Table Etiquette

I was one of the lucky ones to have had proper table etiquette installed in me from a young age so the basics became second nature. However, as I started to research the subject of table manners in more detail, I realised there was quite a lot that I could improve on!

Why is it Important?

The mark of a truly elegant woman is how they eat & speak; poor table manners can unfortunately reduce the classiness of any lady.

Contrary to what some believe, proper table manners does not mean being overly formal. On the contrary, it is about looking and feeling relaxed, showing respect to people around you by making them feel at ease and being confident to initiate sparkling conversation. 

The art of eating along with table manners should not just be kept for formal occasions; it should be extended to every social occasion including picnics, barbeques, cocktail parties etc.

It should also be extended to every person you share a meal with, including your spouse and family; familiarity can result in poor manners!

Taking your Seat at the Dinner Table

The first, and one of the most important points to remember nowadays to ensure good dinner table etiquette, is to turn off your mobile and do not place it on the table.

When the host invites you to be seated for dinner, sit only when everyone is beside their chairs. You should sit from your left (and the chair’s right) to avoid any collisions.

It is good table manners to not to touch anything on the table, including your napkin and beverages, until your host sits down. Once your host has picked up their napkin you are free to do so.


Your napkin should be found either to the left of your fork or under it, or on the main plate. Simply place the napkin on your lap; avoid flapping it around on the way. It should not be tucked into your blouse like a bib (and that goes for men as well) and if it is large you can just fold it in half.

Your napkin should be used to dab your lips lightly during the meal and never use it to blow your nose or remove your lipstick. If you need to leave the table (more on this later) then simply place the napkin on your chair. If you are dining in a good restaurant the waiter will most likely replace it with a fresh one.

To signal that the meal is over your host will place their napkin on the table, you should follow suit by placing yours to the left of your dinner plate. Ensure no soiled areas are showing and do not place it on your dirty plate.

Bread Basket

When the bread basket arrives it is good dinner table etiquette to offer it to everyone else first, regardless of how hungry you are! You should offer it to the person on your left, take a piece yourself and then pass to the basket around to your right.

Starting your Meal

Good table etiquette means you do not begin eating until everyone has been served and your host has started to eat. In more relaxed situations you will probably find that the host will give you permission to start eating before they do and it is perfectly fine to do so, although you may still choose to wait.

Good table manners means ensuring you pass things around first before taking your serving, take small amounts and never take the last of anything. Ask for food to be passed to you; do not reach over people and do not put your own cutlery in serving dishes or sauces.

Salt & Pepper

Before you ask for the salt and pepper it is proper table etiquette to taste your food first. It is an insult to the chef not to do so as they will have tried to ensure the meal is perfectly seasoned before serving and the least you should do is try it first.

The salt and pepper should stay together as they move around the table, do not pass one without the other and always place them on the table rather than handing from guest to guest. They should not be intercepted on the way!

Pace Yourself

Eat slowly and place your knife and fork down between each bite, with the fork tines facing down onto the plate.

It is also good dinner table etiquette to gage how fast everyone else is eating so that you can pace yourself appropriately – you do not want to be the first or the last to finish.

If you are the host then you should pace your meal so that you are the last one to finish – no-one should be left eating on their own.


Being invited for dinner also means that you are expected to “sing for your supper”; your conversation must be interesting and entertaining, ensuring you avoid taboo conversations and you must make sure that both of your seated neighbours are equal parties to your sizzling conversation.


One of the most important factors in determining how we come across to others is our posture. This does not mean you should sit completely upright and rigid, but it does mean you should sit up straight at the table.

Good table etiquette means no fidgeting during courses including peeling candle wax or wine labels off the bottle; it can be a sign of nervousness.

Whilst eating it is wise to sit on the front three-quarters of the chair so that you don’t need to bend over your food or your plate – bringing the utensils to your mouth is proper table etiquette.

You should keep both feet on the floor and keep your shoes on! Don’t cross your legs at the knees or prop your feet up on anything under the table.

The most well known table manner rule is to not place your elbows on the table. You may rest your forearms on the table but not your elbows. Your elbows should be kept close to your sides so that you can control your arm movements. If you wish you can rest your hands in your lap.

Excusing yourself from the Table

Leaving the table whilst others are still eating, along with checking your mobile during a meal, is terribly rude to your dining guests and is not at all good dinner table etiquette.

Formal dinner table etiquette states that you should not leave the table until after dessert. At worse you can excuse yourself after the main course if you are desperate but never after the appetizer.

In my experience it is acceptable to excuse yourself in between courses, when everyone has stopped eating and the plates have been cleared.

Any medication should abe taken in the bathroom, including insulin injections, along with any touching up of your make-up. Any application of make-up should be done in private at all times.

Dealing with Bodily Functions

Unfortunately even with the best intentions, our bodies can let our table etiquette down!

If you need to sneeze or cough while dining then simply turn your head toward your shoulder and cover your mouth and nose with your handkerchief (you should carry a clean hanky in your handbag at all times).

If you do not have one to hand then use your napkin as an absolute emergency.

If you have hiccups or you need to blow your nose then it is good table manners to excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.

Handling Dining Accidents & Blunders

No matter how well versed you are with dinner table etiquette, accidents and incidents happen. As you cannot avoid them it is wise to know how to handle them:

  • Dropping a utensil – if you are at a restaurant, leave it and discreetly ask the waiter to replace it. If you are at someone’s home it is good table manners to lean down and retrieve it. Discreetly ask for a new one.
  • Knocking over a glass of wine/water – if you are at a restaurant allow the waiter to clean up the spill. If you are at a private home then again, it is good table manners to dab up what you can with your napkin and the host should step in to help. In both instances, apologise and then get on with the meal.
  • Food spills off your plate – pick it up with one of your utensils and place it on the edge of your plate.
  • Meat that is undercooked – do not eat it as it could be dangerous. Simply call over a waiter and discreetly explain the situation. Do not draw attention to it and involve your fellow diners. You meal should be replaced by a freshly cooked one.
  • Gristle or bone in your mouth – discreetly remove it with the tines of your fork and place it under a piece of garnish or food. Ensure it is not on show for everyone to see. Do not spit it into your napkin.
  • Foreign object in your food – find your waiter and discreetly tell him. Your meal should be quickly replaced, again, do not draw everyone else into the situation.
  • You dislike the food – it is polite to try a little bit of everything.
  • You are allergic to the food – simply say “no thank you” without launching into a full description of your allergy and what might happen if you eat it.
  • Food in your teeth – try and remove discreetly with your tongue, never with your fingers. If you are unable to remove the article wait until you can excuse yourself from the table.
  • Someone else has food in their teeth or on their chin – you must tell them discreetly by indicating towards your own teeth. If your subtle hint has not been picked up then you should let them know quietly. Do not avoid telling them – later they will see it and know that you did not tell them.

If there is a problem with your food, but it is still edible, you will need to make a decision about whether to send it back. This happened to me recently in a restaurant, I had ordered a starter that included a poached egg. Unfortunately by the time it reached me the egg had become firm which rather defeated the object of the dish, so I sent it back.

I regretted this for three reasons: firstly the rest of the dinner party had to eat their appetizers without me, secondly it created an uncomfortable atmosphere and ruined the flow of conversation and thirdly, I had to eat by myself as everyone had finished theirs! So think twice about sending food back, sometimes it’s just not worth it.

Summary of Behaviour to Avoid

Putting your napkin on your plate when you have finished

Using the napkin as a tissue

Using your cell phone at the table

Leaving the table whilst others are still eating

Speaking too loudly

Pushing away the plate or bowl when you have finished

Eating too fast or too slowly

Poor posture

Picking your teeth (or nose!)

Elbows on the table

Talking with food in your mouth 

Other Dinner Etiquette subjects to learn on this site:

Place Setting Etiquette

Chopstick Etiquette

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About The Author

The Author, Emma Dupont, runs various courses in London during the year.

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