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Dining with Americans and Canadians
Hints for International Students, Immigrants, and Visitors


All travellers and new residents of Canada and the United States, except for a dysfunctional few, want to avoid attracting negative attention, and "improper" dining is one of the easiest ways to disgust people in both countries.

Of course, "correct" eating habits vary from country to country. The norms in Canada and the U.S. are similar to other European related countries, but there are differences.

These how to dine guidelines listed below will be useful for both people new to North America and for many lifetime residents of Canada and the States.

As Dr. Voyageur's mum once noted—while glaring at Dr. Voyageur—many people need instruction in proper eating.


Keeping the month closed

"Eat with your mouth closed" is the mantra of most mothers in North America.

Not keeping the mouth closed while chewing is considered disgusting, and is considered a sign of no manners whatsoever, although you notice this done all too often.

Carrying on a conversation at the same time as eating can be awkward, but the secret is to chew small portions at a time. Thus, you can respond without a significant delay to the other person's conversation with no food in your mouth.

While the other person is talking and looking directly at you, you should not put food into your mouth. Instead, having full attention on the speaker is a sign of good manners.

If you already have food in your mouth when the other person starts speaking, you don't stop chewing, as you want to be ready to respond when appropriate.

In contrast to some other cultures, additional food should not be placed into the mouth while still chewing the previous bite.

Remember, "Eat (chew) with your mouth closed" is the rule.


Avoiding noise

Your consumption of food should not be noisy. Some international visitors and students really need to practise this in order to not attract negative attention. Noodles, soups, and drinks are not slurped into the mouth.

Any noise comes from talking, which should be no louder than the level of other conversation in the dining room.

When eating, you do not bend your head far down toward your plate or bowl, as is the case in some cultures. Soup bowls are not lifted to the mouth (except in some ethnic restaurants).

Taking smaller portions at a time will eliminate the need to bend down too far in order to keep food from falling off a fork or spoon.


Learning more refined table manners

Now, before you go on, please note that this is not an etiquette book whose purpose is to teach the complete intricacies of refined dining in very formal situations. In most cases, you will not need this.

Dr. Voyageur does not know all of the rituals of formal dining such as eating with Her Majesty. He, the urbane dude that he is, merely knows the basics of polite dining.

This page gives the basic fundamentals needed to help you feel at ease while dining in Canada and the USA.

For international visitors and students, just knowing the rules outlined above and some of the more basic information discussed below will suffice in most dining situations.

In fact, merely keeping your mouth closed most of the time while eating and not grabbing food from another's plate are nearly all anyone needs to know in many informal dining environments in the United States, such as fast food joints and some Silicon Valley company lunchrooms.

However, do you really want to risk offending people or having them judge you by easy-to-correct mannerisms?

Of course, Dr. Voyageur suspects that few will care about how you pass a salt shaker or how your eat your bread. However, you may find yourself dining in situations where people do care.

Interestingly, employment interviews in Canada and the U.S. often involve dining with your prospective boss, who will deliberately or unconsciously evaluate your every action.

Thus, eating "correctly" out of habit, without having to strain to avoid mistakes, may bring extra income and promotions someday.

Devouring massive amounts of food within a short period of time, for example, may tell someone, rightly or wrongly, that you have no self-control in other areas of life.


Eating according to location

There are many dining environments, ranging from the very informal picnic and the fast food restaurant, where much food is eaten with the fingers, to the most formal situations that are unlikely to be on the itinerary of most travellers.

Informal situations include the American and Canadian small town cafe, where people may speak back and forth among the various tables

In these, you will likely be included in the conversation.

"I haven't seen you here before. Are you enjoying the food here?" "Yes, I am, and everyone is so friendly here." "You sound French. My grandfather served in France during World War 2 . . .."

Try to get off the main roads to seek out these examples of Canada and the U.S at their most welcoming, as these will be among your most enjoyable travel experiences.

You may hear good humoured insults passed between a server and her favourite customers, and lively discussions of current issues among all present.

Such behaviour is almost never found in more formal restaurants, especially in the larger cities, and is less common in Canada.

In more formal situations, you never talk to strangers at other tables.

In fact, in most large cities, you would not talk to strangers in any restaurant, unless you notice that this is accepted practice, as in a neighbourhood cafe where most patrons know each other.

By the way, more formal restaurants can be identified as places where men remove their hats. White or muted colour tablecloths made of fabric, not plastic, are another hint.


Some miscellaneous tips

Usually, when dining with a group, it is better to wait until all have been served before starting to eat, except in the most informal situations, unless you are told to go ahead.

And, it is good to pace your consumption to that of the group. Try not to finish too much ahead of the others, which can make them uncomfortable.

Also, attempt to include everyone in the conversation. Try not to favour one person over another. These are not crucial rules by any means, but they are helpful.

In better restaurants, you usually find two forks. Use the big one for the main dish, and the shorter one for the salad, which is usually eaten before the main dish in Canada and the U.S.

While dining, keep your elbows close to your sides. In other words, you do not want to look like a bird ready for flight.


Dining differences between Canada and the U.S.

Canadians and Americans eat somewhat differently.

Some Canadians use tableware as Americans do; some always as people from the British Isles, Ireland, Europe, and the Commonwealth of Nations do; but most Canadians use a combination of the two styles.

Canadians tend to use the simpler British, Irish, European, and Commonwealth style when cutting food. The right hand cuts with a knife, while the left holds what is being cut with a fork. Then the left hand uses the fork to lift the cut food directly into the mouth.

In contrast, most Americans will exchange the knife and fork before lifting cut food to their mouths, which is significantly more awkward.

Overwhelmingly, Americans use forks held in their right hands (or left hands, if left handed) to bring all food to their mouths, whether or not it needs to be cut.

A few Canadians eat in this way, but most use the American style for food that does not need to be cut, and the Commonwealth style for food that does—or they use the Commonwealth style for all food.

Confused?

These styles are easier to observe than to visualize from these on-line descriptions.

Any of these styles is acceptable in both countries, but you will attract less attention by using the American style in the United States, as most Americans are not as used to different cultures as are Canadians.


More refined dining techniques

Middle class and upper class Americans (the people who determine your advancement in traditional "white collar" corporate environments) tend to keep their left arms under the table (or vice versa if left handed), except when cutting food, until all food has been consumed.

Everyone should cut food one bite at a time.
A few Americans and Canadians like to be efficient by processing all cutting tasks at one time, but this is poor manners and looks odd. The food gets cold more quickly, too.

In addition, bread and rolls are best broken off by hand and buttered, if desired, one bite at a time, while not holding the bread too high.

Salt and pepper shakers are passed together to another person, even when just one of them is requested.

To signal that you are done and that a plate may be taken, more formal manners state that the knife and fork should be placed parallel to each other (with the knife closer to the top of the plate) with the tips at approximately eleven o'clock on the plate and the holding ends at approximately two o'clock.

Do not expect wait staffs in many small town American and Canadian cafes to know this signal, but knowing this will gain you respect in "better" restaurants or other formal service situations.

Spoons should not be left in cups, glasses, or bowls at any time. For some reason, this really irritates some people.

The best manners call for remaining at the table until everyone in your group is done, if possible. (Again, we are not talking about informal dining situations, such as fast food places.)


Visiting a buffet restaurant

You can tell a lot about a person by how he or she behaves in an American or Canadian buffet-style restaurant.

In these places, you serve yourself and are not limited in how much food you take.

Does she pile food on her plate as if there's no tomorrow in a frenzy of greed and gluttony? Does he take vastly more food than he will consume? Does she eat in the queue because she can't wait until she reaches her table? Does he overwhelmingly favour starchy, fatty, sugar-filled foods over more nutritious choices, a sign of terrible health problems ahead?

Do not let these pathological examples deter you from using these restaurants.

While travelling, seek out buffets for a more balanced diet. They offer a far greater variety of food—often far more nutritious food—than most fast food places, and their cost is often low.

These are sometimes called "smorgasbords" because of the style of dining, not because they offer Swedish cuisine.

Less classy ones may have signs saying "All you can eat" and the food may not be as good.

At buffets, you select what you wish from a variety of choices, usually at an "all you care to eat" price.

Here, too, you usually have an opportunity to look at the food before you decide to pay.

At these places, turn away from the food queue if you must cough.

Use the utensils provided to pick up food such as rolls in the queue, not your hands.

Support this style of dining by consuming all or most of what you select, and do not remove food from the premises, which is strictly prohibited everywhere.


Being invited to a home

When invited to a home to dine, which happens more frequently in Canada and the States than in many countries, a present of food or drink will be welcomed.

A bottle of some less commonly consumed juice large enough for four or more people is a safe choice (something somewhat fancy that costs around $5.00 - $6.00 a bottle, for example), as is a bouquet of flowers.

However, you are not required to bring anything, unless you have been told that the meal is "potluck." Potluck means everyone contributes a dish, hence the combination of the words "pot" and "luck".

An easy "potluck" dish for a traveller is a carton of good quality ice cream purchased at a grocery store. In the U.S., Stonyfield's organic ice cream makes a delicious choice. During warm weather, most supermarkets offer special bags without charge to keep ice cream cold for short times.

When offered something already prepared to eat or drink, say yes straightaway. You should not refuse several times before saying yes as is done in some cultures. In fact, doing so may confuse Americans and Canadians and convince them that you do not want anything.

However, if a meal has not yet been prepared, you may "test the waters" by saying, "Oh, I couldn't have you do that" or some such comment. If the person insists, go for it.

By the way, you need not say yes if you do not want something for religious or other reasons.

"Thank you very much, but have you some water instead of coffee?"

Note that the person has asked for something that requires no preparation.

When someone has kindly prepared a meal for you, a handwritten thank you note describing how much you enjoyed the visit sent the next day will bring pleasure, although this is done much less frequently than in the past. In most cases, an emailed thank you is good enough.


Summary

You are safe (if you read the safety lesson).

You are healthy (if you studied the health lesson).

You are avoiding insensitive and boorish behaviour (interacting with Americans and Canadians lesson).

You are eating with your mouth closed. And, you have thanked everyone.

Now, you are ready to start planning your stay in Canada or the United States.

Before you move on to some outstanding regional guides and travel links, take a food break, and move on to one of the good doctor's favourite topics: Eating.

All of this writing has made Dr. Voyageur mighty hungry.

What are some of the best dishes to try in North America? It's not all processed cheese and Tang (an imitation orange juice created for the U.S. space programme) out there.

And, how do you find good places to dine without always using guidebooks?

Go to >> The best budget food in North America

Go to >> Tipping correctly


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