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Etiquette Tips from a Pro

Woman Getting Food On Wedding Dinner

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You sit down at the dinner table, but you don’t know what fork to use, which bread plate is yours, and whether it’s OK to start filling your wine glass. The correct etiquette at the table can be very stressful. But don’t worry. We quizzed El Gaucho’s etiquette specialist Cortney Anderson-Sanford on everything you need to know to feel comfortable and confident while dining. Have more questions? They offer classes.

Etiquette Tips from a Pro

Cortney Anderson-Sanford

What is the single most important thing to remember at the table? 

Discretion is the key to dining success at any type of meal. No one will blame you for eating with the incorrect fork if you are not being blatantly rude.

How do you know where your drink is and where your bread is on the table?

There is a trick called B&D. Remember B for “bread” on the left, and D for “drink” on the right. Make a B with your thumb, index finger, and middle finger of your left hand, and make a D with your thumb, index finger, and middle finger of your right hand. This tells you that your bread plate is on your left, and your water and drinks are on your right. Please, just do this in your head!

At what point do you put your napkin in your lap? 

Always follow the lead of the host — unfold your napkin after your host. If there is no defined host, wait until two or three other diners unfold their napkin.

With silverware, what fork and knife do you start with? 

Looking down at your place setting, start from the outside and work your way in throughout the meal. Just remember not to gesticulate using your flatware as batons.

When should you start eating? 

The level of formality and group size really define when it is OK to start eating your own food. But, the standard rule of thumb is that no one should eat alone. Even if you are enjoying casual sandwiches, it is polite to wait until everyone has at least unwrapped their sandwich before you scarf yours down. At a seated meal with a small group, six or less, always wait until everyone has their food. If there is an obvious host, always wait to pick up your fork until the host has picked up theirs or they have told the group to dig in. At large gatherings or a banquet, you should typically wait until at least five people at your table have their food.

What if you notice food stuck in a fellow diner’s teeth?

Put yourself in other people’s shoes — would you want to know if you had a piece of spinach the size of Texas in your teeth? Of course you would. Just think about the least noticeable way to let them know. It is human nature to mirror the gestures of those around you, so if your dining companion has something in their teeth or on their face, gesture silently as though you were cleaning your teeth with your tongue or patting your mouth with your napkin. If silent cues do not work, discreetly lean over and let them know.

What do you do if you have an inedible food — like a pit or a bone — in your mouth? 

The rule of thumb with problem items in your mouth is: however an item goes into your mouth, is how it comes out. An olive goes in with your fingers, and as such comes out with your fingers. An unpleasant bite of bone or gristle that has been eaten with a fork is therefore removed with your fork and placed on the side of your plate.

What do you do if something is served that you really don’t want to eat? 

If you do not have an anaphylactic allergy and you just don’t like the food — suck it up, buttercup. A good host always asks their guests if they have any dietary restrictions for safety and general enjoyment, and a good guest always lets the host know if they have severe allergies.

Is it ever acceptable to spit something out in your napkin? 

Your napkin is not a receptacle; it is merely an instrument to keep your face and lap clean. Therefore never spit food into your napkin.

When you pass a dish around the table, do you hold it while someone serves herself? Or set it on the table? What if there isn’t room on the table? 

I prefer to place bread baskets or platters directly on the table instead of holding them for the person next to you. Setting the item down prevents spills and also takes the pressure off of your dining companion while they serve themselves. If there is no room on the table, you can rest the item on the table, keeping it stable for serving. Make sure to always place the handle of the pitcher, gravy boat, or serving utensil facing toward the recipient of the item.

Is it rude to refill your own wine glass? 

Wine is wrapped in historical allegory, and the tradition is that you should never pour your own wine, it is the host’s job to make sure that everyone has a full glass at all times. If you must have another glass, make sure to offer first to those around you, and then pour your own. Just pour for everyone, about one-third full, or 5 ounces. Don’t polish off the bottle for your own enjoyment.

Can you sip wine before the head of the table or before a toast? 

It is proper to wait until the host makes a toast to welcome their guests to the table at the beginning of the meal. That being said, if you notice the host immersed in conversation, pouring and drinking the wine with no intent of making a toast, then sip away. Just make sure to leave some wine in your glass in case the toast comes later.

What if you find an etiquette tradition sexist? 

I believe that etiquette has absolutely evolved over time, and the construct I live by is the gender-neutral rule of kindness. If the intent of action is based in compassion for another person, then I have no issue with it.

Should you always have a drink limit?

I am a strong believer in moderation, no matter the event. You never know what you will say after too much libation.

How do you signal you’re done with a meal? 

Let’s start by saying you never, ever, push your plate away, and sit back in your chair. When you are finished with a course, you place both your fork, tines up, and knife, blade toward you, together, on the right side of your plate. The handles are at 4 o’clock and tips at 11 o’clock.

What if a food, like chicken, is very undercooked?

You and your host do not want to deal with food poisoning. Discreetly inform your host that there is a problem with the food, and help the host fix the problem.

What do you do when someone is talking politics at the table?

I like to use place cards, even for small family gatherings. Diversion is key, and if the discussion takes a downturn, have some interesting topics in your pocket. Social media is a great way to research before a meal, and pick some positive events that have just happened in your guests’ lives. That way you can redirect the conversation.

What if you spill your drink? 

Accidents happen. If you, or someone else, spills their drink, use your napkin to stop the waterfall, and then help to clean up the mess.

How do you include kids in holiday meals without it being a big disturbance? 

I feel that it is very important to make children feel part of the event. I always have my kids set a really fun, themed kids table. In the past, we have used butcher paper and given each child a drawing party pack of their own — no fights over sharing. I also like to make sure the kids have place settings just like the adults, maybe with different glassware, as well as a special nonalcoholic drink. This makes them feel like part of the table, and they are learning at a young age how to navigate a meal, not shoved in a corner and not recognized.