The key etiquette rules for properly eating with your fingers. Tips to be the ideal host or the perfect guest at the dining table.
What eating with fingers etiquette is
Eating with fingers etiquette is the set of rules to appropriately eat food with your hands. Such rules help avoid behaviors that can disrespect hosts or guests, or make you look unpolite.
If you are hosting, follow eating with fingers etiquette to appropriately serve finger food to your guests.
If you are a guest, respect eating with fingers etiquette rules to properly eat and enjoy finger food.
What you should know about eating with fingers
Eating with hands is common in many countries and cultures. Such as in Asia and the Indian subcontinent, Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America.
In Westerner etiquette, the general rule is to keep your hands as far as possible from food. Thus, eating with your hands is allowed, but only on some occasions and with some foods.
Benefits of eating with your hands
In some cultures, eating with hands has a spiritual value. Some believe that touching food creates a connection between the food and the individual. Others think that eating with hands stimulates the digestion of food, as the fingers sense the texture and temperature of food and prepare our stomach for it.
Eating with your fingers vs. eating with your hands
The proper etiquette is to eat food with the fingers, not with the hands. The palm and the back of the hand should not touch the food.
Etiquette rules for eating with your fingers
1) Wash your hands and fingers
Clean your hands and fingers immediately before touching any food. Clean your hands thoroughly. Use abundant soap. Clean the areas between your fingers. Wash under running water.
2) Eat only with your right hand
Do not use your left hand to eat. In the majority of Asian and African cultures, the left hand is dedicated to personal hygiene. Thus, it is forbidden to touch food with it as it is considered unclean. Since our societies are increasingly connected and multicultural, it is best to stick to this rule even in a Westerner country.
3) Eat with the tips of the fingers
Use only your thumb, pointer, and middle finger to touch the food. Keep your fourth and fifth fingers attached to your palm. Do not lift your little finger.
The correct movement should be similar to grabbing french fries. The food should not touch your palms or the back of your hands.
4) Never put your fingers into your mouth
Often, eating with the fingers happens with food from a shared dish or serving plate. Thus, your fingers must be as clean as possible. This also means avoiding any contact between the shared dish and your saliva.
Use your fingers to bring food to your mouth, but do not let them in. Use your thumb to push the food into your mouth. Do not lick your fingers. If you do, do not touch food afterward before you wipe or clean your fingers.
5) Break food into small morsels before eating it
In many countries, it is common to use bread, flatbread, wraps, or similar food as a tool to scoop up the food and ferry it to the mouth. Examples are pita in the Middle East, roti and naan in India, injera in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and fufu and ugali in Western and Central Africa.
When you use bread, wraps, or similar food for eating with your fingers, never double-dip. It is considered anti-hygienic and very rude. Dip the bread once, then bring it to your mouth. Thus, it is best to break the bread into small, bite-sized morsels that you can eat in one go.
When you eat with your fingers but without bread, pick the food from where it is dry. Do not touch the areas covered in oil and sauces. Wait for your food to cool down. Do not blow on it, and do not pick it up when it is too hot. Do not use your fingers to fidget with food.
Break the larger chunks of food into multiple, smaller, bite-sized pieces. This way it is easier to control sauces and fillings and avoid overspills. If you spill some sauce or filling onto the plate, pick it up with your fork or with bread and eat it. Do not use your fingers to eat sauces or fillings.
When you are eating a piece of food that requires more than one bite, always place the food down onto your dish between bites. Once you swallow one bite, you can pick up your food again.
6) Stay in the right posture for eating with your fingers
Eating with fingers requires a slightly different posture and seating etiquette.
It is against etiquette to lift the dish closer to your mouth. Instead, it is best to lower the head toward the dish. Lean your head toward the dish and bring food to your mouth with your fingers. This way, if some sauce or filling drips, your plate is right below and thus you can avoid making a mess.
Sit straight and lower your head only when you take a bite. Respect the personal space of the other guests. Do not rest your elbows on the table.
7) Respect the basic table etiquette rules
Eating with fingers does not mean that table etiquette is suspended. It is just another way of eating food. The only difference is that fingers are used in lieu of cutlery. Thus, every guest should respect the general rules of table etiquette.
Wait for the host to start eating with the fingers. Do not start eating on your own. The host can start eating or signal that it is time to start.
Try not to make a mess. Use your napkin normally. Place it on your lap, do not tuck it into your shirt. Wipe your hands or pat your lips when you need it. Be discreet with your napkin. Try to use it without other guests noticing. Never use your hands or fingers to wipe your mouth.
After eating with your fingers, wipe them before touching glasses or serving tableware. Never touch the tablecloth with soiled fingers.
Even when all the other guests are eating with their fingers, it is still acceptable to use regular cutlery if you feel more comfortable.
8) Know which foods are appropriate for eating with fingers
In Westerner etiquette, it is appropriate to use the fingers only when eating some foods. Some foods allow eating with fingers on some occasions. While other foods require it as the most appropriate way of eating them.
The general rule is to eat soft, saucy, oily, or smelly food with cutlery. While it is best to eat with fingers any food that is firm, crumbly, or inconvenient to eat with a fork and a knife.
Ethnic food allows eating with fingers
Some ethnic food is supposed to be eaten with your fingers. Examples include Indian food, Eritrean food, Mexican food such as tacos, and wraps such as kebap or pita.
Pizza can be eaten with your fingers
Normally, you can eat pizza with a fork and knife. However, on informal occasions, you can eat pizza with your fingers too. Cut a slice of pizza, hold it by its crust, and fold it in half to prevent the topping from falling. Then bring it to your mouth and eat it in small bites.
Hamburgers and sandwiches
Eat hamburgers and sandwiches with your hands. Unless they are too large in size, covered in sauce, or filled with a large amount of food. It is appropriate to eat a large hamburger or a sandwich with a fork and knife. Even more when their size or plating makes it hard to eat them with your hands.
Eat croissants and pastries with your fingers
It is unusual to eat croissants, pastries, and patisserie with a fork and knife. Eating them with fingers is most appropriate.
Sushi should be eaten with fingers
In general, you should eat with your fingers every type of sushi that includes rice. Nigiri and maki are less likely to fall apart if you eat them with your fingers, instead of picking them up with chopsticks. Chopsticks are most appropriate only with sashimi, which is pieces of raw fish without rice.
Eat artichoke leaves with fingers, hearts with cutlery
When an artichoke is served whole, you should eat it with your fingers. Use your fingers to pick and eat the leaves. Eat them one by one, working your way toward the heart of the artichoke. Once you reach the heart, eat it with a fork and knife.
You can pick asparagus with your fingers, as long as it is not served with a sauce. Otherwise, use regular cutlery. Pick asparagus up from its larger end, not from the tip of the spear.
When olives are served as an appetizer, you can pick them with your fingers. However, since olives are oily, they are best served with toothpicks to spear them.
Some fruit should be eaten with fingers
If the fruit is presented whole, you can eat it with your fingers. Examples include berries, such as strawberries and raspberries, grapes, apricots, and apples. When fruit is served peeled or sliced, it is best to use cutlery. Examples are fruit salads, fruit desserts, or fruit served with a cream such as strawberries with whipped cream.
Eat with your fingers hard and aged cheese
Eat soft, creamy, and fresh cheese with cutlery. Unless the cheese is served on bite-sized pieces of bread or crackers.
It is best to eat with fingers small pieces of firm, aged cheese. It is best to avoid cutlery to eat cheese with a crumbly texture. Such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, or Pecorino.
Eating with fingers 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 eating with fingers etiquette mistakes.
- 10/10. Licking your fingers.
- 10/10. Double-dipping bread.
- 10/10. Not washing your hands.
- 9/10. Putting your fingers into your mouth.
- 8/10. Eating with your fingers the wrong foods.
- 7/10. Eating with your left hand.
- Handwashing: A Healthy Habit in the Kitchen: cdc.gov