Cutlery etiquette is a crucial life skill. Yet too often we get it wrong. Follow the most important principles and avoid embarrassment at the dining table.
What cutlery etiquette is
Cutlery etiquette is the set of rules to properly use and eat with forks, knives, and spoons. Such rules help avoid behaviors that can disrespect and irritate your hosts or the other guests.
If you are a host, check how to properly set cutlery.
If you are a guest, know the basic cutlery etiquette rules below and check how to properly rest your utensils.
Cutlery etiquette rules
1) Use cutlery out-to-in
Use cutlery from the outside-in.
With each course, always use the last utensils to the exterior of your setting.
With each course, you must use a pair of utensils. The exception is usually the soup, which you should eat only with a spoon.
At most restaurants and on formal occasions, used utensils can be replaced with clean ones for each course. On informal occasions, the host or the waiter may ask you to keep your dirty utensils for the next course. If you prefer to have a clean pair, it is appropriate to ask for it.
2) Keep your hands far from food and do not gesticulate
When holding cutlery, the farther your hands are from the food, the better. Try holding forks, knives, and spoons from the extremity of their handle, far from the food.
Use cutlery only to bring food to your mouth. Do not make gestures with cutlery, like pointing.
3) Knives in your right hand
Hold the knife with your right hand. Hold the knife with the handle cupped in the palm of your hand, along with your third finger. Extend your index finger along the back of the blade. Hold your thumb against the side of the handle.
Spear with the fork the piece of food that you are going to cut. Make gentle movements when cutting food. The plate and the food should not move.
4) Forks in your left hand
Hold the fork with your left hand. You can hold the fork with your right hand if you are eating food that is supposed to be eaten without a knife, like pasta.
Hold your fork like a pen, with the handle between your thumb and index and middle fingers. Extend your index finger along the back of the fork. Rest your fourth and fifth fingers in your hand. Do not lift the little finger.
The fork must face down. Do not turn it face up as a spoon and do not scoop food with it. Use your fork to spear food and bring it to your mouth.
5) Spoons in your right hand
Use spoons to eat food that is not completely solid, like soup or pudding.
Hold the spoon with your right hand. Hold your spoon like a pen, with the handle between your thumb and index and middle fingers. Rest your fourth and fifth fingers in your hand. Do not lift the little finger.
The spoon must face up. Do not fill the spoon completely to avoid spills.
6) Fish fork and knife etiquette
Use the fish knife to separate the soft flesh of the fish from the body. Do not use the fish knife to cut. Since the fish knife is not used to cut, you need to hold it differently from a regular knife.
Hold the handle of the fish knife with your right hand, between your thumb and index and middle fingers. Hold the fish fork in your left hand and use it as a regular fork.
7) Dessert cutlery etiquette
Use dessert forks, knives, and spoons as you would use regular utensils.
On formal occasions, always eat dessert with a pair of utensils. Usually a fork and a knife. Exceptions are soft desserts that can be eaten with just a spoon. Such as Mascarpone.
Treat fruit forks, knives, and spoons in the same way as dessert cutlery.
8) Special cutlery etiquette
Some food requires special cutlery. In general, you should simply apply the basic principles of cutlery etiquette.
How to use butter spreaders
On formal occasions, butter is presented with a butter spreader.
If there is one shared butter spreader, use it as a serving utensil. Thus, use the butter spreader only to serve yourself.
If each guest has an individual butter spreader, use it only to spread the butter on bread. Do not use the butter spreader for anything else. Also, do not use another knife to spread the butter.
How to use meat knives
Some cuts of meat require a meat knife. Meat knives are simply sharper than regular knives. Use them as you would use a regular knife.
How to use seafood picks
Some seafood requires a pick, a special tool to extract the meat from the claws. It is common with crab or lobster. Use the pick as you would use a fork. However, do not use a pick with a knife. Simply hold the claw with one hand, and use the pick with the other.
Other food, such as escargots, require the same type of utensil.
How to use a caviar spoon
Caviar requires dedicated cutlery. The only difference is that caviar utensils are made of neutral material, such as bone. Use them as you would use regular cutlery.
How to use a teaspoon or coffee spoon
Handle a teaspoon or a coffee spoon as a normal spoon.
Use them only to stir the liquid, gently. Ideally, the teaspoon or coffee spoon should not touch the cup and tingle. Stir coffee from down to up.
Cutlery etiquette: the worst mistakes
The Rude Index identifies and ranks negative behaviors.
A high score (8-10) means that the behavior has the potential to trigger a conflict with others. A medium score (4-7) means that the behavior risks making you look inelegant and unsophisticated. More about the Rude Index and its methodology here.
Avoid the worst cutlery etiquette mistakes.
- 9/10. Gesticulating with cutlery in your hand.
- 8/10. Using fork and knife with the wrong hand.
- 7/10. Using cutlery in the wrong order.
- 7/10. Holding cutlery in the wrong way.
- Forks: From Odd Byzantine Instruments to Modern Utensils: nationalgeographic.com