Dinner party lessons

My husband and I made a New Year’s resolution in December to have people over to dinner at least once a month. With the exception of a scheduling snafu in January, we have enjoyed the company of four people every month. It’s been such a wonderful experience. Not only are we seeing people we haven’t seen in a while, we’re also cooking more and the house is cleaner! It’s a win, win, win!

While I haven’t been bringing out the family Wedgewood, I have been setting a more formal table complete with white linen napkins and utensils for each course including dessert. The table is set with a soup spoon, dinner knife, salad fork, dinner fork, and dessert spoon and fork. I’ve noticed that the dessert fork and spoon above the plate often confuse people. A few folks have asked me what they were for. I can understand their confusion. You don’t often see a dessert fork and spoon at the top of the place setting in our casual Seattle homes. People will often bring them out with dessert, and that is perfectly acceptable as well.

A table is set with both a dessert fork (which can also be a salad fork) and dessert spoon (a teaspoon) at the top of the place setting for a few reasons. If the dessert is something challenging like an éclair or Neapolitan those eating Continental Style (which I’ll discuss later) use the fork to secure the dessert and the spoon to scoop the sweet goodness into their mouth. Another reason for having both a fork and spoon is that it covers the array of desserts that might be served. If you order ice cream you would use your spoon, while cake requires a fork. Lastly, you may use your dessert spoon to stir your coffee or tea.

The placement of the dessert spoon and fork is important. Because forks are always set on the left of the place setting (with the exception of an oyster fork) the dessert fork handle faces to the left. The knife and spoon are always set on the right of the place setting so the dessert spoon handle points to the right. See diagram. Informal place setting

Here’s a little history to why that is. With the exception of the United States and Canada, most people eat using the Continental or European style where the fork stays in the left hand with the tines down and the knife is held in the right hand to help push the food onto the back of the fork. It’s actually a very efficient and elegant way of eating. Because this is the prevalent way of eating, the fork has remained set on the left of the place setting. Here’s a photo of what Continental Style looks like.

Image from Image Resource Group

Image from Image Resource Group

Americans and Canadians are the only people who eat with the fork in the right hand. When cutting meat we transfer the fork to the left hand tines down and pick up the knife with our right hand. When finished cutting the meat, we then set the knife down at the top of our plate, transfer the fork back from our left hand to our right hand and eat the morsel with the fork tines facing up. This is called American style or zig-zag style of eating.

Because most of the world eats Continental style where they would use the left hand to eat the dessert, the handle faces to the left so that it’s easier to pick up with the left hand. The dessert spoon handle faces to the right for the same reason. Make sense? Lastly, the dessert spoon is placed above the dessert fork.

Whew, who knew eating could be so complicated?! Well, it really shouldn’t be. As you might suspect, people are often nervous to eat in front of an etiquette consultant. Some of my guests have shared their anxiousness about eating with me for fear they would get it wrong and I would judge them. Ah contraire! I only notice and critique when I’m hired to do so.

One of my guests said after dinner that her husband was quite concerned he would make etiquette mistakes. Before coming to our house she told him to simply watch and copy me, which he said he did when we discussed it after the meal. As his wise wife said, when in Rome do as the Romans do. Amen to that.


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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. CaroleCancler on April 26, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    This was a fun and interesting article. I laughed about friends who are nervous to eat with you.

  2. BethBuelow on April 26, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    So funny to read in detail the patterns that go into our eating rituals. It’s been so long since any of us have probably thought about how we hold a fork, or in what order we do things! And I never realized that these mannerisms would be different in different countries. Perhaps if Americans held their forks in their left hands as a rule, they’d eat slower and more thoughtfully 😉 … I might try it!

  3. ArdenClise on April 27, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    BethBuelow So true. I have always thought the Continental style of eating is so much more elegant and efficient. I use a hybrid style where I eat American style until I have to cut something with fork and knife and then I switch to Continental style and bring the piece of meat to my mouth with my left hand and the tines facing down. It’ faster that way. But, I haven’t mastered getting things on the back of my fork to be a true Continental style eater.

  4. ArdenClise on April 27, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    CaroleCancler Thanks Carole. I’m glad it brought some levity to your day. Yes, being an etiquette consultant has it’s hazards – people getting nervous around me. But, hey, I’m just a regular person who makes mistakes like everyone else.

  5. Linda Rollieson on February 11, 2021 at 6:22 pm

    I’m having a Gentlemen”s Dinner for 12, I’m serving the following:

    Seltzer water, white wine, (NO COFFEE)
    Lobster tails, bone lamb-chops, with Ginger String-beans/roasted red potatoes
    Lemon Sorbet
    Rib-eye Steak, Chilean Sea-Bass
    Lemon Drizzle cake –cigars/brandy, in which order should I serve?

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