Purdue expert recommends mindful table etiquette, seating for enjoyable holiday meals

Anthony Cawdron sits at a festive table in Westwood.

Etiquette expert Anthony Cawdron, also an instructor and advisor for Purdue’s White Lodging-J.W. Marriott, Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism, says there are simple ways to ensure a smooth holiday meal.Tim Brouk

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

Thanksgiving dinner was a disaster.

Your sleeve landed right in the mashed potatoes; grandma sat there with only brussels sprouts on her plate for 20 minutes and your great uncle over imbibed and ruined the dinner table conversation.

How will you redeem yourself for the next round of family meals this holiday season?

Thankfully Anthony Cawdron is here to save the holiday. An etiquette expert whose early career experience included working for members of the royal family in England, Cawdron is an instructor and advisor in Purdue University’s White Lodging-J.W. Marriott, Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and he is the events coordinator and house manager at Westwood, the traditional home of the Purdue president. To keep conversation lively but light, Cawdron recommends being mindful of where certain friends or family members are seated.

“Any time you have people from diversified backgrounds and outlooks on life, large gatherings can be a bit strained sometimes in terms of conversation,” Cawdron said. “One thing you can do is make place cards for people. That way, if you know that you’ve got a particularly difficult uncle or somebody who’s going to be a little bit more vociferous at the table, perhaps you can sit them close to you so you can be near to control them a bit during the meal.”

Place cards also show your guests you put much thought into the event. Mixing up the seating so people who don’t know each other that well could have positive results in terms of dinner conversation, according to Cawdron.

Some other tips to keep your holiday meal merry:

  • Make sure there is enough food at the table for everyone. If it’s a long table, divide the food so each end has a bowl of gravy or a platter of ham instead of passing it long distances.
  • Be mindful of those at the table who may not be able to serve themselves, such as children or older adults. Make sure they have enough on their plate.
  • After serving yourself, ask if anyone needs some of what you just helped yourself to.
  • Instead of overextending your reach when passing the carrots, get up from your chair for a less awkward and safer pass.
  • If someone offers to help before or after the meal, it’s OK to accept if you do need the help. “People appreciate the fact that they are helping,” Cawdron said.
  • If people offer to bring things, ask ahead of time what they are bringing so there are fewer surprises. “Just planning ahead is always a great option,” Cawdron said.