French Table Manners

by Richard Bash
(Pendleton, Indiana)

Learn the basics of French table manners with these few rules. Nothing too complicated - it is a lot about respect, a little about looking good, and all about enjoyment.

Question: Kim, explain how the place setting is arranged. Do the forks of various sizes go on the left, like America, or some other way? Assume at least a 4-course meal, requiring a salad fork, a dinner fork, a knife, spoon and dessert spoon.

Thanks.

Answer: Hi Richard,

Thanks for writing to me with your question. Because I have already covered your question on another page (see French Table Settings), I thought I would tackle French table manners here. The two subjects go hand in hand and of course complement one another.

Most French table manners are probably similar to ones you grew up with. Things like do not open your mouth when you are eating and sit up straight. But there are some rules that are perhaps quite particular to French society and are good to know about if you are planning a trip to France. Of course, it can be fun learning about the etiquette of another country, even if you are not planning a trip!



French Table Manners in General . . .


It is all about respect.

The most important rule of any etiquette system is to always treat others with respect. Thoughtfulness towards your fellow diners should be your guiding light for any dining experience.

And looking good.

After that, in France there is considerable attention given to keeping the table looking orderly and clean. Make an effort not to get crumbs on the table cloth, discretely wipe your mouth before taking a sip of water or wine, do not crumple up your napkin, and in general pay attention to what you are doing. Your goal is to leave the table looking as good as when you arrived.

And enjoyment.

A big difference between the French dining experience and what you may be used to is that a meal is meant to be lingered over. The food is almost always served in courses and even weeknight meals in a family setting may take over an hour. This is your time to enjoy life - your food, your family, your community.


French Table Manners in Particular . . .



  • Gifts for the host. Wine and food gifts should only be offered to close friends and family. For more formal occasions, send flowers before or after the event. Bringing flowers is a big no-no because then the host may feel bothered by having to arrange them.

  • Bon appĂ©tit. Despite its widespread, saying this right before dining is actually considered rude because it makes reference to digestion, not a polite topic of conversation. I say follow the crowd on this. If someone else says it, you can say it back or just say "merci".


  • Position your hands. No elbows on the table Mabel. But no hands in the lap either. Your hands should lay quietly on the table when they have no other occupation.

  • Posture. Sitting up straight is absolutely essential. Your feet should rest on the floor and you should not cross your legs.

  • Conversation topics. In conversation, avoid the three deadly topics: religion, politics, and money. Just don't go there.

  • Listening. Do not cut off anyone in conversation, even your spouse. Yeah, sure, everyone knows this, but how many of us truly respect what other people have to say?

  • french dining etiquette

  • Knife and fork. According to French table manners, the knife stays in the right hand and fork in the left at all times. None of this funny hand switching that goes on in other countries. This is one eating custom you may take quite a fancy to as it does truly simplify the task.




As For Food . . .



  • Bread. Break off a piece of bread to eat it. Do not use your knife to cut it and never take a bite directly out of the bread. If there is no special plate for it, the bread just goes on the tablecloth next to your plate.

  • Fruit. Ok, seriously, good luck with this one. You are supposed to peel the fruit - be it a banana, a pear, or something else - with your knife and fork. You then slice it with the same tools. Cherries are a bit easier. You can eat them with your hands and discretely dispose of the pits in your closed fist before placing them on your plate.

  • French fries and pizza. Keep that knife and fork firmly in your hands. There are very few foods that a French person will eat with their hands.

  • Salad. This is a truly arcane bit of French table manners, but nonetheless it is respected: you must not cut your lettuce. Salad is eaten by folding the lettuce leaves into neat little packets on the tines of your fork. The reason popularly given for this is that once upon a time, the vinegar in the salad dressing could oxidize the metal knife and stain it. Why they were not concerned about the poor fork, I can not say!


How about it? Does anyone know some important French table manners that I am missing from this short list? As always, I would love to hear from you!

Comments for
French Table Manners

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Aug 21, 2012
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very good NEW
by: Angel

I am interested in the french table manners I like. I tell you I am part of french

Dec 18, 2011
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Other rule
by: Anonymous

Hey,
I read your blog, it is really interesting and true, I am french and I respect all rules.
You can add rule very important for french, the host is the last for sit but the first for eat, we can eat before the host isn't sit and eat.

Thank you to make discover the french culture to foreign people.

Aug 17, 2011
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French manners/English spelling
by: Michael

I don't know about the US but the word is DISCREET/DISCREETLY in English.
'Discrete' has an entirely different meaning!
:-) Michael

Aug 17, 2011
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manners of children
by: Anonymous

I have lived in the Lorraine region for 2 years now previously from Yorkshire England. I was astonished to find that the French children invited to our home (and there has been many) either accompanied by their parents or friends of my children have all displayed poor table manners, although they have been verbally polite.
They have shown that they have not known how to use the knife and fork and mostly held their fork in their right hand and using their fingers to push the food on to the fork or ripe food apart.
It projects laziness to eat properly or that they simply have not been shown how to use these tools, what is going on????

Aug 16, 2011
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The fork and knife question
by: Hildegunde

I come from Munich, Germany - well, Bavaria, that is, and Bavaria is, quite frankly, a DIFFERENT country from Germany, in outlook, if not geographically. Anyway, our table manners seem to be very similar to the French: we eat with fork and knife, holding the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. I've grown up eating this way and was very amused when first arriving in the US to see people eat in (what I considered) such an awkward way, constantly switching utensils. Also, elbows on table and hand in lap are a big "no-no" in my country as well. We do differ a little in setting the table, but otherwise "same as French." A civilised way of eating! Wish we (in Bavaria) lingered longer and served smaller portions. We DO insist on table cloths in our homes when eating, though, which is something I like.

Jul 24, 2011
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Hosting a French student
by: Anonymous

We hosted a French student this summer and most of the table manners are the same as ours but they do love that knife. They use it for everything. If they would just turn their fork over the "right way" the could scoop up in stead of pushing things on the back side of the fork with a knife. We all tried it one night the" French way" and holding two utensils all night was a drag. All that moving food on to the backside of the fork seemed strange. My kids did like eating with the fork backwards when they could "stab" meat or whatever. It was a learning lesson from all!

Jul 18, 2011
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Slicing cheese
by: Jean6Pierre

Hello Kim,

Just a little addition to your recommendations.
Most French people do not know how to cut a bit of cheese.
The basic rule is that any piece should have its equal share of the inner and outer part of the cheese. For example, in the Roquefort, you should take a piece with some of the creamy central blue and some of the whiter dry border. Or in a Camembert, the slice should comprise some of the center and some of the skin. An exception is made for the Brie for the first serve, because it may be very difficult to cut and remove a very long narrow slice of true Brie.
I love to explain at long how to cut each cheese, from a plateau of 8 different sorts of cheese, without giving the rule!
The best to you.

Jul 17, 2011
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honoring others
by: Anonymous

Even at a family meal together, the hosts (likely also to be the cooks and parents) will slip away if only for a few minutes to refresh their own appearance. It's not the table looking good! People around the table are expected to be well groomed. A mom will often reappear with touched up makeup and a scarf or jewelry she wasn't wearing before the meal. This honors the guests and sets the tone for a meal that is about much more than ingesting food.

Jul 15, 2011
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Serving Oneself
by: Kim

Hello. I feel your pain. Who wants to be the center of attention when serving food? Not me!

I do not see anyway you can manipulate a fork and spoon at the same time with just one hand. It seems you must place the serving plate on the table and proceed. The spoon is used face down to push the food onto the fork.

Perhaps the host(s) intended you to serve yourself while they were holding the serving plate?

If not, and you suddenly find yourself holding a serving platter with no place to set it down, why not turn to the person seated next to you and hold the plate while they serve themselves? They could then do the same for you.

Don't forget that you do have an advantage with many French people who are quite interested and charmed by foreigners. As long as you remain gracious, most faux pas will be overlooked with the same graciousness.


Jul 05, 2011
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being served
by: Anonymous

When we were spending several months in France we were invited to different homes for dinner. Invariably I (a female) was the guest of honor and the first platter would be presented to me with a large fork and spoon. Evidently I was supposed to take the serving implements in one hand and serve myself. What a horror. I was so self conscious I became even more awkward. Any tips om serving oneself well with one hand?

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