Teach your kids the difference between a fish knife and a butter knife.

The Proper Placement of Cutlery

by Benna Crawford

Your kids may be brilliant at eating with their fingers, and a battle over etiquette may seem less critical than getting some vegetables into them. But, one day, they will confront a gleaming table set properly with a full battery of knives, forks and spoons. Save them and yourself the embarrassment of chaos and confusion with regular practice drills to acquaint your free-spirited heathens with the protocols of cutlery, or silverware. Then smile graciously when strangers compliment you on their impeccable table manners.

Basic Cutlery

Maybe hot dogs with mustard are as fancy as it gets at your house, but it's a wide world out there and your talented offspring should learn to wield a mean fork. Schedule at least one meal a week with formal table settings and teach your kids, by instruction and example, how to navigate them. The first, most basic, rule is to work from outside to inside when selecting the proper spoon, fork or knife. Flatware follows the order of use, not graduated size. American table settings allow for right-handed eaters, positioning the spoons and knives on the right side of the plate. All flatware is laid about 1 inch up from the edge of the table, ends even with the bottom of the plate. The innermost utensil is placed 1 inch away from the rim of the plate.

Knives and Forks

Knives are arranged in order of use on the immediate right side of the plate, blades facing the plate. The knife closest to the plate is for the main course and is usually the largest knife. The knife for a fish course sits to the right of the main course knife, and is shorter and broader with a curved tip. Forks are laid out to the left of the plate, main-course fork next to the plate, then a salad fork and, on the outside, a first course or appetizer fork. When soup is the first course, there will be two forks to the left of the plate. When salad is served after the main course, the salad fork is set inside the main-course fork, in the order in which it will be used. A seafood or oyster fork is an outlier. It belongs next to the soup spoon and the knives, to the right of the plate.

Non-Runcible Spoons

A large, rounded soup spoon is set next to the outermost knife to the right of the plate. Teaspoons and coffee spoons, however, are set on the saucer to the upper right of the main plate, unless they are to be used for food. A teaspoon for breakfast cereal is placed in the normal table setting, on the right side of the plate or bowl. An iced tea spoon takes a bit more finesse. The spoon is positioned on the table to the right of the tall glass. But, once it's been used to stir the iced drink, it stays in the glass and is held steady by the fingers as you drink. A demitasse spoon will be served on the saucer with the small cup of coffee.

Specialty Implements

Just above the main plate, depending on the dessert planned, you find a spoon with the bowl facing left above a fork with the tines facing right. These are ready for a messy dessert that you eat by helping the food onto the spoon with your fork, tines down. For desserts such as ice cream, you get only the spoon, set above the plate or to the right of it. For a very formal meal, the dessert fork may be laid next to the plate on the left and the dessert spoon or knife set next to the plate on the right, or they may arrive with the dessert. A short, broad butter spreader goes on the bread-and-butter plate to the upper left of the main plate. And when the meal calls for chopsticks, they're set on a chopstick rest, usually at a slant to the right of the main plate or bowl but, occasionally, just above the plate with the broad ends for grasping at the right.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .

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