The Etiquette of Eating Appetizers


the etiquette of eating appetizers


By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor

Today’s question comes from a blog reader in my home state of Florida. It has to do with the etiquette of eating appetizers. After reading it, see whether you relate!

Dear Maralee,

I’ve been meaning to write you an email to thank you for your blog. I enjoy it greatly and have shared it with my friends and coworkers. You make etiquette relevant. I learn a lot and use what I learn. Most blogs are for inspiration. Yours is for the real world….Here’s my question: do you have any suggestions for eating appetizers? I was at a reception recently and it was hard to hold my drink and plate in one hand and eat. I needed my other hand free to shake hands with clients. I was starving, so I ate, but the food was messy. I was embarrassed because sauce from something got on my suit jacket. I’d like to be prepared for next time, so any advice you offer would be much appreciated.

Thank you,


Port St. Lucie, FL


Appetizers have come into their own. It wasn’t that long ago that the average party featured something along the lines of nuts poured from the can into a bowl, or a platter of crackers with cheese. For these simple foods, there was no need to know the etiquette of eating appetizers.

While I was growing up, my Mom’s go-to appetizer for our parties and holiday gatherings was two cheese cubes and an olive skewered on a toothpick.

I remember standing on a chair by her side helping to assemble them by following the three-step process she made up for me: orange, white, green:

1. Slide on the orange cheddar cheese cube. 2. Slide on a cube of the more “exotic” white provolone cheese. 3. Top with a green olive. By the time the platter was piled high, I was pretty proud of my five-year-old self!

Fast forward….and today, appetizers are given as much thought as the entree. There are probably a million recipes, some of them worthy of Michelin-rated restaurants.

With all that creative thought, they’ve gotten harder to eat in the sense that they’re often filled with ingredients that want to dribble out, or drizzled with sauces that inevitably leave a souvenir stain on our clothing. Many of them still make use of a toothpick, leaving us with the age-old question of how to dispose of the pesky little hand pokers when a trashcan is nowhere in sight.

The etiquette of eating today’s array of appetizers follows below. You’ll find the top seven savvy tips.  One of them is how to dispose of toothpicks so they’re not wrapped up in your paper napkin all evening poking your one hand as you try to juggle eating, drinking, and shaking hands all with the other hand!

The Etiquette of Eating Appetizers —The Top 7 Tips

1. Appetizer is a broad word used for three different types of food:

Appetizers eaten with the fingers are canapés.
Appetizers eaten with a knife and fork are hors d’oeuvres.
Appetizers (usually fruits or vegetables) dipped in a sauce of any kind are crudités.

how to eat appetizers


2. Knowing how to dispose of the toothpicks used in many canapés and crudités baffles lots of us. I’ve watched men put them in their pockets (and in potted plants!), women slide them into their purses, and men and women both toss them on the tray next to ready-to-be-served appetizers. Here’s what we can do instead.

First, if you’re the hostess, consider serving food that is toothpick-free (toothpicks really are a nuisance). If your favorite party food requires toothpicks, make sure to place several receptacles (baskets or trays) around the room. A good idea is to place a couple of toothpicks in each receptacle before guests arrive so there’s no question about their intended purpose.

For guests at casual parties in homes, if there are no receptacles, wrap the toothpicks in your paper napkin and dispose of them in the nearest trash can. If you don’t see a trashcan, it’s fine to ask the host or hostess, “Where may I throw these away?” It will alert her to the fact that there’s no place to put them, and she’ll fix the situation (we hope).

If the hostess is talking with others, or for any other reason it doesn’t seem like the right moment to ask, you can always throw them away in the kitchen, if it’s not off limits. If it is for some reason, then use the wastebasket in the bathroom.

If it’s an event where waiters are serving the appetizers, just ask the next one who passes you, “Where would you like me to dispose of these?” He or she will probably take them for you and then get a few receptacles for everyone’s use.

3. Whether appetizers are being passed on trays or you’re helping yourself from a buffet, if you’re taking only one or two at a time, a napkin will fill in nicely for a plate. With three or more items, a plate is necessary. So if they’re on the buffet table, you’ll want to use one.

4. Two great things should be kept in mind while at the buffet table. After helping yourself, step back at least four steps to avoid eating over the table or blocking others. Also, pleasantries are fine by the buffet table, but engaging in a full conversation tends to block the flow. And it can cause others the uncomfortable feeling of intruding on your conversation when they come to the table.

5. Transfer all foods including dips first to your plate and then to your mouth. Even though a one-bite food means you’ll never be guilty of double-dipping, it’s considered good manners for anything you’re eating to touch your plate prior to it reaching your lips!


the etiquette of eating messy appetizers


6. Before popping gooey appetizers of any kind in your mouth, hold the foods slightly above your plate and silently count to three. That brief delay will help any drippage end up on your plate and not your tie, shirt, or blouse.

Another savvy tip: raise your napkin or plate to about ten or twelve inches from your mouth. Why? This way, if the food decides to fall apart on its way to your mouth (Murphy’s Law!), it won’t have much time to do it during the “short” trip. The odds are in your favor that it will make it into your mouth in one delicious piece.

Grace Note: How to Balance Everything In Your Hands While Standing: In Jordan’s letter she mentioned that everything was hard to balance, and she’s right. Holding a glass, a plate and/or napkin in one hand and eating or shaking someone’s hand with the other is a balancing act worthy of the circus. Here’s a tip for how to balance everything. If your napkin is empty, hold it under your glass, and place your plate on top of the glass. If your napkin has appetizers on it (this would mean that you don’t have a plate), place your napkin on top of the glass. Even beverage napkins are larger than the mouth of the glass. Your napkin should be able to lay across the top of the glass. Use two napkins stacked together for extra strength so that an appetizer doesn’t tear through the napkin and end up using your glass as a swimming pool. 😉

7. At a formal event where the tables are set for dinner, appetizers are meant to be enjoyed away from the table. Even if your feet hurt, try your best to stand during the appetizer/cocktail hour, or sit in chairs other than those at the dining table(s). All the guests deserve to arrive at a perfectly clean table when they sit down for dinner.

What’s Next?

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Also, please join us next week for Q&A Thursday! If you have a question you’d like me to answer concerning business, social, or family etiquette, you can email me directly at

Until next time, keep doing what only you can do! Bless the world by being you at your authentic best!

Hugs and blessings,


the etiquette of eating appetizers

Maralee McKee

About Maralee McKee

Maralee McKee is the founder of Manners Mentor. With her best-friend style, sense of humor, and knack for updating etiquette to meet our modern sensibilities, she has been referred to as "Sandra Bullock meets Emily Post!" Maralee shows you how to become the best version of yourself. No fluff. No pretense. Just you at your authentic best! The person you were always meant to be! To learn more about Maralee click on the "Meet Maralee" or "New? Start Here" links at the top of this page.

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