Eating with a Fork and Knife

May 17, 2018




On the European continent, everyone eats with a fork and knife - always. The fork is held in the left hand, tines down, and the knife in the right hand with the pointer finger on top of the blade. It's continental style and everyone does it. I mean everyone - even little kids by the time they're four or five!

It's remarkable how quickly you adopt things like the way you hold your knife and fork. In 2006 I moved to Neuch√Ętel, and after going back to the US for Christmas break, I happened to eat my lunch without a knife one day. My Swiss co-workers were visibly bothered to see me eat with just a fork. And when I turned my fork sideways and rocked it through my food to cut it, they let out audible gasps. I'm not kidding! "Would you like a knife?" one of them finally asked, strained and slightly disgusted, and of course I accepted, never to eat with only a fork again.

By the time we had been in Zurich for four years, my strictly continental eating drove my mom crazy. In her view, the American style was actually better because it was pre-Mayflower and therefore more polite. The original proper. But the fact is, proper American table manners are so lacking in smoothness and fluidity, that they're easier to skip all together and that is where the fork rocking comes in. Ugh.

So I decided that my children were going to have proper continental table manners like myself and J. To that end I made sure that they had proper children's flatware and that we ate dinner at the table together every night. But, lately it occurred to me that Coco is already 6, and she still hasn't mastered continental eating. Or even really gotten to it at all! I've been working with her on simple things, like eggs and pancakes, but to her it's very, what's the word? Foreign.

When it comes to eating and food, I've been disappointed to find that American culture does not line up with anything I set out to accomplish or establish as a mother. As a young mama in Zurich, I read Bringing Up Bebe and French Kids Eat Everything. I developed a stance wholly against snacking in favor of having hungry children at mealtimes. And I envisioned my children eating continental style, with a knife in their right hand and a fork in their left. But in the States, children are given snacks constantly, almost more as a form of entertainment than a source of nourishment. And Coco actually came home raving about the sporks they have at hot lunch at school!

I saw a remark online recently that it's easier to change (move) countries than it is to change the culture you're living in and it made me pause. It seemed really dramatic and I didn't want to believe it. But after some experience and giving it some more thought, I have come to believe it's completely true. You can decide to do things your own way, but if the wider culture doesn't support it, it's hard to make it stick. So, along with shoes off inside, I think I may have to take a more relaxed stance on the eating with a fork and knife during our American sojourn.

Have you lived abroad or in a different cultural region and brought back different customs? How has that played out back home?

(Photo via Tumblr/Mats Gustafson)

Join the conversation!

  1. I also adopted it right away. I think it's much better and also it's considered sooo rude to just eat with a fork here

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  2. This is probably one of my biggest sources of discontent with American kid culture! The snacks, the table manners, the kid-specific foods, all of it. Snacking is just everywhere. And if you opt out of it, you're essentially opting your kid out of a whole social culture. My stepsons are 8 and 12, and most of the parents of their friends in those elementary/early-middle school age groups keep bags of snacks in the car trunk so that they are never ever without a snack. I don't mean like emergency food (I have a few Clif bars in my emergency trunk bag, myself) but crackers, chips, the ubiquitous goldfish, all in huge Costco sizes. It seems so strange to me, but not a single sports practice goes by without the parents and siblings unpacking bags of snacks from the trunk and snacking on them from the sidelines. They offer some to your kid - are you really going to be the person who makes your kid sit there just watching other people enjoying treats? But I can't stop wondering - what about dinner? We eat lunch after the Saturday morning baseball games, dinner after the evening practices, etc etc etc - why would you snack right before a meal? Especially, ahem, with a preschooler whose appetite is still best measured in tablespoons? Then, of course, the practice or game ends with a snack for all the players. It is strange to me. I don't remember that from when I was a kid.

    When my older kid was young enough that most time was still spent just with me/my mom, it was pretty easy. He ate what we ate, at three meals and one snack a day. Now, he gets a snack in school (which is fine) but then all the other kids have a snack right after school AND usually one in the waiting area just before school begins. I feel like it's reasonable at age 3-4 to go be able to last longer than 90 minutes without eating something, plus I'd rather he arrive home from school hungry for lunch (versus receiving a snack in the waiting room to eat on the drive home), but I also don't want to create a feeling of "deprivation" around snacks, for my son - creating something he wants because he sees everyone else having it, and developing emotional associations etc. It's such a hard line to walk.

    I think our food culture is one of the worst things about America. It really stresses me out. I don't even know what to do once they are in elementary school. In my step-sons' school, they have such a short time to eat lunch that it seems absurd to me. But they also have a designated "morning snack time" even into middle school. I don't remember having a snack time even in later elementary school. On the one hand, if there isn't time to eat an actual full lunch, then a snack break is needed. On the other, I'd really prefer if there was a civilized lunch period and then just save the snack for after school.

    It's so hard to go against any aspect of culture, especially in parenting. It really is a drag.

    I hardly even bother trying, when it comes to table manners, haha. If my kid is actually hungry at a meal time and I have a reasonable, rounded meal that he's psyched to eat, I honestly cannot make myself intervene if he is plucking pieces of brussels sprouts off the plate with his fingers. I don't want to fix something that is only marginally broken, haha!

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    1. OMG, yes to all of this. And GOLDFISH. Sigh. I have to admit that I adore the Parmesan Goldfish and I buy them nearly every time I go to Target. GUILTY! Snacking is so overdone. And people wonder why we have an obesity problem! ;)

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