12 essential table manners topics

Table Manners

Table manners rules are not complicated, but will help you make a great impression at your next meal.

1. Seating Etiquette

Your host may have seating arrangements in mind, so you should allow him to direct you to your seat. As the host, you should suggest the seating arrangements.

In a restaurant, the guest of honor should sit in the best seat at the table. Usually that is one with the back of the chair to the wall. Once the guest of honor's seat is determined, the host should sit to her left. Other people are then offered seats around the table.

2. Napkin Etiquette

At informal meals, place the napkin in your lap immediately upon seating. During formal occasions, before unfolding the napkin, wait for the hostess to remove her napkin from the table and unfold it in her lap.

Read more table manners tips for using your napkin in the napkin etiquette section.

3. Food Service Etiquette

During service of a formal dinner, the food is brought to each diner at the table; the server presents the platter or bowl on the diner's left. At a more casual meal, either the host dishes the food onto guests' plates for them to pass around the table or the diners help themselves to the food and pass it to others as necessary.

4. The Table Setting

Deciding which knife, fork, or spoon to use is made easier by the outside-in table manners rule – using utensils on the outside first and working your way inward. Our table setting section discusses in greater detail what you'll see at the table.

5. When to Start Eating

At a small table of only two to four people, wait until everyone else has been served before starting to eat. At a formal or business meal, you should either wait until everyone is served to start or begin when the host asks you to.

6. Handling Utensils

The continental table manners style prevails at all meals, formal and informal, because it is a natural, non-disruptive way to eat.

  1. Hold your fork in your left hand, tines downward.
  2. Hold your knife in your right hand, an inch or two above the plate.
  3. Extend your index finger along the top of the blade.
  4. Use your fork to spear and lift food to your mouth.
  5. If your knife is not needed, it remains on the table.

At informal meals the dinner fork may be held tines upward, American table manners style.

7. Passing the Food

Pass to the right. One diner either holds the dish as the next diner takes some food, or he hands it to the person, who then serves herself. Any heavy or awkward dishes are put on the table with each pass. Special rules apply to passing salt and pepper and passing bread and butter.

8. Resting Utensils

When you pause to take a sip of your beverage or to speak with someone, rest your utensils by placing your knife and fork on your plate near the center, slightly angled in an inverted V and with the tips of the knife and fork pointing toward each other.

9. Meals End

At a formal affair, plates are removed by a professional staff. But as most informal meals are served without help, the hostess clears the plates, often with the help of a guest or two. At a family meal, members clear their own plates.

Leaving the dining room. To signal dinner is concluded, the hostess catches the eye of the host, lays her napkin on the table, and suggests that everyone go into another room for coffee and after-dinner drinks. The hostess rises from her chair.

When it's time to leave, rather than detain one's host with a lengthy good-bye, make the departure brief but cordial.