There are a few things to know when you’re sitting down for a formal meal, said Dinh Tran, senior director of dining services for Evergreen Public Schools. Always start with your silverware that’s farthest from the plate and work your way in. There’s no such thing as an oyster fork in formal settings, so don’t ask. Above all, never tell your host if you’re leaving the table to use the restroom.
“There’s always protocol,” Tran said. “That’s why we call it fine dining.”
Yeah, agreed Elijah Uminskiy, 11.
“It’s not like it’s a birthday party,” he said.
More than a dozen Sunset Elementary School fifth-graders were treated Friday to a lesson on proper table etiquette, followed by a practice round in the form of a multicourse meal. The program, At Your Service, is coordinated by the district’s food services contractor, Chartwells.
“It’s amazing to be able to teach these children,” said Tran, who led an hourlong class for the students before their lunch. “It’s a neat thing. If they take away 10 percent, they’ll remember as they go along.”
And 10 percent turned out to be a pretty good estimate. The students’ eyes grew wide as they walked into a library converted into a formal dining room, complete with white tablecloths, dainty folded napkins and paper place cards.
“Austin, Austin!” 10-year-old Shaniya Sharma cried to her friend, Austin Krishtal, also 10, when she found her seat. “You have to pull out the chair for me!”
School board members and district officials joined the students as well as guests of honor, quizzing students on their favorite classes and school lunches.
“I can be kind of a messy eater,” Chief Academic Officer Bill Oman admitted to his table as he unfolded a napkin on his lap.
Hossein Akhtarkhavari, resident district manager with Chartwells, said this may be a rare opportunity for many students to eat a formal meal. He noted that about half, or 51.1 percent, of Evergreen Public Schools students receive free- and reduced-priced lunches, a barometer of poverty in public schools. Between that and families’ busy schedules, “Some of them may not get this experience at all.”
“Etiquette is part of their learning,” Akhtarkhavari said.
Students made their way through a soup and salad course, then on to a dish of lemon chicken and roasted potatoes, and, finally, capped their meal with a brownie and large scoop of vanilla ice cream. Students passed around many baskets of rolls, and downed bottles upon bottles of lemonade.
Bella Sanchez, 10, marveled at the hearty vegetable minestrone soup.
“Usually stuff that’s healthy doesn’t taste that good,” she said.
Though not every 10-year-old’s palette is that discerning.
“It tastes like salsa,” Austin said of the soup (after pulling Shaniya’s chair out for her, of course). “I didn’t really like it that much.”
He still got his fill, though.
“The butter and bread is really good,” he said.
All the while, Tran walked between the tables, gently correcting students’ postures or slurping. “Yes, please” and “thank you” were shared plenty of times, and as the meal ended, students received certificates celebrating their participation.
Kingston Crawford, 11, chatted with his friends as he cut his chicken. His mom will be happy about these lessons; the way he tells it, she takes dinner time pretty seriously. It’s important, he said, that kids use proper etiquette at the table.
“So we have manners and don’t look foolish,” he said.