What exactly constitutes modern table etiquette? What do we need to teach our children so that meal times can be a pleasurable experience for everyone? Some modern research points to health benefits arising from eating with others.
Although I was taught table manners in the sense of how to hold my knife and fork and to chew with my mouth closed, my family didn’t really engender the spirit of harmony at meal times. It wasn’t until I lived in France and Spain that I really came to understand what sharing a meal could really mean.
It’s clear that eating together is a ritual on the continent, a daily practice that is still observed in families across Europe and most of the world. The simple acting of sharing food is a celebration of being alive, an enjoyable moment of human connection, often punctuated by explicit expressions of gratitude. The opportunity to come together with friends and family to partake in delicious food and lively conversation is commonly seen as a reason for being alive, celebrated daily. The thought of descending into a life of separate TV dinners at random times is for the majority, absolutely unthinkable.
When foreign visitors come to the UK and stay with British families, they are often shocked if not appalled by how rarely a family will sit down for a meal together, if ever. They come to see this as the breakdown of one of the most valued aspects of society and being human. It’s true that a significant number of British households will only make the effort to dine together for special occasions… and even then, it’s not unheard of that people will order a takeaway rather than share in the process of putting a homemade meal together.
So what are the advantages of learning to eat with others?
There are all sorts of benefits when we learn how to share a meal. Starting with the basics… there are all sorts of practical lessons we can learn from modern table etiquette:
Learning to eat what’s on our plate brings us the greatest diversity of nutrients which aids health, both physical and mental. Eating the food with which we are presented is an act of gratitude that rewards the chef with the honour of our acceptance. Refusing food was unthinkable in the past and is a symbol of the overabundance of snacks commonly on offer. Sitting down at the table with a level of hunger is essential.
Buying us acceptance and teaching physical dexterity, knowing the commonly accepted techniques for holding knives, forks and spoons provides a kind of passport that is invisibly stamped when visiting the tables of people we don’t know.
A closed and quite mouth
Learning to eat quietly can also teach us how to breathe through our nose, how to eat calmly and with a sense of self-awareness, mindfully being present. There’s very few people who wouldn’t agree that watching someone else’s food rolling around their mouth can be really off-putting.
Sitting still at the table
Digestion is enhanced by a sense of calm relaxation so it helps everyone and shows respect and self-control when we can sit still and hold an even presence. Who wants the distraction of someone hyperactively fidgeting when trying to enjoy a meal? At the moment, our two-year-old daughter is learning about this… when she’s finished her last mouthful, she wants to get down. We distract her by engaging with the next point.
Joining in conversation
A skill which is increasingly rare these days is the ability to converse: to talk about our days, to share ideas and explore our current thoughts and inward processes. Sharing a meal time is the perfect way to make connection with the people in our lives and to benefit from the harmony that can arise from living together. We’re teaching our two-year-old to enjoy talking at the table by going through a daily review… revising everything she did from start to finish. Sometimes we’ll talk about what’s going to happen or ask her questions about her life generally.
Modern table etiquette
A happy lifetime of enjoyable eating with others is afforded once we’ve learned these simple approaches to a wonderful occasion. There is no more simple pleasure than the act of eating tasty food, and sharing that pleasure with others is the oldest tradition humans have ever known.