What do I do when I spill food on the table & other dining etiquette dilemmas

surpriseSometimes you don’t realize what you don’t know until you’re faced with a situation you haven’t dealt with before. Many of my clients and class participants ask me questions about things they have no idea how to handle or that they aren’t sure how to properly navigate. I especially tend to get a lot of questions around dining etiquette topics.

When we are worried about the little details it makes it difficult to focus on the bigger picture, like the lunch job interview or building rapport with a client over dinner.

I thought it would be helpful if I shared some of those dining etiquette dilemmas and how to handle them. That way you can focus on the business at hand instead of the little etiquette conundrums that can trip you up.

This one comes up a lot. What do I do with the crumbs on the table?

If you are in a nice restaurant, the waiter should crumb the table, which is where they use a special utensil to scrape the crumbs into a little plate. If the restaurant you’re in doesn’t do this you have a few choices. Ignore the crumbs, or, if they are really bothering you, you can surreptitiously scoot them under the rim of your bread plate or dinner plate. Of course, once the plates are removed you’ll have a pile of crumbs, but hopefully you will be leaving the table at that point.

What do I do with gristle or a bone in my mouth?

Take it out with cupped fingers and put it on your plate. Yes really. You may have been told that the way things go in is the way they come out, but do you really want everyone to see you spitting a piece of gristle onto your fork, most likely missing the fork anyway? I didn’t think so.

When you remove it with cupped fingers it hides the item and it’s much easier to navigate.

And, in case you were thinking of putting the abject item in your napkin, no, no and triple no. Your napkin is only used for wiping your mouth, wiping your fingers and protecting your lap.

What do I do with my purse?

Put your purse under your chair or hanging on your chair if it won’t get bumped. If you have one of those purse hangers, use that if you can. If it’s a small evening purse, put it on your lap with your napkin over it.

How do I eat my dessert when it’s above my entree plate and the servers are no longer clearing the tables?

You never want to stack plates, so simply reach over your plate and eat your dessert or switch your entrée plate with the dessert plate. Enjoy!

What do I do if I drop some food on the table?

Pick it up with your fingers and put it back on the plate, not into your mouth.

What do I do if someone uses my bread plate?

Use the side of your dinner plate and say nothing to your misguided neighbor. And, in case you’re wondering which bread plate belongs to you, remember this acronym – BMW. Your Bread plate is on the left, your Meal is in the middle and your Water is on the right.

Next time you sit down to a crowded table just say “BMW” and you’ll know exactly which items belong to you and which belong to your neighbors.

That’s it for now. I hope these tips are helpful. What dining etiquette dilemmas vex you?


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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. Eileen Hsu on October 25, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    I like your BMW tip for tracking your bread plate and water.  It’s a better tip for my easily muddled brain than the “b” and “d” tip (where you put the tip of your index finger on the tip of your thumb to form the letter b on your right hand and d on your left hand for “Bread” and “Drink”), b/c I invariably would think, “B is for…Beverage!”

  2. Arden on December 1, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    I’m glad it is helpful Eileen. I teach both tips, but I’m glad one resonates with you. This is probably the area most people struggle with, so I’m always happy when I can offer something that takes the confusion away. Thank you for commenting.

  3. Kathy on August 23, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    What am I supposed to do when I drop food or liquid down the front of my formal dress? Right on or between my boobs? And even in a non formal situation like a fast food restaurant?

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