What are the proper manners to use a knife and fork at lunch?

Table etiquette will set you apart from the ordinary, whether lunching in the fashion of European/Continental, Western/American or Asian/Oriental culture.

Some may find the subject of table manners at lunch, and the use of knife and fork, an irrelevant matter. But regardless of your status in life, there will be times that your informal meal propriety will be on view. Table decorum is an essential tool to set you apart from others; and the tools of the table, namely the knife and fork, are an integral part of good table etiquette. We should always be confident when eating with others, especially when business erudition or good culture will be on display.

In this article, we will discuss the rules of proper manners when using a knife and fork at lunch, otherwise known as an informal meal.

Take Your Cue From The Place Setting

In most Western/American and Eastern/Oriental lunches, you will typically be serviced with just one knife or fork. However, in European/Continental lunches or that of a more formal lunch setting, you may be faced with multiple utensils.

When your place setting has multiple utensils, the rule is to work from the outside placement to the inside. So, if faced with three forks to your left, it would suggest salad, main course, and dessert in that order. Alternatively, the dessert fork can be set above the plate, resting on the dessert plate, or brought by the server at the arrival of dessert.

In the same fashion, your course knife will be to your right, closest to the plate, following first your soup spoon and then beverage spoon.

How To Properly Use Your Knife And Fork

Proper handling of your knife and fork is the gist of good style. There are two main philosophies in utensil etiquette: the European/Continental use; and the Western/American use. Both forms are completely appropriate in most lunch settings or informal meals. Your preference may be mainly based on the customs of the meal.

Hold your knife and fork with thumb and outside 3 fingers, keeping index finger extended on each utensil.

European/Continental

When eating European style, your fork is in your left hand (tines facing downward) and your knife is in your right hand. They remain in this position throughout the meal. The knife is used to transfer food from the plate to the fork (tines remaining downward). The fork is then lifted to your mouth.

During conversations, the utensils will remain in this same position of your hands.

Western/American

When eating Western-style, your fork is in your left hand (tines facing downward) and your knife is in your right hand for cutting food and meat. Then, the knife is laid down and the fork transferred to your right hand (tines facing upward) to scoop the food item to your mouth. This is repeated with each mouthful that requires cutting.

During the utensil switch, your knife is placed angled at the top of your plate (serrated edge toward you). When the fork is used alone it is held inside the upturned palm between the index and second finger and guided by the thumb on top (like using a spoon).

During conversations, the utensils may remain held for short periods of conversation. However, if you will be speaking for a lengthy period (more than a short sentence or two), your utensils will be placed in a resting position on the plate until the end of the interlude.

General Rules of Usage

When the knife and fork are held together, whether in the European/Continental or Western/American fashion, the handles should be held firmly with the thumb and outside three fingers, whilst your index finger is placed straight along the handle top. This position helps to guide and provide control and pressure for cutting your food.

Utensil Placement – Resting Versus Meal Completion

Placement of your utensils will speak to your server where you are in the meal.

Resting During the Meal

When you are paused from eating, such that you are resting or left the table for a moment, you will let the server know you intend to resume eating by the placement of your knife and fork on the plate. In such instance, your fork should be placed with its handle at the 7 o’clock position and your knife placed with its handle at the 4 o’clock position.

The fork and knife may be crossed or left separated. However, the tines should be placed down and the knife serration toward you.

Meal Completion

When you have completed your meal, you will advise the server that your plate can be removed by the placement of your knife and fork on the plate. In such instance, your fork and knife should be placed parallel to each other, with the handles at the 4 o’clock position.

Just as when resting your utensils, the fork tines should be placed down and knife serration facing toward you.

Once You Pick Up Utensils, They Should Never Touch The Table Again

Simple table decorum dictates that, once you have picked up utensils, they should not touch the table again.

Therefore, if for any reason your meal plate must be removed (for example, you ordered your steak medium and it arrived rare), you should hold your utensils in your hand at your lap, or you should place them on a bread plate if provided.

Never send your plate back to the kitchen with the utensils on the plate.

Cut Your Meat & Butter Your Bread One Piece At a Time

Food and meat should be cut into bite-sized pieces that can easily fit into your mouth without requiring effort to chew. Only cut one piece of food or meat at a time.

Meat & Food

As stated above, you should not cut the entire piece of meat at once, but one piece at a time to transfer into your mouth. This rule is excepted for children, where the entire meat can be cut completely for them at the outset. Never use just your fork to cut meat, always use your knife.

Cut salad into bite-sized pieces that can easily be managed to chew.

Buttering Bread

Bread should be torn from the plate one piece at a time. Use your knife to butter one bite-sized piece at a time.

The Proper Use Of Knife And Fork In An Asian/Eastern Restaurant

A fair question is whether it is a bad fashion to use Western utensils instead of chopsticks at an Asian/Eastern restaurant. With limited exceptions, it is not bad manners to use or ask for a knife and fork at an Asian restaurant. Most eastern and oriental restaurants are keen to western-style utensils.

But there is a caveat to this rule. It is inappropriate and bad fashion to use anything aside from chopsticks with delicate and lacquered Asian tableware. This is because utensils such as a knife and fork would damage the delicate finish. Traditional restaurants, such as those serving kaiseki cuisine, may decline utensil use.

Additional Interesting Facts And Caveats To Remember

  • The European/Continental style is also known as the “hidden handle” method due to the placement of the knife and fork held with the handles being tucked into your palms and held predominately by the thumb and forefinger.
  • The Western/American style is also known as the “zig-zag” method due to the transfer of the fork to the right hand after cutting and being held and/or used as a spoon.
  • In a lunch or informal dinner setting, commence eating only when your host picks up his/her fork.
  • In a lunch or informal dinner setting, if confronted with a confusing array of utensils, wait to see what your host does. A delay of a couple of seconds will not be noticed.
  • Although never proper for an adult, it is appropriate to cut up meats and large items completely for children at the beginning of the meal.
  • The fork should be lifted to the mouth as parallel as possible, to avoid sweeping the elbow.
  • If you drop a utensil on the floor do not pick it up. Ask the server for a clean utensil. However, if in a non-seated informal meal, pick it up and ask the host for a clean utensil.
  • If utensils are provided for the meal, use them, even if you have “finger food”. Most lunches nowadays require the shaking of hands, so who wants to lock hands with someone whose hands smell with the residue of a greasy hamburger.
  • Always use serving utensils to dish food on to your plate, never use your personal utensils.
  • The fork should be used to discreetly remove food from the mouth to discard if the fork was first utilized to put the food into the mouth.
  • Do not gesture with your utensils when talking. If you must speak with animation, lay your fork and knife in a resting position and gesture with your hands.
  • Proper decorum dictates that you not load your fork with both meat and vegetables at the same time; but that each is transferred to the mouth from the fork separately.

Always remember, lunch or informal dinner is a social occasion with food. Your focus should always be on others. Pace yourself with your host.

Matthew Ryan

I'm Matthew Ryan, one of the guys behind MannersAdvisor.com I am passionate about the world of good manners, etiquette and proper behavior to have on any special occasion. Here I decided to share my passion with you!

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