Using cutlery for eating is an area that causes a lot of confusion and inconsistency for both left- and right-handers:
Right-handers– traditionally eat with a knife and fork using the knife in their right and fork in the left, so they actually feed themselves with their left hand. (in America, some people change fork hand as they go along, cutting with their right then switching the fork into the right to lift the food to their mouth).
When they are using just a spoon, e.g. for eating soup, they change over and use it in their right hand, feeding themselves with that right hand.
When they are using just a knife, e.g. for cutting bread, they are consistent and keep it in their right hand.
Left-handers – we know from our own surveys that 74% of left-handers eat with a knife and fork in the “right-handed” way – with the fork in their left hand and feeding themselves with the left hand.
When they are using just a spoon, 95% use it in their LEFT hand for that as well, so we continue FEEDING ourselves with our dominant left hand.
When left-handers are using just a knife, e.g. for cutting bread, 88% move it into their left hand.
How does this happen?
It makes sense to use your dominant hand, the one that gives you most control, for delicate and complicated tasks, like cutting something with a knife. When the knife is used on its own, like cutting bread, this all works as expected with left-handers using the bread knife ion their dominant left and right-handers using the right.
But when we complicate it by using a second tool, like a fork, it all gets inconsistent! Right-handers think the knife is the most important tool and keep it in their right hand, while left-handers switch the knife to their right and think that the feeding tool, the fork, is the more important and deserves the use of their dominant hand.
How do we choose which way round to eat?
Is there some inbuilt preference for eating, like writing, or do we learn it from our parents? is the high percentage of left-handers who eat “right-handed” because they just copy their parents? (around 75% of left-handers have two right-handed parents and only 2% have two left-handed parents).
Our own experience would strongly say no! Keith and Lauren are both left-handed but eat “right-handed” and their son Tom is the same. So when daughter katie came along and turned out to be RIGHT-handed despite all the family genetics and influence, which way would she eat? Would she do what is natural for a right-hander AND the same as the rest of the family? NO! – she has always eaten LEFT-HANDED.
So we really don't know the cause of eating choices and it does seem to be completely inconsistent overall, though very strongly embedded in each individual, seemingly just as much as writing. We have had some email correspondence recently with LHC member Catherine that makes this very clear:
Catherine originally posted a comment on our website saying:
“My son (nearly 8), is mostly right-handed, but eats with his knife and fork the left-handed way. I have recently found out that they are forcing him to eat the â€˜correct’ way at school meal times. I was shocked and outraged, but they claim that it is for his own goodâ€¦. Do you have any evidence of this being harmful to a child (in the same way that forcing a change in writing handedness can be)? He complains of tiredness and headaches, and has started developing a stammer and tics. He is also highly uncoordinated and regularly spills food down clothes when eating this way. I want to force the school to stop, so need some supporting evidence. Please help!”
The symptoms you mention ARE similar to those that can arise from changing writing hand and while I have not seen any research or evidence about changing eating hands I guess it comes to the same thing. It may also just be that he is stressed from being pressurised by his teachers and that is causing the problems rather than anything to do with brain functionâ€. I would definitely advise letting him eat whichever way seems natural to him. It will be very interesting to see if his symptoms go away when he is allowed to go back to eating his natural way.
and we recently received a wonderful follow-up from Catherine:
Thank you so much for emailing me. Since all this happened, we have told our son to eat with whichever hand he feels most comfortable holding his fork in, and his tics / stammer have all but gone. He is calm and unstressed now. However, the school are not happy about this and claim that eating with your cutlery the ‘right way round' is part of their social development programme. We are actively trying to dispute this and any thoughts you have about this or any research or supporting evidence would be most welcome.
We would be very interested in your experience of changing eating hands and any effect it had so please add your comments below.
We wrote an article about eating left-handed recently and included a comment from one of of our readers who was battling her son's school because they were forcing him to change hands and eat right-handed. We had a lot of feedback on the story and it has now been picked up by the national press with an article in the Daily Mail online version here.
A complaint was lodged after an angry parent said staff at Kersey Primary School near Ipswich, Suffolk made his two left-handed children switch their knives and forks to eat in the standard right-handed manner, with the knife in their right hand and fork in their left. Teachers told him that swapping the cutlery helped ‘improve dexterity' and was part of a child's ‘personal, social and health education'. [really??!]
Does changing to eat right handed REALLY improve dexterity?
Well… in a strict sense it might, because “dexterity” actually means
effective use of the right hand! (dexter being “right” in Latin)
The school has admitted encouraging pupils to eat in a ‘conventional manner', but denied putting pressure on the children to eat right-handed. An independent inspector has looked into the complaint and found that the school was doing nothing wrong, but the father has now lodged an appeal against that decision and asked the school's governors to look into it further.
The father said he was being supported by fellow parents at the school and we at the Left Handers Club think it is entirely wrong to force a child to change their normal way of eating. If you agree, please add a comment below.