Zig-Zag Eating: Yes or No?

What is so interesting to me about teaching table manners is how consistent the questions are. For instance: Where do you put the napkin when leaving the table? Which bread plate is mine? When do you start eating? How much should you tip?

Perhaps the question I get asked most often is about the appropriate way to cut food and get it to your mouth. When people ask this question what they are really referring to is the difference between the continental style and the American style of cutting food and eating it .

The Continental style. Grasp the knife in your dominant hand and the fork in your other. Hold the fork with the tines facing down so you can easily spear and hold down the food you want to cut. Then, use the knife to cut off a bite-size piece. While continuing to hold the fork with the tines facing down, insert the tines into the piece of food you’ve just cut and raise it to your mouth. Then repeat the process. The fork never leaves your hand.

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The American style. Emily Post referred to this style as “zig-zag eating.” Cut a piece of food in the same way as in the continental style, with the knife in your dominant hand and the fork, with the tines down, in your other hand. The difference comes after you have finished cutting the bite-size piece. The knife is placed on the side of the plate with the blade facing toward you. The fork, with the tines facing up, is then transferred to your dominant hand. The bite-size piece can then either be speared or scooped onto the tines and then lifted to your mouth. The fork is then transferred back to the non-dominant hand and the process is repeated.

Which way is the “correct” way to cut and eat food? The answer: either way. The choice is up to the each person and depends mostly on comfort. Some people are comfortable raising the fork to their mouth using their non-dominant hand, the one that was used to hold down the food being cut. Other people really are not comfortable trying to balance food and raise it to their mouth with their non-dominant (make that less coordinated) hand. For them it is better to transfer the fork to their dominant hand and avoid any unsightly misses of dropping food on the plate or into a lap.

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The most important rule for eating is to do it in a way that is comfortable for you, that draws the least amount attention to the process of eating, and that lets your dining companions focus on you and the conversation.

If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to etiquetteatwork@emilypost.com.

Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is now available at bookstores or at http://www.emilypost.com.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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