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Table Manners Matter

family of white people gathered to eat as a table outside

By Gigi Steel

One of the first lessons we get from our mothers is how to behave at the table. We learn to sit up in our chair, to not spit out our food, and how to use a spoon. These early lessons are the cornerstone for a lifetime of civil graces.

In 1886, proper etiquette required that a gentleman must help a lady, whom he escorted to the table, to all she wishes . . .” What a difference from then to now! While today’s etiquette demands have changed, proper manners remain important.

In our casual and busy culture, many of us find ourselves eating our meals in the car—on the way to soccer practice or between appointments. We often eat as we sit in front of the television while we watch a sitcom or in front of the computer while we check our messages. It often seems that table manners have gone the way of dinosaurs and cavemen—no longer important in our society.

However, table manners are a basic element of civilization—a significant factor of human development and progress. Without table manners, we are no different than a pack of wolves who eat aggressively—without thought of anything other than hunger—eating fast before other animals steal their food.

Table manners are the fundamental element of politeness and civility. As our culture continues to spiral toward a more and more lackadaisical way of life, it’s important to hold on to a few elemental meal practices.

There are basic table manners we all should know: don’t chew with your mouth open; don’t talk with food in your mouth; don’t put your elbows on the table; don’t cough into your hand; don’t slurp, smack, or belch at the table. Here are answers to a few more essential factors of good table manners.

Where do I put my napkin?

As soon as you sit down, place the napkin in your lap. If you must get up during the meal, place it on your chair. It is considered ill-mannered to place a soiled napkin on the table during a meal. When you are finished eating, gently fold your napkin and place it on the left side of your plate. It should

never be waded up into a ball and thrown on top of your plate.

When can I begin eating?

The host or hostess has spent time preparing a meal for you; therefore it is considered rude to begin eating before he or she has sat down at the table. Only after he/she is seated and gives a signal, usually by serving his/herself or someone else, may you begin filling your plate and eating.

Can I cut up all my food at the beginning of my meal?

No. Cut one bite at a time.

How fast can I eat?

It’s best to eat intentionally and slowly. Take a bite, then swallow before opening your mouth to take another bite. No one wants to see half-chewed up food in your mouth when you open it to take another bite. The same is true for drinking.

Swallow your food before taking a drink. Be sure you put your utensil down before picking up your glass for a drink. Never hold your fork in one hand and your glass in the other. Replace your glass to the upper right corner of your place setting—never on the edge of the table.

It’s also important that you sit up straight and bring your food to your mouth, not your mouth down to your food. These habits will not only make dining with you more pleasing, it will slow you down so that you don’t eat too fast..

Where do I put my hands?

Your left hand goes in your lap. Never rest your arm on the table.

What if I have to cough or sneeze during the meal?

Use your napkin to cover your nose and mouth. Never cough or sneeze into your hand.

Which way should food be passed around a table?

Food is always passed to the right.

Where do I put my utensils during the meal and when I’m finished eating?

Never let your used utensils touch the linens on the table. After using, they should be placed only on your plate. When you have finished your meal, place them across the plate with the handle toward the right. The tines of the fork should be turned down. This is the signal that you have finished

your meal.

When is it okay to leave the table?

When everyone is finished eating. As you get up from the table, don’t place your hands on the table to push yourself off. Use your leg muscles to lift your body up and move to the next place.

Some of these rules were designed for an orderly meal—passing food to the right. Others were designed for health—not eating too fast. Others were designed for pleasantry—don’t chew with your mouth open.

When you think about it, table manners are really all about common sense and consideration of others. No one wants to see food in your mouth—so chew with your mouth closed. No one wants their table linens soiled—so place your used utensils on your plate, not the tablecloth. No one wants to cook for someone and then eat alone—so wait until everyone is seated before you begin.

No one wants to watch someone eat so fast they can’t have a conversation—so slow down to enjoy your meal and company. No one wants to look at a dirty napkin while they finish their meal—so don’t place one on the table. No one wants to clean up after a messy eater—so take care that you don’t leave a mess!

Our personal table etiquette is a reflection of who we are, and how we behave at the table will leave a lasting impression. Good table manners matter because we are healthier and happier when we eat with purpose and share our meals with family and friends.

Good manners encourage self-respect and confidence. Whether we are at a family dinner or formal function, our manners determine our legacy and whether we get an invitation back—or not. We can thank our mothers for these early lessons.

Happy Mother’s Day!


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