Whenever I talk with children about table manners, they are full of questions. Some are delightful, some are difficult, and all are unfailingly interesting. Here are some of the most common questions:
Live and Learn
When forks first appeared in Italy about 900 years ago, they were not widely accepted. People at that time still preferred to use their fingers and a knife. Forks became widely popular only about 200 years ago, but not all cultures embraced the newfangled invention.
Mind Your P's and Q's
Here are a few helpful hints to pass on to your youngster:
- A conversation makes a meal more enjoyable. Join in.
- Don't begin to eat until everyone is seated and has been served.
- If you drop something during a meal at home, pick it up. At a friend's house, leave it until the meal is over and then pick it up. At a restaurant, ask the server to replace it if you wish.
- If you have to blow your nose, scratch, and so on, excuse yourself and leave the table.
- The trick to eating spaghetti is to swirl a little on your fork into a bite-size portion with no dangling ends to drip or flick sauce.
- What do I say if I burp?
Say "Excuse me" to no one in particular and go on eating. Don't make a big deal out of it.
- Why do I have to act differently when people come to dinner?
From the beginning of time, guests in one's home have been given a place of honor and other special treatment. We are on our best behavior so that guests feel comfortable, special, and welcome.
- What do you do if somebody at the table is a sloppy eater?
The real question your child is asking is when to tell somebody that he or she is being rude. You can tactfully tell a good friend, out of the earshot of others, especially if you make light of it, but you can never tell a stranger. If you happen to be seated next to a slob, chalk it up to experience and set a good example yourself.
- Which place setting pieces are yours?
Your bread plate is always on your left, and your drink is always on your right. A good way to remember this rule is to remember that the word drink starts with the letters DR for "drinks right."
- What about finger foods?
When it comes to fingers, use your head. Certainly, you eat things like ribs and tacos and corn on the cob--no matter what company you are in--with your fingers. For most foods, you will use cutlery. Some situations are not so clear-cut.
In the Middle East and parts of Africa, for example, people still eat properly with their hands. The food of those cultures is designed to be eaten that way. So the best rule is "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Adjust to the standards and customs of the culture you are in. It might even be acceptable to eat with your feet, but only if you are dining with a family of baboons.
- Should I help to clean up?
Offer. Whether you are at a dinner party or a picnic, the offer is the important thing. Sometimes the host will not want you to help. If so, don't insist.
- What if I don't like what is being served?
If eating at someone else's house or with guests in your house, do not reject food outright.
Eat some of everything that is served. If you don't like a certain food, eat some and move the rest around on your plate as if you were eating it. This skill will serve you well through the years.
- What if you can't finish your food?
In restaurants, where you can't control the portions, there's no problem. Either leave the food or ask for a doggie bag. At someone's home, never take more than you know you can eat and always leave plenty for the others. If someone is serving you, you can always say, "Just a little, please."
- Should I bring a gift when I'm invited to dinner?
Yes, but something simple and small. Plants are nice because they remind people of the giver as they grow. Lovely paper napkins, small books, candy, and fine nuts are also good ideas. If you bring brownies or cookies, give them in a sealed tin and say something like "I thought you might like these for the weekend." Cut flowers are lovely, but they require the host to take time out to find a vase and arrange them. If a youngster is just "going over to Sally's house" and will eat while there as usual, a gift is not necessary.