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
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.
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
Remember, "Eat (chew) with your mouth closed"
is the rule.
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
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
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
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
Interestingly, employment interviews in
Canada and the U.S. often involve dining with your prospective
boss, who will deliberately or unconsciously evaluate your every
Thus, eating "correctly" out of habit, without
having to strain to avoid mistakes, may bring extra income and promotions
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
These styles are easier to observe than
to visualize from these on-line descriptions.
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
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
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
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"
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
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.
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.
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
You are eating with your mouth closed. And, you have
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.
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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