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The Art of the Holiday Dinner Party: How to Be a Savvy Host, and a Polished Guest

              The Art of the Holiday Dinner Party

        How to Be a Savvy Host, and a Polished Guest

The upcoming holidays are a time for celebration, and most of these celebrations include dining with friends, family and colleagues.  Whether you are hosting a dinner party in your home, or are a guest in another person’s home, your table manners and dining skills will be on display. Not knowing your way around a dinner table can be embarrassing, making not only you uncomfortable and ill at ease, but also those with whom you are dining. When you know how to conduct yourself at the dining table, you will be able to enjoy yourself and the company of your dinner companions; and, they, in turn, will be able to enjoy your company. So don’t let such as easy thing to learn keep you from enjoying yourself and making a positive impression at your holiday gatherings.

Whether your role is that of a gracious host or grateful guest, your job is to help the dinner party proceed as smoothly as possible. Following is The Etiquette School of New York’s guide for hosting and attending holiday dinner parties

Table Settings 

The initial sight of the table should be festive and visually appealing–whether it be elegant or simple. It will set the mood for the dinner party.

  • Set the table with all of the silverware that will be necessary for the entire meal. The table is set with the flatware arranged in order of use—from the outside in. For whatever course comes first, you will need the utensil in the extreme right or left; for the next course the next utensil in and so on. If it is a formal dinner the server will remove any forks, spoons, or knives that are unnecessary, after each course. Then the correct utensil will be next in line.

  • Candles and centerpieces should be about two inches below eye level of your guests. The flowers at the dining table must be low enough so that guests can see one another across the table. White or ivory tapers are appropriate for any table; and, of course, they should be free of fragrance.

  • One quick look at the table will tell guests what they will be having for dinner. If for some reason you, as a guest, don’t feel comfortable, observe the host or hostess and follow his or her lead.

The Napkin:

  • Once you are seated, pause before removing your napkin from the table. At a dinner party in a home, restaurant, or club, the host is the first person to pick up his or her napkin to signal the beginning of a meal.

  • An individual picks up the napkin and places it on his or her lap. The large dinner napkin is left folded in half and placed across the lap with the fold facing toward the waistline. The luncheon napkin, which is smaller, is opened fully.

  • Touch your napkin lightly to your lips in the shape of an inverted “V” to dab your mouth.

  • Place the napkin on the seat of the chair if you must leave the table during the meal.

  • When the meal is over, wait for the host to place his or her napkin on the table before placing yours on the table. This is the host’s silent signal that the meal is over.

The Knife:

  • The knife is held  is held in the right hand with the handle in the palm and the index finger along the top of the blade.

  • Cut one bite of meat at a time and eat it…never cut up all your meat at once.

  • When not in use, the knife is laid across the top of the plate (never propped against the edge) with the blade toward you.  This is the American style of dining. In the Continental style of dining, the fork in crossed over the knife when resting,

  • Never bring food to the mouth by means of your knife.

 The Spoon:

  • The spoon is held at the very end like a pencil. When eating soup, the movement of the spoon goes away from you. An exception to this rule is French Onion soup. Because of the cheese coating on top, the soup spoon cuts into the crust with the spoon coming toward you.

  • Never leave the soup spoon in the bowl when you have finished. It belongs on the service plate under the bowl.

  • Do not leave spoons in cups or small dishes. Instead, place them on the side of the saucer or service plate.

The Fork:

I. American Way of Dining:

  • Hold the fork in the right hand like a pencil.

  • To cut food, switch the fork to the left hand and turn it over with the index finger in the small of its back.

  • After cutting, switch the fork to the right hand to eat.

  • To rest during the meal, your fork is at 4 o’clock on your plate, and your knife remains at the top of your plate.

  • When finished, your knife and fork should be together across the center of your plate at 10:20 o’clock.

II. Continental Style of Dining

  • Eat off the back of your fork, and remember to keep your knife in your right hand while you eat.

  • Rest in a triangle, blade going toward you and when you are finished, place your knife and fork at 10:20 o’clock.

  • It is correct to eat the bite with your fork still in the left hand instead of switching back to the right hand.

  • When dining Continental, both knives and forks are picked up to eat at the same time, and down to rest at the same time.


  • No matter how many glasses are at your plate, the water goblet is always the last one on the inside.

  • At a formal dinner, five glasses are the maximum one can have.

  • Like silverware,  one starts with the glasses on the outside and works in.

  • Hold a stemmed glass by the stem.

The Bread Plate:

  • Used for bread and butter…also fish bones, olive pits, and any small item that needs to be removed from your mouth with your fingers.

  • If you can’t remember which side of the plate your bread plate is on, think B-M-W. Bread on the left, main course, and drinks on the right.

The Butter Knife:

  •  Used only to cut the butter. It is never used to cut your roll or bread.

How to Serve Wine

When choosing a wine, the main goal is to accomplish a suitable pairing with the entrée you will be serving at your dinner party. Traditionally, white wines are served with fish, chicken and veal; and red wines with beef, pasta with red sauce and some fowl. If you are not knowledgeable about wines, consult with someone who is. There is almost always someone with whom you can consult at a store that specializes in selling wine.

Before serving, always allow wine time to breathe at room temperature. Never pour wine for guests immediately after opening. It is the host’s responsibility to discreetly ensure that the wine is sound and unspoiled. This should be done away from company, and a small amount should be sampled.

Wine glasses are only filled halfway, never to the top of the glass. If more than one wine is to be served during dinner, there should be a glass for each wine. And, always serve wine to your guests in clean, spotless glasses!

Serve red wine at room temperature. To allow wine to “breathe”, open the bottle about 30 minutes before you serve it. This permits the air to develop the bouquet and improve the taste of the wine.

Chill white wines no more than two hours before serving them. Fine wines need less time, since too much chilling can hide the complexity of serious wines. If you must chill the wine more quickly, the best method is to immerse the bottles in a tub of water and ice cubes up to the neck.

Red wine should be served in a wine glass with a bigger bowl to release the bouquet. White wines are served in a smaller, narrower wine glass. A stemmed glass with white wine should always be held by the stem to avoid warming the wine.

When the meal begins, the host should stand and walk around the table to fill each wine glass. If it’s an informal party, the host can simply fill the glasses of the persons closest to him and ask them to pass the other glasses down. It is the host’s job to offer the wine bottle to a guest with an empty glass and say, “Please help yourself.”

Note: If a guest brings a bottle of wine as a hostess gift, he or she should not expect the host to open it that evening.

Basic Table Manners:

  • Put your napkin on your lap as soon as you sit down, unless you are at a formal dinner party; in which case, you would wait until your host or hostess puts it on his or her lap. If you need to go to the restroom during the meal, place your napkin on your chair, push your chair in, and simply say, “Excuse me.”

  • Sit up straight in your chair. Your hands when you are not actually eating, may lie in your lap if you are eating in the American style. Or, you may rest your hands and wrists on the edge of the table if you are eating in the Continental style. Neither elbows nor arms are permitted on the table at a formal dinner party.

  • Study your flatware; eat from the outside in. And remember that once you take your silverware off the table, it should  never touch the table again.

  • Break bread into bite-size pieces and butter each piece just before you eat it. Don’t butter the entire roll or slice of bread. And, remember, your bread plate is on the left side of your dinner plate.

  • To eat soup, dip the spoon into the soup, then remove it by going away from your body, not toward it. Sip the soup off of the side of the spoon instead of placing the whole spoon inside of your mouth.

  • Never chew with your mouth open; and don’t talk with food in your mouth. Eat slowly, taking bites only large enough to chew comfortably. Cut meat, fish or chicken one piece at a time, and eat it before cutting another.

  • Do not reach for anything at the table; ask for it to be passed. And when you are passing food at the table, it should be passed from left to right, or counter-clockwise around the table.

  • If there is an implement in a dish, use it instead of your fingers—a pickle or lemon fork, sugar or ice tongs, or nut spoon.

  • Place your utensils in the resting position if you are taking a break from your eating, and in the finished position when you are finished eating.

  • Always wait until everyone has been served before beginning to eat if you are at a formal dinner party. If it is a buffet, you may begin to eat when your end of the table, or those seated closest to you have their food.

  • Take a break after every few bites; and pace yourself with your dinner companions, which means eating at the same speed–not too fast, not too slowly.

  • Talk to the people sitting closest to you—not up and down the table. Avoid controversial topics, such as politics, religion, or any other personal or sensitive topic that might offend someone.

  • Cell phones, keys, glasses, and handbags should be kept off of the table.

  • When you are finished eating, you should not put your napkin on the table until everyone is finished and ready to leave the table.

  • Say something nice about the food to your host when you have finished dining.

Responsibility of the Host/Hostess and Guest


  • Always greet guests at the door.

  • Immediately take jackets/coats. You can hand them to another to hang up or put them in a room set aside for coats.

  • Take any gifts and follow same procedure as coats.

  • Introduce arriving guests to friends standing in the area.

  • Give directions to food and drinks to your arriving guests.

  • After all guests arrive, the host circulates to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves.

  • Assign someone to make sure there is enough food and drinks for everyone throughout the party.         


  • Make a effort: Come polished and dressed appropriately for the dinner party.

  • Always take a hostess gift if you have been invited to someone’s home for a dinner party.

  • If it is a large party and your host is not at the door, work your way through the crowd and say hello to your host.

  • Don’t hesitate to introduce yourself to others, and shake hands when you meet them.

  • If you are talking to someone and a stranger walks up, introduce yourself, then the person with whom you are talking.

  • If you spill something, let the host know immediately, and offer to help clean it up.

  • If you break something, let the host know. It is your responsibility to pay for the damage.

  • Don’t bring a friend to the party unless you have checked with the host first.

  • Always thank the host before you leave. Don’t just walk out.


By: Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick

Updated: November 2017

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