Western Cultural Dining Etiquette

I've done many searches online to find the rules I want to enforce in my home and teach my kids.  But then I end up with multiple print-outs and have to cut and paste the things I like.  So here's my own compilation for your use if you like.

1.  Don't hold your fork or spoon like a shovel.  I say this repeatedly - probably twice a week - in our home.  Thankfully, my kids are pretty good at it now.  Here is why it bugs me:
   - It makes you look like you're starving and need huge volumes of food to enter your mouth NOW.
   - It makes you look impatient.
   - It forces you to raise a 'wing' (which will appear later in my list).
   - It may be appropriate in other cultures/contexts (think youth group binges of some sort), but not in Western dining situations
   - It typically raises your hand/arm to above your lower lip (another no-no).

Here is my description of holding a spoon like a shovel:  The holding end of the spoon is dug fully into the palm of the hand with thumb going under or alongside the handle.  Fingers are curled over the top to encase the handle.

Proper form?  Handle resting on the side of the pointer finger, clasped with the thumb at about a 45 degree angle.  This way the wrist can lay low and not erect a 'wing'.

2.  Never Touch Your Food with your fingers - exceptions are pizza, fried chicken, garlic bread and muffins (perhaps other exceptions - obvious finger foods).  Your cutlery and utensils are for touching food.  Bread can be held for mopping up stuff.

What happens if you touch food with fingers?  You're tempted to lick them - a big NO-NO (in Western society), at the table.  Again, 'finger lickin' good' really only applies to fried chicken.  If you do accidentally touch your food, or forget this rule, simply wipe your fingers on a napkin.  Refrain from licking fingers at the table.  Licking is a put-off because Americans tend to be germophobic.  Or you may be dining with a person who unknowingly has OCD.  They will register your licks and watch your hand grab the ketchup when you pass it and want only to touch it with a clean napkin.  Spare people the stress.  Don't lick your fingers.

3.  Keep all food on your plate, spoon/fork or entering your mouth.  Don't tuck scraps under your plate, in your lap, hidden in a napkin etc.  Any undesirable food should be left on one side of your plate.  Hiding things makes your host nervous and suspicious.  If you politely put all mushrooms to the side, she will (should) understand that you don't care for mushrooms and not be offended.  (Remember, manners are all about love - and love is not easily offended - nor is it rude - and 'rude' has different meanings in different contexts - hence the cultural slant on this subject matter).

4.  Don't dig through a dish to retrieve your favourite parts.  This looks a lot like greed and selfishness. Others can read your actions and perhaps misunderstand them. "She's trying to get all the croutons because she wants them all for herself and doesn't want others to get them all."  Their interpretation may be wrong, but digging just gives that impression.  If you're with family and they all know your hankering for croutons, simply announce it, 'Oh I love these croutons - I want to get some more - does anyone else want a helping before I start digging?'  This way you've given fair warning and giving others a chance to get their fair due.

5.  Don't raise your elbow into the air.  It should stay fairly close to your body.  If it rises, we call it a 'wing'.  "Look, Mommy's got a wing!" they'll say.  This was a hard one to learn to do as when eating we all naturally want to raise our arms up a bit.  When the wings come down, they're tempted to rest on the table - and someone inevitably will say, "Mommy, mommy, strong and able, get your elbows off the table.  This not a horses stable, but a first-class dining table!"

6.  Don't ask for seconds of anything until the server has at least tucked into her firsts!  Ideally, you'd wait 'til she finished her firsts - but for kids a measure of grace is allowed!

7.  Ask for things to be passed to you - don't reach across your neighbour.  Exceptions are in homes with the 'stretch or starve' rule.  Painful politeness can be just that - painful - exacting.  Use discretion.  In general, don't reach.  If you're next to a toddler who can't pass very well, use some good judgement and break this rule.

8.  If making any comments on the food be very sure they will be heard in a positive light.  "Oh, so this is a cold type of soup" is generally not appropriate if it is served luke-warm.  The comment will them be taken that the soup is not heated to the desired level.  Do not pretend to be subtle to make a point.  "So, you really like your cauliflower very soft, do you.  I always like mine a bit on the crisper side." does not come across as friendly banter.  Complaining in any form (not-so-subtle comments) is most unwelcome.

If these comments are made, the host needs to exercise grace and not be easily offended.  Please comment on this post with appropriate suggestions for responses to such non-sublety.

9.  If you are a child and want to be excused, wait to ask until after you have asked at least two questions and listened to the responses of others.  These could be as simple as, "What was the best part of your day Mommy?" or, "Who did you play with today, Andrew?"  Learn to engage in the conversation.  Don't be eager to leave the table.  Your presence is a gift to your family/dining companions.  Don't deprive others of the gift of YOU!

10.  Look out for the needs and desires of others.  Do you notice someone with an empty plate?  Ask if you can pass anything to him.  Do you know Caleb always likes relish on his hotdog?  Offer it to him before he has to look.  Begin to anticipate how others are enjoying their meal and seek to fill their glasses before they're empty.


  1. Hi Sarah!
    I was always looking for fun ways to teach my kids manners. It's hard, but so worth it when even waiters in restaurants (and once the wife of the British ambassador to Colombia!) compliment. Now my kids are all "big". And I'm happy to say we have fun meals, in part because we looked for fun ways to teach them manners. My blog post this week has one way that I learned recently from an friend, and a link to another post I wrote not too long ago that also has ideas of my own. Hope you can take the time to look at them--even on your restricted internet diet!

    1. Thanks Sharon - I'll go look at it now!


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