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Basic Dining Etiquette: Using a Knife and Fork

Linda Sarhan has been a freelance writer and researcher for 20+ years and has a B.A. in English and creative writing.


When it comes to dining, the fork and knife are two essential utensils used in consuming food without creating a social faux pas and making a mess of your hands. However, for many people, the fork and knife are used in a way to simply shovel food into their mouths without any thought to proper etiquette. In many cases, people haven't been taught what the proper etiquette is when it comes to eating with a fork and a knife.

There are two main styles when it comes to using fork and knife etiquette. These styles are continental style, commonly referred to as the European style, and American style. Both are accepted in most social dining situations, whether formal or informal.


Continental Style

When using the Continental style, you place the fork in your left hand and cut with the knife in your right hand. Finger placement is essential in applying proper etiquette. When it comes to using the fork, insert the fork in the food item with the back of the fork facing away from you. As for finger placement, wrap your fingers around the spine of the fork with your index finger extended down.

When you use the knife, you also extend your index finger along the spine of the knife to have a firm hold and to cut off a piece food with better ease. Keeping the fork in your left hand, you raise the fork without changing finger positioning to insert the piece of food into your mouth. After cutting a piece of food, you do not need to set the knife down if you plan to continue cutting the food in front of you with each bite.


Resting vs. Finished Positioning

Although you do not have to set down your knife between bites, there are times when it is proper etiquette to put down and rest your knife and fork on the plate. This is when you plan to take a sip of your drink or take a bite of your dinner roll or bread. At which case, there is a certain way to position your knife and fork on the plate.

Simply place the knife toward the center of the plate with your fork resting on top of the blade of the knife upside down. If you are finished with the meal, set both the knife and the fork centered and angled to the right of their plate, not necessarily overlapping. Note the difference in the picture above. This will send an unspoken code to the waitstaff or host that you are either resting between bites or you are finished with your meal.


American Style

The American style only varies slightly from the Continental style. The finger placement along the fork and knife are the same. The only difference is that the American style will have you switching the fork to your right hand after cutting a piece of food. As you switch the fork to your right hand, the bottom of the fork is then facing the table as you insert the fork in your mouth with the prongs facing upright.

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Also, you do not put the fork with food in your mouth while still holding the knife in your hand due to the fact that you are supposed to switch hands. When setting your knife down to switch hands, place the knife along the edge of the plate with the blade facing inward.


Resting vs. Finished Positioning

There are a couple of slight variances between the resting and finishing positioning compared to the Continental style of etiquette.

If you are resting between bites, taking a sip of your drink, or must excuse yourself briefly from the table, you place your knife on the edge of the plate just like when you switch hands to put the fork in your mouth. The fork, however, is place in the same positioning as the resting position of the continental style except with the prongs facing upward.

If you are finished with a meal, you can rest your fork and knife much like with the Continental style. The difference is that you will leave the fork prongs facing up. This is called placing them in the 10:20 position. Think of your plate as a clock. Your knife and fork are pointing toward the 10 o'clock position, whereas the handles are toward the 20 minute (4 on a clock face) position.


Other Etiquette to Consider

There are other etiquette rules to follow when eating with a fork and knife other than finger placement. You should never place the knife and fork back on the table after using it. This would cause the table or dinner cloth to become dirty.

What about a steak knife for cutting steaks and other meat? There are a few rules to remember when it comes to steak knives. If you are at a restaurant, it is permissible to request a steak knife from your server. However, if you are at a private residence, it is considered ill-mannered to request a steak knife if it has not been offered. One possible reasoning behind this is that most meat can be cut with a good dinner knife. You run the risk of insulting your host's cooking by requesting a steak knife implying that the meat is tough or over cooked. If using a steak knife, the same etiquette rules apply as with a regular dinner knife.

Also, you should never cut butter with your dinner knife. If you need to cut a tab of butter, you should use a separate knife called a butter knife.

If you have been provided a fish knife, there is a certain etiquette to be used when using a fish knife. Instead of holding and using it like a regular dinner knife, you hold it more as if you were holding a pencil. This positioning is used with both styles of dining. The reason why you hold the fish knife this way is so that you can remove skin and pick small bones from the fish with class and ease.

Whether with formal dining or informal dining, remember to sit up straight and keep your elbows off the table by resting your wrists along the table edge while chewing. If you are pausing from eating or finished with your meal, you place your hands in your lap while enjoying polite dinner conversation. It may seem complicated when you are first learning proper etiquette, but with practice, using a knife and fork properly will become like second nature and feel more relaxed.

© 2014 Linda Sarhan

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