribs: The easiest and neatest way to enjoy ribs is by scraping the meat off of the ribs with your knife, but you'll probably still need your fingers.
  • Spaghetti: Scoop a small amount on your fork and twirl it around the fork until the loose ends are on the fork. Hold a spoon against the tines of your fork to make the job easier.

Did You Know? In a noisy restaurant, you may need to lean over the table to get within earshot of your dinner companions' clever remarks. In this case, it's fine for your elbows to creep onto the table, as long as you're being attentive, not lazy.