When my kids were young, we went to Israel and were feasting on a breakfast buffet on a kibbutz (self-sustaining Israeli community). Among the dishes, there was a bowl of deep brown chocolate. Chocolate in the morning? So what (who cares)? We each grabbed a whole bowl full. We looked at each other and I said how thick the chocolate was; it was even too much for me.


I then noticed several kibbutz members snickering at us, not even making an attempt to hide their amusement (Israelis are known for their candor). One woman came over and joyfully informed us: “Do you know you’re eating a whole bowl of chocolate spread (like Nutella)? This is a spread that you put on bread, not in a bowl.” Of course, we were embarrassed. But it was no big deal then and funny now. But if I had done a little research on what Israelis eat in the morning, we may have avoided gagging (choking) on a bowl of chocolate spread. 


Generally, there are three different eating situations: in a restaurant, as a guest in someone’s home or at a business lunch or dinner. In this article, we’re going to look at dining in someone’s home and at a restaurant.


You're invited to a dinner party


When a native speaker asks you come to to his/her house for dinner, it’s an honor. Therefore, try to honor their rules of etiquette. This is one of the most important things you can do you to foster a bond between your host and yourself.


Think about it. Food is almost always present at all occasions: family celebrations, festivals, funerals. Asking someone to dinner is a very meaningful experience. If you’re aware of a native-speaker’s dining traditions, it shows respect--even if you don’t actively participate. Be prepared that some of these traditions may be just the opposite of your own. For example, in the US, slurping one’s soups or noodles is a sign of rudeness and uncivilized behavior. But in Japan, slurping is a sign of appreciation of the food, according to Welcome to South Africa.net. 


Important thing to know, right? (A couple of things to take into account--that traditions do change in a culture, just as languages do. The other thing is this: not every individual in a native-speaking country follows the same rules).


As it is, my family and I were invited to the home one of my Italian students who lived in Rome. Luckily, our eating traditions seemed similar, and there was no problem. The only thing is that I thought we had eaten the main meal when that turned out the to be just the appetizer (a small portion before the main meal), as we say in English. And then after the main meal, we had to “force” ourselves to eat homemade Italian desserts.


This a good time, by the way, to mention an interesting language difference. In American English, the entree’ is considered the main meal, while in French, the entree’ is what English refers to an appetizer.


Difficult dinner situations


Most of the time, people who travel like to be adventurous when trying new cultural foods, but many times you may worry about what to do or say if your host serves you something that you can’t swallow. Here are some of the common worries travelers have when invited to a native speaker’s home for dinner:


1.What if I don’t like the look or the taste of the food?

2.What if I have a food allergy?

3.What if I don’t like the food, should I force myself to eat it so I don’t insult the host?


There are no really right answers to these questions, but some travelers  have offered some advice.


First, you really don’t want to insult your guests. An insult could spoil the relationship. Keep in mind that your host is nervous, too, and wants to please you.


Maybe you’ll be crazy about the food and will have to control yourself from overdoing it. On the other hand, if you really don’t like what is offered as a main meal, but you think you can eat a little of it, do it. If not, here are some things people have had success with, according to You hate what someone's serving but don't want to be impolite.


1. Fill up on bread, soup and other appetizers so you can say that everything was so delicious that you’re a little full, but you would like to try the food so graciously offered by your host. And when you eat it, please wait until you get to the bathroom to gag. In fact, it’s a good idea to find out where the bathroom is before the meal so you don’t have to ask as you’re about to get sick. Offer your sincerest apologies that while the meal looks so appealing, some foods are against your religion to eat them. Then be prepared to perhaps answer some questions about your religion and its food regulations.


2. Tell your host that you are allergic to some foods or their ingredients. And you may very well be. (Make sure you carry your epipen (a shot that people can give themselves if they start having a severe allergy attack).

3. Sometimes, hosts may express their guilt or disappointment that you couldn’t eat the food they prepared. The best answer to this is probably, “How could you have known? But I really appreciate your kindness.


In restaurants, many of the same rules apply with one difference: you have some choice. Some menus write the names of the dishes (meals) in different languages under the native-language. If that happens to be your native tongue, you’re in luck.


But what if your language isn’t there? Please ask your host or the waiter (also know as the server) what the dishes are. Don’t be either shy or too overconfident that you end up choosing something undesirable.


You may be offered a drink. Whatever you do, don’t drink too much alcohol. While getting drunk may be acceptable in your own culture, it may be distasteful in others.


Another quirky bit of information: In most restaurants, people ask for the bill (paper telling how much the they owe for the meal) while in parts of the US, the same paper is called a check or cheque.


Here’s another thing you may not have thought about. How do you eat your meal? Do you use your hands or utensils? This is another area that would be great to research. Here are a few examples from Welcome to South Africa.net. (Remember these are common practices, not always the rule.)


1. Most Mexicans prefer to eat tacos with their their hands, not with a fork and knife.


2.Most Chileans, however, won’t eat anything without a fork and knife. (These are both Spanish-speaking nations.)


3.While the Japanese and Chinese like using chopsticks, Thai people usually don’t. They typically use a fork to push their food onto a spoon.


4. And the French will often use bread to put their food on a fork.


5.Most people from different countries each have their own plate to eat from, but Ethiopians and some Asian cultures usually serve their food in one large bowl from which everyone eats.


6.In many cultures, people will wait until everyone’s food is ready before eating. But In South Korea, nobody at the table starts eating until the oldest or most senior person takes a bite.


Food of different cultures doesn’t have to be challenge. Instead, make it an adventure. A little research beforehand will give you some confidence. And remember, a food “disaster” at the time will make a good story later on.


Bon Apetit!




Food Etiquette in Different Cultures

Welcome to South Africa.net

You hate what someone's serving but don't want to be impolite.

Chicago Times



Ilene Springer is a long-time italki tutor in English. She teaches intermediate, upper-intermediate and upper-level students, including advanced and proficient. She has been a writer for national magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and author of The Diary of an American Expatriate.  Please visit her website at Chocolate.English.eu


Hero image by Lily Lvnatikk on Unsplash