Dining Etiquette and Table Manners

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Why Table Manners Matter

As a young Marine Corps Officer, I was dumbfounded one afternoon when after training on the Mark19 we transitioned into a class on proper table manners. Taught by a petite older woman, the class covered the basics of dining etiquette. We practiced these skills at various unit dinners over the next six months. At the time, I thought the classes were useless and a waste of my time. Yet as it turns out, while I never again fired that heavy grenade launcher, the skills I learned those evenings concerning table manners have enhanced my enjoyment of dining for over a decade.

Whether dining with a 4 star general, toasting with a Medal of Honor recipient, or sitting with friends and family on Christmas Eve, an understanding of dining protocol makes time spent with others around a table more enjoyable. When you know the rules there is no awkwardness or questions about how things should be done; instead there is only opportunity to spend quality time with the company present.

The Need for Better Dining Etiquette

When I began to spend more time outside of military circles I noticed that many men had never been taught proper dining etiquette. I was amazed when I returned to graduate school and met people who were spending 100K on their education but were sabotaging their own interviews over a meal that they ate from their plate like a horse. Still other times I would witness friends embarrass themselves by eating half the food on their plate before noticing everyone else was waiting to give thanks. A man in the year 2010, like his great-grandfather in the year 1910, still sits and eats three meals a day. The purpose of this article is to give you the basics to dine with respect like he did.

If nothing else, live by these four rules:

  1. Pay attention to your hosts – Being an observant diner and picking up on cues from your host will enable you to avoid 95% the embarrassing situations you could find yourself in. Simple things like waiting to eat until you see others eating and using the utensils others are using will enable you to “wing it.” However, this constant observing and following does not allow you to relax and enjoy the evening.
  2. Chew with your mouth closed and do not talk with food in your mouth – Yes, in the year 2010 we still have a problem with men chewing with their mouths wide open. And if you have something to say, refrain from filling your mouth the moment before. In order to recover if expected to speak, only put a single bite in your mouth at a time. The days of stuffing your mouth with as much food as it can hold are over.
  3. Bring your food to your face, not your face to your food – You shouldn’t be leaning over your food, shoveling it into your mouth with a distance traveled of only 6 inches. Instead, sit straight, balance a single bite on the utensil of choice and bring it directly to your mouth. And never drink from your soup bowl.
  4. Say Thank You, Please, and Excuse Me – These small words are magic and should be used liberally.

The First Rule of Dining Etiquette – Know Who You Are Dining with and the Setting

As the Boy Scout Motto goes, be prepared. RSVP within 3 days of receiving an invitation, or if no invitation was sent ask what to expect and how many people will be in attendance. Dress to the level you feel appropriate, you do not need a custom suit but I advise looking professional. It shows respect to the host and chances are you’ll be making important first impressions.

If you are visiting a person’s home, consider bringing a small gift such as flowers in a vase or a bottle of wine. If the meal is being hosted by a close friend, find out how you can help make their life easier – perhaps by bringing a dessert. Arrive on time, but not more than 10 minutes early as last minute preparations are always underway on the host’s end.

Informal Dining – Non-seated

By non-seated, I mean there will be no set time in which everyone sits around a table to dine as a group. Examples are picnics and barbeques where people arrive, eat, and leave at various times. And although table manners here are much more relaxed, there are still a few rules of dining etiquette you should pay attention to.

  • Take an average sized serving – It is bad form to find you can only eat half the food on your plate and that your excess caused a fellow guest to miss out on the dish entirely. Going back for a second serving, assuming there is plenty, is always a compliment to the chef.
  • Do not double dip – If you really like the dip, and need every part of your chip covered in it, use a spoon and make your own dipping station on your plate.
  • Precutting meat – Cut for yourself and those immediately around you – do not cut the entire roast as it will cause the meat to dry out quicker.
  • Clean-up after yourself – Do I need to say more?

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