Dining Etiquette: Ordering & Eating Difficult Food

Ordering Food

Choosing the wrong food and drink from a menu can create awkwardness, especially at meetings where the menu is not pre-set. Knowing the basics of ordering—as host or guest—will allow you to relax, enjoy the food, and focus on the business relationship.

As the host, your choice of restaurant and menu should meet the dietary requirements of everyone at the dinner. If someone is a vegetarian, you probably should not set up the meeting in a steakhouse. It will be rude and can ruin the meeting before it even starts. Also, some people cannot eat specific foods because of their diet or religion. You will make those people feel good by asking ahead of time if anyone has any restrictions.

As the host, you can make your guest feel at ease by giving them some clues and suggestions about the menu options. Make some suggestions about the restaurant’s specialties, if you can. It is also polite while reviewing the menu to discuss what entrée “sounds good.” It gives a clue as to what you are ordering, helping the guest feel more comfortable about the price range and type of item you are selecting. It is impolite to order your meal before your guests.

If you are the guest, it is proper etiquette to follow your host/hostess’s lead. Order as many courses as the host orders, no more, no less. This will keep the meal’s rhythm consistent with everyone eating at the same pace, and the business talk going smoothly.

It is not appropriate to order the least or most expensive food in the menu. In business situations, being sensitive and gracious to your host will strengthen the relationship. As the guest, you should ask your host for recommendations, if he/she does not offer suggestions.

While choosing your order, refrain from talking about health or allergies. If you know the menu in advance, let the host know ahead of time if you cannot eat certain foods. This allows your host to make the proper arrangements. Be pleasant about your request, and apologize for any inconvenience.

In a restaurant where you are ordering from the menu, you can ask the server how the food is prepared, especially if you have allergies or dietary restrictions. It is acceptable, within reason, to make some requests (“Please omit the anchovies from the Greek salad, and put the dressing on the side.”) However, it is inappropriate to request that the dish will be re-defined. (Ex: “Could I have that baked instead of fried, with no breading, or sauce, just lemon juice.”) If you can’t eat the food with minor modifications, order something else. Keep in mind the business meal puts business first. You can always eat again later.

If food you cannot eat is served to you at a meal, simply leave it. Again, be pleasant, and don’t call attention to yourself or make this a topic of conversation.

When choosing your own meal, order foods that are easy to eat. Do not order anything that will distract you from the conversation or that puts you in an awkward position. Select foods that you can eat with your fork, knife, or spoon: meats without bone, simple salads, flat pasta, and soups. Avoid spaghetti or other string pasta, bony fish and fowl, deli sandwiches, roll-ups, and other hand-held items like pizza and hamburgers. Avoid mussels, clams, crab legs, and other shellfish.

Ordering Alcohol

It has become almost a norm not to drink alcoholic beverages at a business meeting. Whether you are a guest or a host, remember that drinking clouds decision-making abilities. Don’t feel pressured to order liquor just because others are ordering alcoholic beverages. Juice and iced tea are appropriate. Perrier with lime always works, and ordering it in a wine glass lessens the pressure, as it actually looks like a white wine spritzer.

If you are the host, and sense that it would be proper to accompany your guest, one glass of wine is the most you are supposed to drink at a luncheon meeting.

Eating Difficult Food

 The best way to eat difficult dishes is to not order them. However, sometimes one has no choice. At a pre-set menu meal, the food served can be confusing and cause diners to be self-conscious. Here are guidelines for eating some of the food that many people consider challenging. Being able to eat any food comfortably during a business meal allows one to focus on the conversation at hand, enjoy the dining experience, and project a positive image.

Hors d’oeuvres

Hors d’oeuvres, canapés, crudités, and almost everything that is served at a business cocktail party or during a pre-meal cocktail hour are intended to be eaten with the fingers. Some of these foods may be served at casual business meals, although not often at regular or formal ones. When they do, it is still permissible to use the fingers to eat them. This includes olives, pickles, nuts, deviled eggs, and chips.

Artichokes

Artichokes are eaten with the fingers. Working from the outside in, dip the bottom of the leaf into the sauce and pull through your teeth to remove the edible portion. Place the remaining leaf either on the side of your plate or on a separate plate if it has been provided. Scrape away the thistle with a knife and fork and place it on the side of your plate. The heart is cut into pieces, dipped into the sauce, and eaten with a fork.

Asparagus

Asparagus, when served as a vegetable with the main course, should be eaten with a knife and fork. Some etiquette books say that you can eat whole asparagus spears without a sauce, by picking them up with your hand. However, if you do this at a business meal at a restaurant or business meeting, you will draw strange glances.  It is always proper etiquette to use the knife and fork to cut and eat the asparagus.

Bacon

The rule is simply that bacon with any fat on it should be eaten with a knife and fork. When bacon is cooked until it is very crisp, and there is no danger of getting the fingers wet with grease, it is okay to pick it up to eat it. Trying to cut a crisp piece of bacon usually results in crushing it into shards that are difficult to round up onto a fork.

Peas

A significant difference between the American and the Continental styles of using a knife and fork is the way each style indicates how to eat peas, one of the most difficult foods to eat. In the American style of eating, hold your fork tines up in your right hand to scoop up a small amount of peas and bring them to your mouth. In the Continental style, hold the tines of your fork down to spear a few peas at a time and eat them.

Peas can also be crushed onto the fork – a fork with the prongs pointing down. The best way is to have loaded the fork with something to which they will stick, such as potato or a soft vegetable that squashes easily onto the fork. In Europe, and now in North America, it is permitted to use the knife or a small bit of bread to ease the stubborn item onto the fork. Do not use your spoon, and do not use fingers to push peas into fork.

Dining Etiquette: Ordering Food
Dining Etiquette: Eating Difficult Food

Shellfish

To eat clams and oysters on the half shell, secure the shell against the plate with one hand. Using an oyster fork or a small seafood fork, remove the oyster or clam from the shell. Dip it in the sauce and eat it in one mouthful. When you are finished, return the shells to their original position. Do not stack shells on top of one another. Mussels served on toothpicks may be eaten directly from the toothpick.

Crab, shrimp and lobster cocktails are eaten with a cocktail fork. To eat crab/lobster claws, crack crab/lobster claws with a nutcracker, break with the fingers and take the meat out with an oyster fork. To eat fried fantail shrimp, cut the tail with the knife, and eat it with a fork. Even though some books say that it is appropriate to pick up fried fantail shrimp with your fingers, if you do this at a business meal at a restaurant or business meeting, you will draw strange glances.

Meats

All meats are eaten with a knife and fork, not fingers. Scrape the meat from the bone and then cut into bite-size pieces and eat. Cut one or two pieces, and eat one at a time. At a business meal, most food should be eaten with utensils. Only at a casual barbeque or picnic is it appropriate to eat food (like chicken or ribs) with fingers.

Shish-kabob may be tricky to eat. Hold the tip of the shish-kabob in one hand and use the dinner fork to remove the pieces with the other. When all the food has been removed from the stick, place it on the side of your plate. Always eat the meat with your utensils.

French Fries

French fries are eaten with a fork, not with fingers. When in doubt, eat all food at a business meal with utensils rather than with your fingers, even foods like French fries, olives, and shrimp (sometimes served during the cocktail hour.) If something is served on a plate, you should use utensils!

Olives

When olives are part of a salad, they are treated like the rest of the salad and taken in by fork and the pit deposited on the fork to return. However, generally, olives are considered a finger food. When served with other finger foods, it is perfectly acceptable to pick up and eat an olive with your fingers. Remove pit with your fingers. If you prefer not to use the finger method, use a small fork to stab olive and remove pit with the fork. Depending on the dining situation, you can either choose to eat olives or leave them on the plate. At a business meal, it is preferable not to eat them.

Pasta

Flat pasta is always cut with a fork, not with a knife, and eaten with a fork. There is some controversy about how to eat spaghetti. Many etiquette experts, and Italians, are of the opinion that a spoon should not be used. Three chefs of well-known Italian restaurants felt that “spoons are for children, amateurs and people with bad table manners in general.” (Claiborne: The New York Times, 1982). Emily Post says that a spoon may be used. However, as business becomes more international, you don’t want to risk exhibiting what may be considered poor manners. Using a fork to eat string pasta is always appropriate. Here is an easy way to master it: Spear just a few strands as you hold your fork at a slight angle to the plate; gently turn to wind the pasta onto the fork and then bring the fork with the pasta to your mouth. Slurping pasta is never proper!

Unless you master eating string pasta with a fork only, do not order spaghetti or any other string pasta at a business meal. Any food that will be a distraction in managing or eating it should be avoided in a business meal setting.

Sandwiches – Hamburgers – Pizza

At a business meal, sandwiches, hamburgers, and pizza should be eaten with a knife and fork. If the sandwich or hamburger is too large, it is appropriate to cut it in fourths and then cut small bite-size pieces from each quarter to make it easy to eat. Pizza should also cut with a knife, one bite-size at a time, and eaten with a fork. These are also foods you want to avoid at a business meal. Any food that will be a distraction in managing or eating it should be avoided in a business meal setting.