Dining Etiquette Series – Using Your Knife and Fork

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“No one’s gloomy or complaining
While the flatware’s entertaining…”
~ “Be Our Guest,” sung by Lumiere, from Beauty and the Beast

Lumiere is correct. Your flatware can be entertaining if you have to stop and figure out what it all means, and how to use it! But, Lumiere and I have you covered. Before you read on, you might want to review my introduction to using flatware in a previous post, under the heading, “Flatware.”

In this entry, let’s take a look at the two main styles of using one’s knife and fork, The American style and The Continental style. The American style is so named because it is usually only Americans and perhaps some Canadians who use it, while the rest of the world uses the Continental style. And, it’s fun to speculate on the reasons for the different styles.

History accounts tell us that in the 17th Century when the Europeans began using the fork instead of their fingers to eat they adopted the method that they had previously used when using a fork and knife only to carve meat before serving it, that is, they held the fork in their left hands and carved with the knife in their right hands. Thus, the Continental style of eating was born. However, over the next two centuries Europeans switched back and forth between the Continental style and another style of eating in which, after cutting one’s meat, the fork was transferred from the left to the right hand. Although most Europeans, including the British, eventually returned to the original method, many, especially the French, stopped using the knife and just kept the fork in their right hands. The American colonists, possibly because they avoided doing anything the British way, chose to use both knife and fork in the “zigzag” style that ultimately became known as the American style.

Today, either style is acceptable. However, it is important that each style is used correctly and smoothly. Left-handed people might prefer to use the Continental style; or they may simply reverse the utensils when using either style.

Both styles begin by picking up your knife in your right hand and your fork in your left.  The fork will be to the left of your plate with the tines up, and your knife will be to the right of your plate with the blade facing toward the plate. To hold them correctly, simply lift them with your thumb and fingers, turn your hands over and let your knife and fork rest on your upturned palms. Your fork will be tines up and your knife will be blade pointing to your right. Slide your index fingers along the backs of fork and knife and turn them over in your hands. Your index fingers will still be positioned along the backs of your knife and fork, and your thumb and other fingers will be holding the handles. You are ready to use your knife and fork.

Now, let’s look at the differences in each style:

The Continental Style 

The fork remains in your left hand with the tines pointed down, and the knife remains in your right hand with the blade pointed down. Gently spear a bite of food with your fork and lift it to your mouth, your index finger firmly on the back and tines pointed downward. When you cut your food, such as meat, cut one piece at a time with your knife, spear it with your fork and lift to your mouth. Note that your index finger must remain extended along the backs of your knife and fork; you should never grasp the handles with all your fingers and thumb or you’ll look like a cave man or woman stabbing their food!

In between bites, you may keep your knife and fork in your hands and rest your wrists or forearms on the edge of the table.

If you stop eating for awhile to talk or drink, or must leave the table briefly, place your knife and fork in the resting position, or in an inverted “V” formation in the center of the plate; the cutting edge of the knife will be facing in and the tines of the fork will be down and placed over the tip or upper portion of the knife. This alerts your server that you are not yet finished eating

The American Style

Like the Continental style, you will start by holding your knife in your right hand and your fork in your left. When using your knife to cut your meat or other food, cut three pieces and place your knife near the top right of your plate, blade facing in. Next, switch your fork to your right hand, rotating it so that the tines are facing up; then gently spear one bite of food at a time, and with the tines still facing up lift the bite to your mouth. When all the bites are gone, repeat the process from the beginning.

When you pause between bites, and with your knife still resting at the top of your plate, you may continue to hold your fork in your right hand, and place your left hand in your lap or rest your left wrist or forearm on the edge of the table.

If you rest to talk or take a drink, or to leave the table briefly, place your knife and fork in the resting position, with the knife placed across the top of your plate with the cutting edge of the blade facing in, and the fork diagonally with the handle pointing at 4 o’clock and the tines (either up or down) pointing at 10 o’clock. Again, this alerts your waiter that you’re not quite finished.

When You Are Finished Eating

With both the American and Continental, when you’ve finished eating – whether it’s one course or the entire meal — you should place your knife and fork side by side (knife to the right of and cutting edge facing the fork, the tines either up or down) on the right side of the plate, with the handles pointing at 4 o’clock and the tines and blade pointing at 10 o’clock. This formation will alert your server, who will remove your plate by placing his thumb over the handles of your knife and fork to keep them from slipping off your plate as it is removed. And, although you have placed your knife and fork in the finished position, an experienced and well-trained server should ask if you are finished before removing your plate, to which you should respond with a yes, a thank you and a smile.

Footnotes

  • The American Style is sometimes preferred for business dining because one eats at a slower pace, which is more conducive to conversing while dining. 
  • If you use the Continental Style and one or more of your dinner companions use the American Style, try to eat more slowly to keep pace with them. 
  • With either style, it’s advisable to take small bites so you can converse while you dine. 
  • Keep your elbows close to your body when eating in either style to avoid looking like a large bird flapping its wings. 
  • Once you use any of your pieces of flatware, do not place any part of them back on the table. 
  • If you drop your fork or other item, ask the server for a replacement; don’t bend down and disappear from your dining companions to retrieve it yourself.  

 

Until next time,

Jeanne

6 thoughts on “Dining Etiquette Series – Using Your Knife and Fork

  1. Jeanne Nelson says:

    Thank you for these great questions! You may switch the placement of utensils and use a piece of bread in the manner you describe, but you don’t have to do that if you’re using the Continental style. In that case, with your fork in your left hand, and with the tines down, you touch the tips of the tines to your plate and push the rice, grains or peas onto the back of the fork with your knife in your right hand and press them firmly into place. Then lift your fork to your mouth, tines still down, as you would normally do. You may also mix these foods with a “glue” food, such as mashed potatoes or thick gravy.Regarding dining in a fine Indian restaurant, take your cue from the place setting. It’s usually perfectly acceptable to employ either the Continental or American style, however you usually dine and feel comfortable with. However, if you wish to dine like an Indian, which is a lovely thing to do in an Indian restaurant, Indian etiquette expert Nirmala Lalvani advises that foods such as curry and rice are eaten with a fork and spoon in formal dining. Ms. Lalvani instructs, “The fork is used as a pusher to push food into the bowl of the spoon. The spoon when angled is used to cut the meat/veg into small bite sized portions.” When eating naan, a whole wheat bread, Ms. Lalvani guides us to break off a bite-size piece and either fold the naan with the right hand and scoop up veggies, meat, etc., or use the fork, held in the left hand, to push the food into a piece of folded naan held in the right hand. She points out that another type of Indian bread, rotis, which are softer and flatter, can be rolled up and held in the left hand, with the fork in the right hand used to eat meat, veggies, etc., and that lentil stew, which is quite thin, is eaten with a spoon from a small individual bowl.

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  2. Jo says:

    So if I'm understanding correctly, if I was to eat a difficult food (rice/ grains/ peas) I switch the placement of utensils in my hand, if I was to eat in the continental style as a right-handed individual? My fork goes over to my right, and either the knife or a piece of bread on the left?Does this same etiquette apply to a fine- dining Indian restaurant? Much appreciated!

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  3. Jeanne Nelson says:

    Elaine, you are welcome! So many details, right? Please feel free to check out the archived entries in my dining etiquette series that I posted last year, and let me know if you have any questions.

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  4. Elaine G says:

    Jeanne, Thank you for posting this. There were a couple of points I didn't know OR didn't remember! I'm ready for my next "fine dining" experience!

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  5. Jeanne Nelson says:

    Sophia, these are great questions! Although you eat in the Continental Style when using both the fork and knife, if you are eating a course that does not require a knife, such as a pasta dish or chopped salad, you may transfer your fork to your right hand, tines up. In doing so, you are not switching to the American Style of eating because you won’t be transferring the fork back and forth; you’re merely eating with your dominant hand. If you are left-handed, you may leave the fork in your left hand, but turn the tines up. To eat peas and other similar items in the Continental Style, use your knife to push them onto the back of your fork tines; make sure they are firmly packed, and then lift the fork in the usual way, tines down. You may also use a small piece of roll or bread to push them onto the tines, or you may mix them with a “glue” food, such as mashed potatoes for peas and gravy or sauce for rice. When eating in the American Style, use your knife to push them onto your fork, tines up and lift carefully to your mouth.

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  6. Sophia says:

    When eating continental style, does one eat with the fork always in the left hand, tines down even when there is no knife needed for that course? How does one eat rice, peas or other foods that do not stay on the fork easily?

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