It’s inevitable. At points in your professional career, you’ll be faced with attending a business lunch or dinner. Knowing and practicing proper etiquette can give some people anxiety, as avoiding and overcoming faux pas can turn a delightful meal into an obstacle course. Making a nice impression is vital when dealing with clients, and fear of appearing discourteous can make this hard to accomplish. 

Take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay. As either a host or an attendee, the last thing you want is to appear ignorant of common dining etiquette. But with this guide, you won’t have to. Listed below is a rundown of expected business dining behaviors to help calm your nerves and focus on what’s really important: developing a good relationship with your client. 

Pre-Meal Prep: Arriving and Ordering 

Arriving 

  • Don’t be late. It’s disrespectful to the host and other diners. If you’re hosting a meal, make sure the start time is clear and that you have sent reminders. If you’re attending a meal, make sure to plan for any unexpected traffic or other circumstances that might make you late. 
  • Dress appropriately. Make sure to consult the restaurant’s website for any information regarding a dress code. If there are no parameters, err on the side of over-dressing rather than arriving in something too casual. 
  • Greet everyone. If necessary, introduce yourself to the other diners, and do your best to remember people’s names. At the very least, make sure you know the names of the people sitting next to you. 

Ordering 

  • Take your cue from the host. You don’t want to order too little or too much, so look to your host for a guide as to what to order. If he or she gets an appetizer, then you should feel free to do the same. 
  • Stay away from alcohol. This will depend on your industry. Like your food orders, take your cues from the host. Don’t go overboard, but a few drinks may be okay in laid-back industries. For more conservative industries, however, you probably shouldn’t drink for a business lunch, and if you’re attending a dinner, you can probably get away with a drink or two. However, know your own limits; there is no shame in ordering a soda or iced tea. 
  • Don’t ask too many questions. While you may want some clarification on certain menu items, don’t ask the waiter to walk you through every entrée. This is just annoying for the other diners. If you are concerned about food allergies, consult the restaurant’s menu beforehand, or call ahead to see if the meal you’re interested in will meet your dietary needs.

During the Meal: Table Manners 

  • Cover your lap. Your napkin is not a table decoration, and it should go on your lap as soon as bread or drinks are delivered to the table; it should not be removed from your lap unless you excuse yourself from the group. If you do need to leave during the course of the meal, place your napkin on the seat of your chair, and push your chair back into the table. 
  • Don’t be picky. Unless you have allergies, try a bit of everything on your plate. Unfortunately, you’re not five anymore, so being a picky eater is no longer endearing, just annoying. 
  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t want to inhale your food and be the first to finish, and you don’t want to eat so slowly that everyone else is waiting on you. Try to pace yourself throughout the meal by engaging in conversation, taking sips of your drink and pausing between bites. This will allow you to contribute to the discussion and further illustrate why you were invited to the meal, whether it’s to demonstrate a specific area of expertise or simply to keep the conversation lively. 
  • Once your utensils touch food, they don’t go back on the table. If you’re speaking or want to take a sip of your drink and need to put down a utensil, place it back on your plate. Once they’ve touched food, your utensils should not touch the table. 

After the Meal: Saying Thank You 

  • Signal when you’re done. The best way to tell your server that you’ve finished the meal is to place your knife and fork on your plate with the handles in the four-o’clock position. 
  • Your host is in charge of the bill. The server should know who the host is and should hand the bill directly to him or her. If you are handed the bill accidentally, the host should immediately ask for it back. If he or she doesn’t, simply place your card into the billfold and wait for the server to retrieve it. You should never show up to a business dinner unprepared to pay. 
  • Thank your host. Be sure to thank your host at the completion of the evening. It’s also considered good etiquette to send them a thank-you note as a follow-up. Hosts can also send notes to their guests thanking them for their presence and input. You want to make the note personal and relevant to what was discussed at the meal, especially if any decisions were made. 

Attending a business meal can be intimidating, but many of your mom’s rules still apply: keep your elbows off the table, chew with your mouth closed and sit up straight. These and the rules above will make you a valued dining companion at your next business lunch or dinner.