Thanksgiving (and other meals) dos and don’ts

turkeyCan you hear it? It’s the sound of busy hosts shopping, prepping and cooking Thanksgiving dinner. I’m thankful my sister is one of those hosts. She usually hosts Thanksgiving because she has the bigger house and bigger family. The rest of us get to enjoy the gourmet bounty and family gathering in exchange for bringing a dish or two. Lucky us.

Whether you’re hosting or attending the Thanksgiving gathering this year you may be challenged by a few etiquette dilemmas. Let me answer some of the common etiquette dilemmas that apply especially to the holidays but that are also useful for other gatherings.

Accommodating food restrictions

More and more people have foods they avoid or can’t eat. As a host, it’s nice to make sure you have some dishes that your food restricted guests can eat. However, you do not need to make the entire meal gluten free or whatever the restriction is. You can also invite said guests to bring their favorite dish to share.

Setting the table

Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mom would pull out the sterling silver flatware and the good china. My job was to polish the silver and set the table. As a child I didn’t love the job, but I learned how to set a formal table, which comes in handy occasionally.

If you’d like to set a more formal table here are some tips to help you remember which items go where.

The word fork has four letters, so does the word left. So forks always go to the left of the dinner plate. The words knife, spoon and glass all have five letters, so they go on the right. The knife is placed closest to the plate with the blade facing the plate. The soup spoon is to the right of the knife. The glass(es) are placed about the knife and spoon in the order they will be consumed starting from the right.

If you want to place a dessert fork and spoon on the table before dessert is served you place them above the dinner plate. Face the fork handle to the left because if you were to pull it down it would go to the left of the plate. Place the spoon with the handle facing to the right; again so that when you pull it down it goes to the right of the plate.

If you’re using bread plates, place them above the forks. The butter knife is placed across the top of the bread plate.

Here’s a place setting diagram to help you. (This is a laminated place setting that Clise Etiquette sells)

Click to view larger image

Click to view larger image

Here’s a fun fact. We set the knife with the blade facing the plate. And when we are eating we place the knife down at the top of the plate with the blade facing the diner. We do this because it suggests we won’t harm anyone with our knife like they were prone to do in the medieval days when they ate with knives.

Political talk

This heated presidential election will no doubt lead to some uncomfortable political discussions. People are still feeling very passionate about the election results. The only way a political conversation will be productive and tolerable is if people actually listen to each other without rebuttal.  That means you seek to understand where someone is coming from rather than trying to change their mind. If you can’t listen without judgment and anger then avoid the topic altogether.

One way to change the subject is to say something like, “I’m grateful we live in a country where we are allowed to voice our differences. But right now, I think we can all agree the chefs outdid themselves cooking this wonderful meal. How about we focus on something sweet and indulge in Aunt Mable’s famous pecan pie?”

Here are some additional tips:

  • Wait to start eating until everyone has been served and the host starts eating.
  • Put your napkin on your lap and use it frequently to wipe your mouth.
  • Never put a used utensil back on the table. Put it on your plate or resting on a clean utensil.
  • Socialize. Don’t spend the whole gathering watching football. This is a time to converse with family and friends.
  • Avoid complaining or making mean or snarky comments. Find the positive and enjoy the company of others.
  • Men, when you use the toilet please put the seat back down. I also think it’s nice for everyone to put the lid down. Makes the toilet look nicer.
  • Curious? Don’t snoop in the hosts cupboards.
  • Don’t stack dishes. Dishes should never be stacked at the table.
  • Help the hosts by offering to clear the table and/or wash the dishes.
  • Say thank you to the hosts.

Want more Thanksgiving and dining etiquette tips? Visit these posts:

Avoiding Thanksgiving manners mishaps and misunderstandings

The gift of presence: A Thanksgiving message

How to impress family and friends at Thanksgiving

Keeping the giving in Thanksgiving

A fun way to share your gratitude


Wishing you a peaceful and happy Thanksgiving.





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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 >>

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