If your family has been invited to another's home for Thanksgiving, a small gift of appreciation is in order. Allow your child to present the host with a box of chocolates, a plate of brownies, or even some fresh cut flowers. (And don't expect them to serve your gift for dessert -- you brought it for their pleasure, not your own.)
If your family is hosting the feast, prepare your children. Make sure they're well-groomed -- clean clothes, combed hair, washed face and hands before your guests arrive. Encourage them to greet each guest -- adults and children -- with a smile and a hello. They should also tolerate questions and answer them as politely as possible. Practice with them a few times prior to company arriving.
Sit up straight. Not only is it the proper thing to do, but it's also better for digestion. Keep your elbows off the table. If your hands aren't busy with Thanksgiving food and cutlery, place them in your lap. If you're visiting with a young child, bring a portable high chair or booster seat.
Every meal is improved with lively conversation. The key is to involve as many guests as possible in each discussion. Children may have little to add to talk of current events, so try to occasionally direct the conversation toward subjects on which the children at the table can comment. Do not, however, allow your children to take over. Adult guests will weary quickly of conversations dominated by one or more of the younger guests.
Whether paper or linen, napkins serve a specific purpose. You quietly unfold the napkin (don't "snap" it open) and place it on your lap. It remains on your lap until you need to dab (not wipe) your mouth. Note to moms: refrain from licking or spitting on the napkin to remove a stubborn stain from your baby's face. Bring with you a small package of wipes, if your child is very young and/or messy. If you have to leave the table during the meal, place the napkin on your chair -- not on the table. When the meal has ended, place the unfolded napkin on the table to the left of your plate.
Most Thanksgiving fare is not finger food, so you'll be using cutlery. According to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette, by Mary Mitchell, eating utensils come with rules. For example, if you're one of those people who talks with your hands, be sure to set down your knife before diving into conversations -- don't brandish it at the other dinner guests to make a point. And once you pick up a piece of cutlery, it should never again touch the table. Forks and knives should rest on your plate throughout the meal so they don't soil the tablecloth.
Most Thanksgiving dinners are served family-style, which means each food is passed around the table so you can help yourself. Adults: family-style does not mean "all you can eat." Take a reasonable portion of each food and be sure there is plenty for others. You can always go back for seconds. And parents: don't overload your children's plates. Give them the foods they're likely to eat and in kid-sized portions. Don't pack it on in the hopes that you can finish what they didn't. It's proper to eat only from your own dish.
No matter how good the food looks or smells, do not take that first bite until everyone -- including your host -- is seated at the table and all of the foods have been passed around.
Chew with your mouth closed. Do not talk with food in your mouth. Don't gulp your food -- take normal-sized bites and chew them thoroughly. Not only is this more appealing to your fellow diners, it also helps ensure that most of you will start and finish each course around the same time. You don't want to be waiting for pumpkin pie while everyone else is on their first serving of turkey.
By no means does etiquette mean formal or boring! Relish the aromas and tastes of the foods. Be grateful for the companionship and conversation of those surrounding the table with you this Thanksgiving. Every guest can practice good etiquette without feeling stiff and unnatural. If table manners are not something you typically stressed in the past, your family may feel a bit tense. Just relax, play off fellow guests, and enjoy the feast.
If food becomes trapped between your teeth, leave it there until the meal has ended. Don't pull a toothpick out of your purse and use it at the table. And for heaven's sake, don't pick food out of your teeth with your fingernail and re-eat it! If you feel compelled to remove that little morsel before the meal is over, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom, where you can pick in privacy. Note: Use the same rule of thumb if you have to blow your nose, scratch, or pass gas. If you happen to burp at the table (please, don't force it just to make room for more food), say "Excuse me" to no one in particular and pretend like nothing happened. In our society, burping is not considered a compliment to the chef.
While most hosts won't want young children carrying dirty plates from the table to the sink, it's still nice to encourage your children to offer. Since you're not going to excuse them until the meal has concluded, you can prompt them to ask, "Would you like me to help you clear the table?" Adults should always offer -- but not insist -- to help. Sometimes the host finds it less chaotic to handle the cleanup on her own.
Hopefully, your family already practices good table etiquette. If not, there's still time to learn. If everyone made even just one small improvement in the way they come to the dinner table, every meal would be more pleasant. Let this Thanksgiving be a new start for your family.
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