Place setting

This place setting tells the story and order of the meal. Working from the outside in, soup is served first, followed by the main course and then salad. Drink glasses cascade off diagonally, starting above the dinner knife, and can include up to five.

Thanksgiving offers many opportunities to show off an elaborate meal, a fanciful table and our best table manners. This year, many friends and family are gathering for the first time due to the long pause of the pandemic.

Gathering is tricky as COVID-19 numbers soar, but some reunions and traditions will not be stopped. My recommendation is for hosts and guests to have a conversation about expectations and boundaries. Hosts have a right to request that guests be vaccinated or show a negative test. Guests have a right to know the status of those they will be dining with. There’s no denying this is an awkward topic of conversation when extending an invitation, but in the COVID-19 era, it’s a daily talking point, so we adapt.

First, sort this out now so your invitees can make alternate arrangements, if necessary. Second, you must be respectful yet firm in your stance. A phone call is warranted for sensitive matters such as this. You can lead with, “This may sound awkward or personal, but this year we are being very careful and are inviting only vaccinated or COVID-tested guests.”

You might include that you are wearing masks, socially distancing or dining outdoors. Details are key, as guests may find the occasion too strict or too relaxed.

If you find you and an invited guest have differing circumstances or opinions, don’t engage or compromise but be empathetic. Both parties may reply with, “It looks like we will have to find another time and way to gather. I’m so disappointed we are still navigating this difficult time.” Another option: “I’m sorry. This is the decision we are making for our family’s health, and I want you to be safe, too.”

Follow up with Zoom invitations, ordering flowers and pie or a phone call on Thanksgiving eve or day.

For many, another quiet holiday looms for one reason or another, and your compassion can smooth over what might feel like a slight.

For those who will share the in-person feast, this is the year to break out the china and table-scape for a photo shoot. There have been so few opportunities to gather, and this year there is a sense of occasion.

And I’m a firm believer that a beautiful table makes the food taste better.

Once seated for your bountiful feast, use this refresher on basic dining decorum and pass the manners along with the salt and pepper:

  • Decorative arrangements should be low enough to not block people’s faces. Several small ones running the length of the table offers something pretty for all guests to enjoy.

The place setting is the area in front of you reserved for your place mat, plates, utensils, glassware and napkin.

Forks are set on the left of your place setting (with rare exception); knives and spoons on the right. Utensils are placed in the order of courses, so work from the outside in. The fork is married to a knife, and they are used together to cut a bite of food.

  • In the case of dessert, a fork and spoon are often used together (e.g. pie and ice cream) and are placed at the top of the place setting horizontally, spoon above fork, with the fork handle facing left and the spoon handle facing right so they may be dragged down into position when the time comes. You may also set them out after the dinner is cleared.

The napkin is placed in your lap the moment you are seated and remains there until you leave. When excusing yourself during or after the meal, place the napkin loosely folded to the left of your place setting. The napkin also covers your face if you sneeze and dabs a lightly runny nose, but do excuse yourself to blow your nose or for coughing fits.

Crowded tabletop? Make a lower case “b” with your left hand and “d” with your right hand and hold over your place setting. The “b” is for the bread plate on your left. The “d” is for the drinking glass on your right. Now you’ll never pick up your neighbor’s glass again.

  • The bread plate is used for bread and butter, but also serves as a wastebasket for fish bones, olive pits, sugar wrappers or any small item that needs to be removed from your mouth. Using a butter or dinner knife, butter is placed on the bread plate. The knife rests horizontally across the top. Working over your bread plate, use your hands to break off a bite-size piece of bread, buttered one piece at a time or alternatively dipped in olive oil. Toast and biscuits may be buttered all at once.
  • Where silverware is used, there are two styles of dining in the world: American, also referred to as zig-zag (fork tines up), is solely used in the United States. Continental, also known as European (fork tines down), is used globally. Each are defined by how you hold and eat off your fork. This is not a class issue or how you were raised; if you are not holding your utensils correctly, you will have no leverage with which to cut your food efficiently.
  • Cutting position is the same for both styles. With the fork in your left and knife in your right, place the bottom end of the handle in the palm of your hand and wrap your fingers around with your index finger running along the back or spine of the fork and knife. With the fork held tines down, spear the food, using the knife to cut above the tines. Cut a bite-size piece. Choking is often caused by biting off more than you should chew.
  • In the American style — at least for right-handed people — after the food is cut, the knife is put down horizontally across the top of the plate and the fork switches to the right hand, held like a pencil, tines up to eat (hence the zig-zag). To rest, place your fork on the plate diagonally at 4 o’clock. To close, bring the knife and the fork together side by side at 4 o’clock. For food that does not require cutting (e.g. rice, mashed potatoes), you may scoop up a bite, keeping the fork in your right hand, tines up.

In the Continental style, the fork remains in the left hand, and the knife in your right. Raise the fork, tines down, inserting into your mouth, the way the fork was invented. To rest, the knife and fork are placed in an inverted V on the plate. To close, they are brought together at 6 o’clock. In either style, on the plate; knife blades always face in, toward you.

The spoon is held in the right hand like a pencil.

  • The Continental style of dining allows you to rest both wrists on the table’s edge, silverware in hand or not, a nice alternative to the forbidden elbows. For American, the unused hand rests in your lap.
  • Season your food after you’ve tasted it.
  • Soak up a delicious sauce with a bite-size piece of bread on the end of your fork, not your fingers.
  • To eat a turkey drumstick, use a knife and fork to cut off the meat, and after finishing that, pick it up to finish — except at a formal dinner.
  • Pass platters, salt and pepper to the right.

Don’t get your tines in a twist. Feast on these lessons, and you and your guests will give thanks at the table all year long.

Bizia Greene is an etiquette expert and owns the Etiquette School of Santa Fe. Share your comments and fork fears at or 505-988-2070.

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