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Entertaining

Asking for a Friend: Is It OK to Start Eating Before Everyone Is Served?

Miss Conduct weighs in on overeager eaters
Dinner Party Etiquette Guide
Photo: Tasting Table

Hello again, my ill-behaved brethren! Miss Conduct here, back again to put an end to all your p's & q's-related conundrums.

Today's burning question comes from a devoted reader struggling with a very common dinner table issue.

Dear Miss Conduct,

Is it impolite for someone to start eating before the entire party has been seated and served? As someone who loves to entertain in my home, it's especially concerning to me when a guest begins to dig in before I've even made myself a plate.

Sincerely,
An Offended Hostess

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First of all, let me say that this a fantastic question. Growing up, we had a strict no-eating-before-saying-grace rule, and it used to annoy me to no end to see my older brother sneaking forkfuls of lasagna before we joined hands. And though I rarely take the time to bless my dinner these days, I still find myself mildly agitated when I spot a fellow diner biting into a bread roll before everyone has been served.

Before we delve into this unsightly faux pas, let's discuss how this custom  became such a crucial part of our dining culture. For a little background on the subject, let us open The Book of Household Management, published in 1861 by one of history's most acclaimed etiquette experts, the inimitable Mrs. Isabella Beeton.

"The lady begins to help the soup, which is handed round, commencing with the gentleman on her right and on her left, and continuing in the same order till all are served," she writes. "It is generally established as a rule not to ask for soup or fish twice, as, in so doing, part of the company may be kept waiting too long for the second course, when perhaps a little revenge is taken by looking at the awkward consumer of a second portion."

So, it turns out this nicety stems from formal Victorian era seven-course meals, wherein each dish was presented according to a universal itinerary: entrée (usually oysters), soup, fish, main course (i.e. meat), salad, dessert and finally, coffee. If guests began to eat before everyone had their plate, it would automatically throw off the meal's meticulous order, causing some diners to wait too long for their next dish while not giving others enough time to finish. In other words, chaos.

And although 21st century Americans don't often have occasion for a lavish multi-course supper, it's still considered customary—and, let's face it, just plain decent—to wait until everyone, especially the host, is seated and served before taking your first nibble.

Yet, as with any general rule of thumb, nothing is hard and fast. Be mindful of these two notable exceptions.

Buffets: It doesn't matter if you're at a fancy Mother's Day brunch or a downhome country BBQ, if you find yourself in a situation where diners are bringing their plates up to a self-service area, it's acceptable to eat at your own pace. Feel free to go nuts.

Big Gatherings: Weddings, large business luncheons and other such communal events are usually seated affairs with a catering team responsible for delivering a set menu, either individual or family-style, to each table. That kind of service takes a considerable amount of time and coordination, so unless you want to choke down some cold filet, you should probably start eating as soon as your table or seating area has been served. And if members of your table are still kicking it on the dance floor or are otherwise indisposed, no need to wait for their return. Just make sure not to chew too loudly during speech time.

I hope all you eager beavers out there—especially those daring to dine with our esteemed questioner—heed my battle cry. Food is love, my friends, and you know what they say: You can't hurry love.

Got a pressing question about food and drink etiquette? Drop us a note here.

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