Eating with Chopsticks 101
Teach your kids how to wield that thin pair of utensils like a pro – and learn a little culture, too
The next time you order moo shu pork or General Tso's chicken, consider eating your Chinese food the way the Chinese do. With a little practice and perseverance, kids (and parents!) can learn how to use the utensils that originated in China 5,000 years ago – chopsticks. It's a fun "little lesson."
The key to becoming chopstick-proficient is to "practice, practice, practice," says Ferndale mom Michelle He, whose three children all learned to eat with chopsticks when they were around 4. He says it took a good couple of weeks for her kids, now 11, 12 and 14, to master the technique.
Although traditional chopsticks can be made from a variety of materials, including plastic, metal and lacquered wood, the most common utensils found at many Chinese restaurants are the disposable kind made from bamboo or balsa wood. Unless you want to invest in a pair of kids' chopsticks, which are shorter, West Bloomfield resident Iris Shen-Van Buren says that wooden chopsticks are actually the easiest to learn to use, because they are less slippery. (Just make sure you rub the pointed ends together, she says, to remove any splinters.)
- Cradle the first chopstick between your thumb and index finger at the middle of the chopstick. A common mistake made by many Americans, He says, is clasping the chopsticks together near the ends; smack-dab in the middle is best. The bottom chopstick should then rest on the tip of your ring finger.
- Hold your index finger close to the side of your middle finger. Then take the second chopstick and clasp it between your grouped fingers and your thumb. Now try opening and closing both chopsticks. Another common mistake seen with novice chopstick users, He says, is moving both sticks, when actually only the top stick should be manipulated. Also, when closed, the tips of the chopsticks should meet, but never cross.
- And now for the fun part – eating! Once your child feels comfortable holding the chopsticks, she can begin to practice picking up pieces of food. Open your chopsticks (remember to move only the top stick) and gently close down on a piece of food.
- He recommends practicing the technique by picking up large pieces of food at first, like broccoli. Attempting to grasp a slippery, flat pea pod or single grain of rice may only cause frustration and grumbly tummies! Van Buren adds that good "practice" foods also include anything soft and squishy, such as bread cubes or marshmallows, or foods that are textured, like popcorn or spiral pasta. "When you're able to pick up a pea or peanut, you will be an accomplished chopstick user," Van Buren says,
Before you dig in, keep these few rules of etiquette in mind.
- Michelle He says it's considered improper to hold your chopsticks vertically when picking up food. Instead, tilt your wrist so your chopsticks are at a slight angle – just as you would when using a spoon. (It's also bad manners to scoop food with chopsticks, unless you're eating rice, she adds.)
- They're called chopsticks, not drumsticks. Never use your utensils to practice paradiddles at the dinner table.
- Don't throw your chopsticks or use them as a weapon against an annoying little brother or sister.
- Unless your family doesn't mind sharing germs, it's generally considered rude to use the pointed "eating ends" of your chopsticks to take food from a communal dish. Instead, flip your utensils around and use the other end.
- When eating rice out of a bowl, it's bad manners to lay your chopsticks on top of the bowl. Place them next to your bowl instead.
- Standing your chopsticks up in a bowl of rice is also impolite, as it looks similar to two sticks of incense sticking out of a bowl. "The reason it's a no-no is because incense is usually stuck into a bowl of rice at a funeral dinner or memorial dinner to represent the spirits of the dead eating the food," Van Buren explains. "When the incense is burned down, then the spirits are full."