Because You Are Polite

by Ginger Philbrick

At dinner with friends, I had just remarked that my repository of questions for this column was bone dry when one of my companions asked if it was polite for him to pick up the bone in his ham steak to get the last bit of meat from it.

Immediately another diner said, “sounds like a good topic for a manners column!”  So, making no more bones about it, here goes an overview of the etiquette of dealing with bones during a meal.

In a more formal setting, chicken prepared in any way should be eaten with a knife and fork, leaving the bone untouched by human hands. That is, unless your hostess gives the okay to pick it up and get that most tender meat at the bone. In this case, bones that have been sucked clean should be placed inconspicuously on the side of the plate or covered by the garnish.

At a picnic, where the chicken is likely to be fried, eating with the fingers is an American tradition and must be observed. Cleaned bones should not be tossed on the ground, no matter how much fun you are having, rather they belong back on your plate until discarded.

Chicken wings should never be served in a formal setting, although I have seen them at receptions and watched poor guests try to look sophisticated while pulling them apart. They are to be eaten with the fingers and the bones left on your plate. If you are eating a large quantity of wings, please don’t let the bones pile up as though they were Legos; discard them after every three or four servings.

For pork chops and ham steak, I refer you to the first three sentences regarding chicken.

Life is easier if you never eat a fish that hasn’t been boned. In case you find you are expected to filet it yourself, be sure to discard the extracted bones onto a separate plate so that you don’t have to deal with them again!

One more thing: Smacking your lips and licking your fingers after using them to eat your food is frowned on in polite American society. If things get messy, allow napkins to be your best friends.

So there you have my bona fide counseling. I cannot resist the urge to say good-bye by wishing you a bon jour!

Ginger Philbrick is the owner of Because You Are Polite LLC. You are invited to email your manners questions to her and she will respond as time and space allow. You may contact her at