Eating on our own is a simple task we’ve all done three times a day since we were 2, so you’re probably thinking you’ve got the business dining thing down. If you’ve been in the business world for years and attended luncheons or dinner events, chances are you do. If, on the other hand, you haven’t had much exposure to these situations yet, there may still be a thing or two for you to learn.

Let me start by saying that what inspired me to write this blog was my experience at a recent business event, where I watched an otherwise very bright and motivated student make some rookie mistakes at a formal dinner, including cutting their food into giant pieces that didn’t fit in their mouth and scooping rice onto their fork with their fingers (eek!). At first I thought, “Where did they learn to eat? Were they raised by wolves and didn’t see their first human until last week?” Then I realized none of us are born knowing business dining etiquette rules and, if no one goes out of their way to teach us, it sort of makes sense that this would happen. So I think it’s only fair to share some of the basics with all CBA students, so you don’t make the same mistakes.

Before the meal begins…

  • Arrive on time to the restaurant/venue. Give yourself enough time to figure out the parking situation and still make it on time. You might even want to call the restaurant/venue in advance to ask about where you can park.
  • Store your purse or bag under the table, not on top of the table. Ladies – your cell can go in your bag under the table (trust me, you’ll survive without it for a couple of hours). Gentlemen – you can keep your phone in your pant or jacket pocket. Remember to silence it first.
  • After everyone is seated, fold your napkin in half and place it on your lap.
  • If you’re at an event where you can order your meal, be smart about what you order. Some foods are messy and/or complicated to eat (ribs, spaghetti, etc.) – spare yourself some embarrassment and order something that’s easy to cut and eat. Along these same lines, don’t order the most expensive item on the menu. You can listen to what your host or boss order as a guide.
  • Wait for the rest of your party to get their food before you start eating.
  • Here’s a place setting cheat sheet. A few things to note:
    • There are many variations, but these are just a few examples of what you’ll find.
    • Work from the outside utensils (soup and salad) toward the inside utensils (dinner fork and knife).
    • Dessert utensils will be above your plate.
Fig 1
Fig 2
Fig 3

During the meal…

  • “Please” and “thank you” are still the magic words. Use them when you ask for someone to pass you something, when speaking with your server, and throughout the meal when appropriate.
  • If you’re eating bread, use your bread knife to move some of the butter onto your bread plate. Break a bite-sized piece of bread, then butter the bread a piece at a time.
  • If your soup is hot, you can stir it to help cool faster, instead of blowing on it.
  • How to hold your fork and knife:


Fig 4

Your food is already dead, no need to stab it.

Fig 5

Much better!

Fig 6

This is what it should look like with your palms facing up…

Fig 7
  • The American style of dining is cutting your food with the fork in your left hand and knife in your right hand. Once the food is cut, you switch the fork to your right hand to pick up the food and eat.
  • Cut your food into bite-sized pieces
  • Chew with your mouth closed to avoid making noise, and don’t try to talk while chewing.
  • Remain engaged in the company of your dinner companions and resist the temptation to be on your phone. The reason your cell phone shouldn’t be on the table is so incoming calls/texts/notifications don’t distract you and you’re not tempted to answer during the meal. If you’re expecting a really urgent call (you have a sick relative, wife might go into labor any minute, etc), let your dining partners know when you arrive – they’ll understand.
  • If you’re going to drink, be conservative and keep it to one drink. We’ve all heard a horror story or two about someone who drinks way too much at a business meal and makes a career-ending move.
  • If you need to leave the table, for some reason, say “excuse me” and put your napkin down on the seat.

After the meal…

  • When you are finished with your meal, place your utensils on your plate, and place your napkin on the table.
  • The host is in charge of paying for the meal, including the tip.
  • Remember to thank the host for the meal before you leave.

Whether you’re out with a recruiter, client, or work department, knowing what to do before, during and after a business meal can help set you up for career success (and help you avoid some embarrassment, too ☺). Happy Dining!

Sara Garcia – Finance Career Coach