Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Observing the Niceties, Part I

I know that none of the moms who read this blog are ever guilty of this sort of behavior but I thought I would ask just in case you know someone who is.
Ever tossed a bunch of paper plates and forks in the middle of the table and let everyone grab for themselves?
Have you planned a meal around the fact that you don’t want to do dishes?
Has your six year old ever had a drink from an actual glass?
I know it sounds funny and these are fairly extreme examples but the truth is that when you have a large family or a bunch of very small children or children involved in sports, the practice of dining at home becomes closer to a scene in a fast food restaurant than a homey evening in the bosom of your family. As devout Catholics who are concerned with the observance of our faith and the preserving of close ties among our children meals together in pleasant surroundings should be our goal most nights.
Dining is a very important part of the family experience and it should be our aspiration as moms and homemakers to, every evening it’s possible, to set a beautiful table and make our food as appealing as possible. We also should be teaching our children the importance of beauty and order at the dinner table.
Before I continue I want to stress that I don’t pull this off nearly as often as I would like. My husband and I often marvel at our children’s capacity to act like a bunch of Klingons at the dinner table and there is the presence of plastic sippy cups more often that I would like to admit. It is also a rare occurrence to have dad home for dinner during the week. He often works past the time I am willing to be in the kitchen. However it is nearly always possible on the weekends and even if dad is not home it’s a habit worth developing; setting a nice table, taking time to eat slowly and enjoy what has been prepared; observing good manners and enforcing them at your table. Toward that end here are some basics that might help you get started.
Table Linens
It is appropriate at dinner time to cover the table in a white, cream or pastel colored table cloth. When you have small children place mats might be more practical but make sure they are made of cloth and are of a color that will not compete with your food or décor. Choose napkins that are harmonious in color to the scheme and are easily washable. The napkin, folded in a square or rectangle, with the open corner at the lower right, is placed on the plate. If the first course is already plated then the napkin goes just to the left of the fork with the open ends lined up to the fork.
Placing of Silver
Knives are at the right of the plate with the sharp edge facing the plate.
Butter knife is placed at the top and lying across the bread and butter plate.
Beverage and soup spoons are at the right of the knife.
Forks are to the left of the plate. Salad forks are to the left of the dinner fork when salad is the first course. If salad accompanies dinner to the table then the dinner fork is used for both.
Placing of China and Glassware
Water glass or goblet is placed directly above the point of the knife.
Cups and saucers are placed at the right of the spoons with handles facing to the right.
A salad plate is placed to the left of the forks.
Dinner plates are in the center of the setting one inch from the edge of the table. When soup or salad is the first course the bowl or plate should be placed upon the dinner plate.

For an informal family dinner it is pleasant to have a centerpiece if you have the room and are so inclined, just keep it simple. A few flowers from your garden or something the children have made. Autumnal centerpieces can be very easy to put together quickly. A bowl of autumn leaves or found acorns and pinecones would be very pretty. If you use candles do make sure they are of the unscented variety so as not to interfere with the aroma and enjoyment of your meal.
Although most families have moved away from the tradition of plating a first course, if you have time it is a nice way to begin a meal. Have the salad in bowls and on the plates before calling the family in to eat. To have a change of pace you could substitute soup in small cups or mugs or even a glass of cold vegetable juice garnished with celery. A cold fruit plate is also a nice change. It will, at the very least, spark some conversation.
When ready for the main course the first course is quickly and quietly cleared and the main dish is put before the head of the household (Dad if he is home) and he serves the meal to the left. Family members pass their plates to Dad and he dishes things up.
The alternate family style is to place all of the food on the table, in serving dishes or platters, and allow each person their turn. In a large family this can turn into a free-for-all so make sure that everyone knows to always pass to the left.
It is correct to serve and remove all dishes from the left and all beverages at the right.
The most important thing to remember is to make meals a special time in your home, a time which your children will remember fondly and try to re-create in their own homes someday. Try to come to the table as a relaxed, happy mother and the whole atmosphere of the meal will follow.
Next time we’ll tackle table manners.
Have a blessed day.
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  1. Have your kids set the table for you. That's a pretty basic chore, and I'm pretty sure I was doing it at least at kindergarten age. If the kids are too short to reach into the drawer or dishwasher, you can always put the needed components on the table and let the kids set stuff out. Tiny kids can put out the napkins, and maybe even fold them for you. :)

  2. I have actually moved the silverware drawer to a lower place so that the kids can reach. everyone, from age 3 up, can set the table now!

  3. Coming from an Italian family, dinners are so important. First course...second course...and taking our time with it all.

    Also, when we were growing up we NEVER had paper products, and even now I may pull out the paper plates only on picnics.

    Great post...I especially look forward to the next one on manners.

  4. Enjoyed your post, Maryellen. I was quite relieved that I'm not a major offender in all areas!

  5. Ha - liked the plastic fork and spoon reference. And the graphic of how to set a table. You've given me an idea!

  6. Augh, I have only been blessed with 3 children and yet I definitely fall under the "throw the paper plates on the table and everyone fends for themselves" type mom :-( or worse dinner together in front of the........TV :-( Thank you very much for the motivation to produce at least a Sunday dinner that everyone can look forward to.