Growing up in the 1970’s, I have fond memories of my family’s nightly dinners. My sister and I often helped our parents to prepare the meals and set the table, and we ate together as a family, sharing a story each about our day. With a British mother, and a military father, we were taught how to correctly hold our flatware, to chew with our mouths closed, and to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when passing dishes to one another. While I do not necessarily remember enjoying the table setting process itself, what I do remember was my role in the family dinner, and the sense of structure, and the feeling of belonging to something bigger as a team.
Many of my friend’s families had nightly gatherings as well, which I loved to join to understand their unique family rituals. One of my closest friend’s parents would read the newspaper before dinner, and then share their thinking about a topic or two, with each child asked to share their opinion on the day’s topics. The children were responsible for doing the dishes, and we were often reminded to ‘do the dishes with love’ by my friend’s mother – a saying I now warmly repeat to my children. The nightly dinner rituals gave a sense of value, of inclusion, and of teamwork.
As the decades passed, it seems that many families found it harder and harder to find a time to eat together, much less to prepare a nightly meal with a preset table. Even the most basic table setting and table manners seemed to appear only at holidays. As we head into the fall season, given the unpredictability of today’s world, perhaps a nightly (or weekly) dinner ritual could provide a source of stability for the family — a time where each family member has a role in the process to prepare the meal, set the table, practice their table manners, and participate in a healthy family discussion. I had the opportunity to speak with Daily Etiquette founder and author, Nancy Hoogenboom, to better understand the history of the family dinner routine, and how to incorporate rituals that help include the family members, while also refreshing our knowledge of traditional table manners.
“Table etiquette provides a framework of expectations, to bring comfort of knowing not only how to set the table, but which utensils to use for which purpose and time. It brings familiarity, which brings a little more comfort and confidence with your surroundings. Having that shared dinner together adds to the foundation of bringing your family together and building confidence in working together” says Ms. Hoogenboom.
According to Ms. Hoogenboom, the first step in table manners is the table Place Setting, something every family member can learn and practice daily. A properly set table ensures everyone knows which bread plate and water glass is theirs, and which utensils are used for which part of the meal. Understanding the Place Setting of the table gives comfort and familiarity for all dining situations.
Daily Etiquette’s 7-Step Dinner Table Place Setting:
- Set a placemat at each person’s space, mainly to protect the table surface. You may also use a tablecloth in lieu of a placemat.
- Place the dinner plate in the middle of the Place Setting.
- Place the napkin left of the plate, under the utensils. In a formal Place Setting the napkin would be placed to the left of the utensils.
- Place the flatware in sequence with the meal from the outside to the inside, starting from the salad fork on the left-hand side, and the knife on the right-hand side. The spoon (if appropriate) sits to the right of the knife.
- Place the water glass directly above the knife.
- Place the bread plate directly above the fork.
- Finally, place the dessert utensils at the top of the plate (if appropriate).
If you are feeling festive, consider lighting candles, picking fresh flowers, or adding colorful napkins to enhance the table and the dining environment. Ms. Hoogenboom’s family incorporates special tablecloths, such as a birthday tablecloth, to add festive tradition to family birthdays.
If you are looking for an easy way to provide some structure and comfort in today’s changing times, a family dinner ritual can provide a sense of belonging for everyone in the family. Stay tuned for The Comfort of The Nightly Family Dinner Ritual: Part 2 – Table Manners Basics, later this month.
If you want to find more etiquette education in and around Issaquah, click here.