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Left Handed Eating

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.

Eating left handedHow 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).

Left handed spoonOur 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 ‘correct’ way at school meal times. I was shocked and outraged, but they claim that it is for his own good…. 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!”

Keith replied:
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 function”. 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.

Update

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??!]

Left handed cutlery layoutDoes 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.

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385 comments on “Left Handed Eating
  1. Jane Smith says:

    Dear Katherine

    Your school sounds like something from the ark. How dare they suggest your son needs to change his eating ways for social reasons. Absolute poppycock!

    I am appalled that this caused him such stress and glad his ticks and stammer has vanished.

    I have three boys and three girls and all the girls and I are left handed. If anyone suggested this I would be straight up to ask evidence to back this up.

    Who cares or notices which hand people use for cutlery.

  2. Pascale says:

    Just to share the story my mother told me about my early way of eating, as a baby (53 years ago). I spontanuously hold the spoon in my left hand. My mother thought that I didn’t know which hand to take, and she left or right hand.So she had to feed me again for weeks, before I started eating again with my left hand. But she told me that during that moment I stopped progressing in any ways. What to think about it?

    • Elise Beraru says:

      My mother couldn’t believe I was left handed, so for a very short time she “tested” me by putting objects into my right hand. She told me when she did it I automatically put the object into my left hand. After a couple of weeks of experimentation she realized that I was left handed, and from then on she was my biggest champion if anyone criticized which hand I did things, even though she was right handed. In those early days, over fifty years ago, there were few if any left handed utensils, so scissors and can openers and the like I learned to use right handed, but when I first found left-handed sewing shears, I bought them and use them.

      If anyone ridicules or strikes your left handed child, you need to be his or her champion and report any activity by teachers to the school principal.

      • Birgit says:

        My mum did the same thing…tested it out and I kept switching everything to my left hand. There is a family story that the first day I came home from school and said that they had left-handed scissors. My parents bought me a pair right then and there and I’ve only used left-handed scissors ever since.

  3. Hugh d'Entremont says:

    Catherine does not need research, She just needs to look the incredibly uptight eating monitor in the eye and tell them they have harmed her child once and will not do it again. If they say anything she can remind them she is a position to bring down a rain of legal pain on the for the damage they done to her child with no evidence of it being helpful.

  4. Dave Rydings says:

    May I strongly suggest that children should be allowed to choose which hand they use for eating implements. I am now nearly 72 and was treated badly at my first school by being forced to conform and eat as “normal” people do. I was affect by this ridiculous idea with a stammer until I was allowed to choose. It obviously occurred with writing as well. It took some time and effort on my mother’s part to convince the teachers that there was nothing wrong with me. I now use a knife in my right hand only when I use a fork in my left hand. If I use a fork or a spoon on their own I use my left hand. If I use a knife on its own I use my left hand and can cut bread thinly and straight.
    It is certainly a right handed world and every now and then I get a “oh, you’re left handed then?” as if it is something to be ashamed of. I just reply with “at least we’re in our right minds, not like the rest of you!” It shuts them up. It still amazes me that people can be so prejudiced and insensitive in our so called enlightened world.

  5. Ian says:

    I am left handed and always have been however I eat with a knife and fork ‘the right handed way’. My wife is right handed and eats quite normally. We have 3 sons, the eldest is right handed but eats with his kinfe and fork ‘the left handed way’, my middle son is right handed and eats right handed, my youngest son is left handed but eats ‘the right handed way’. Probably goes to show, do what you feel most comfortable doing. We actually managed to get my eldest a left handed fish knife at Harry Ramsdens once which amused the two lefties.

    I too would be most unhappy with this schools attitude towards the left handed

  6. Wendy Constantinoff says:

    I can’t use a spoon and a fork together because I need to use them both left handed. I slice bread and vegetables left handed but peel things right handed.

    Catherine I would not be happy with the school’s attitude at all. I was always aware as a left handed teacher of the needs of my left handed pupils.

  7. Ria says:

    I’m hopelessly leftie in everything..! For eating with a knife and fork, I hold the knife in my left hand and the fork in my right. If I only need a fork, then I will hold it in my left hand, as I do with a spoon.

    I normally hold a cup/glass in my left hand, although I might switch it to my right if I’m working and need my left hand to write. I tend to spill things if I do this though, so it doesn’t happen often 😉

    Ria

  8. Leonie says:

    Unbelievable that this still goes in the 21st century. My mum was forced to right with her right hand 60 years ago and still writes completely illegibly. My right-handed son eats left handed and that works fine for him. This type of discrimination and total lack of knowledge regarding brain development should not be tolerated.

  9. Sandra Spring says:

    On eating left handed which hand, I am from the US, I always eat left handed, no matter what utensil I am using, but I cut right handed, with a knife or scissors , of course I write lefty, if I try to eat right handed , I get nauseous. I just can’t do it.

  10. David Everitt says:

    My primary school was large enough to require two head teachers”. Infants 5-6 and Juniors 7-10 years. Only in Juniors was right handedness required. I was repeatedly caned for using my left hand for writing. This was supplemented by a wrap across the fingers during class with a wooden rule if I picked anything up with the wrong hand. I was not allowed a pen because I smudged with a school fountain pen and the nib dug in to the paper.
    I developed a bad stammer in Juniors and withdrew from games. You can’t throw a ball with your proper hand”. I developed coping strategies for normal school life by 14 and the stammer only ever came back with a new girlfriend! I have since worked in radio broadcast and now sit as the Chair in a Magistrates court. Being forced to use both hands has had some major advantages in my work. When my right handed colleagues could not work in a confined space I always was summoned. I use both hands as required now. Shame my primary teacher died.. I would love to have had some justice!

  11. Jim says:

    Another left/right oddity is in golf. The left hand does all the control with the right merely providing the power so why do most people play what is conventionally called right handed?

  12. Amy says:

    I was forced to eat right handed by school dinner ladies at my primary 30 years ago. As a result I became very upset, hated school lunchtime and told my parents that I had sausage and chips everyday (instead of telling them the dinner ladies were being mean to me). Finally my parents twigged something was up (but not what as I was frightened to tell them) and I was allowed a packed lunch. It was shocking 30 years ago that I was made to change the way I ate (especially as no one tried to change the way I wrote) but more shocking that it would happen today.

  13. Jenny Beattie says:

    Further to my last remark, the school should be taken to court and sued out of existence – what kind of ‘social development’ is that, forcing a pupil to use cutlery the ‘right way round’? Catherine should make use of Human Rights laws.

  14. Lindsey Andrews says:

    We are a family of 3 left handers. 1 Brit and 2 Americans born and bred. We do not change hands to use our fork in the right hand, instead we eat the British way with knife in left hand and fork in right hand. I was taught to eat this way and taught my daughter this way also. Why change hands?

  15. Jenny Beattie says:

    In this 21st century the issue of ‘correct’ handedness needs to be stopped – we left-handers just get on better when left to our own devices. I’d like the school in question to look at the story of King George VI – naturally left-handed, forced to use his right and developed a stammer most likely as a result of this. In all my school-days (1960s/70s) the only subject I had major trouble with was cookery in High School – in more academic subjects I usually sat on the left of a 2-seater desk so didn’t jog my neighbour’s arm. At home I was the only ‘leftie’ in a family of right-handers, and grew up eating the right-handed way – but still used my left hand for soups and desserts; not one family member batted an eyelid. It’s not a sin or a crime to be left-handed; after all aren’t some of the world’s best sportsmen, artists and musicians part of our community?!

  16. Jaye says:

    My wife and I are both left-handed. We were raised in different parts of the US (she in NY, me in CA) approximately ten years apart. She also had a 12-month stint in Oxford when her father was on sabbatical at around age nine. She eats left-handed and cuts with her right. When cutting a block of cheese or a loaf of bread, or spreading a condiment on bread, she used her left hand. When eating, I use my left hand to cut, holding the fork in my right, then return the fork to my left to eat. I cut exclusively with my left hand, but spread condiments with my right.

    I can actually eat right-handed with the same dexterity as my left. I think it stems from a six week stint with my left arm in a cast at age eleven. I learned to do most things reasonably well right-handed during that time, save for writing.

    Since we both eat left-handed, we’re always looking for the proper outside seat at restaurants when dining with others. I’m of the opinion one should be allowed to eat in the way that is most comfortable, and causes the least amount of spills!

  17. Kees says:

    Tell the school they’re free to eat with whatever hand they have control over, but that they don’t have control over your son’s hand! If necessary, change schools as this behaviour shows they’re not interested in the wellbeing of your son, but only in their ‘social rules’.

    • Paul Miles says:

      Yes, Kees, the ‘social rules’ are obviously of greater importance to the school than one of their pupil’s well being. It’s just too right-handed for words! (By ‘right-handed’ I don’t wish to offend any righties, but the attitude that established rules and social conventions are important and that one should follow them slavishly, or unquestioningly.) They really do need challenging, however.

  18. Philip Heselton says:

    I was made to eat the “conventional” way, with fork in left hand and knife in the right. It is only relatively recently that I realised that I tend to use my knife as a fork and my fork as a knife. In other words, I hold a piece of food down with my knife and tear a bit of that off with my fork. I then eat that with my fork, which is in my left hand.

    • Jenny says:

      I do this as well, Philip. Eat right handed, but I can’t cut with the knife in my right hand so I tear the food apart. Any time I’m spreading butter on bread I use the knife in my left hand.

  19. joe stern says:

    I think you need to sue the school. Obviously, these people are mentally ill. Don’t let them abuse your child. Insist.

    • Paul Miles says:

      Yes, Joe, I agree. However, if Catherine wants her son to stay there for other reasons (e.g. close to home, good academic record, etc.) she may not want to go this far.

  20. Rodders says:

    Interesting, isn’t it? I was at infants’ school in the mid-1950s and Miss Little (who wasn’t and had her hair in two buns, one over each ear so she looked like she’d invented the Walkman) used to smack me on the back of the head during school meals if I used my knife and fork the ‘wrong’ way round. As a result I use my cutlery right-handed and have a permanent fear of being ‘different’! However, I still use my left hand for my knife when I’m cutting, ditto for scissors, and I always lay the table with my wine glass and side plate to the left. Left hand predominates for my soup spoon too, and also for writing and guitar playing.

    How about sports? I’m a left-handed darts player, a left-footed footballer, a left-handed cricketer and a left-handed fisherman, but I can play golf equally badly using either left- or right-handed clubs. Weird…..

  21. Birgit says:

    I’m trying to figure out what school has time to worry about how kids are holding their silverware. I guess I would use the large amount evidence available that forcing children to switch hands for writing causes issues, such as you noticed in your son when he was forced to eat “differently”. Ugh, in this day and age, you’d think schools would be more aware. Hope it gets straightened out soon. And they stop bullying him over this…because that’s what it is…bullying.

    • Paul Miles says:

      Yes, Birgit, you’re absolutely correct – it IS bullying. How many other lefties would consider the school’s attitude to be bullying and at least offer their support for Catherine and her son here? If Catherine was able to present the school with messages of support from our community, that might cause the school to think again.

      • Hazel Booth says:

        I think that that is definately bulllying and cannot believe that it is still going on or is allowed in this day and age. When I started school in the 1950s I was never discriminated against for being left handed, nor was my aunt who went to school in the 1930s!

        I also would be prepared to back the lady up on this and think that action needs taking against the school concerned.

  22. Bob. Provan says:

    Although strongly left handed, I was brought up to use my knife and fork the right handed way, although I always used my spoon left handed. It was not uncommon for me to knock food off the plate accidentally when cutting tough meat or other things that were hard. At the age of around 21 I decided to swap the knife and fork round. Suddenly I found that food always stayed on the plate and I felt more confident, especially when eating out. Giving it some thought I realised that, when eating right handed I would try to cut with the knife, but also move the food held by the fork back and forwards, if the knife suddenly went through, then the fork hand shot the food off the plate. By swapping round I hold the food stationery with the fork and only move the knife with my left hand. Result, food stays on the plate – it works for me.

  23. chas says:

    I eat with a knife in my left hand and fork in my right hand. However, when using a fork or spoon on its’ own, I hold them in my left hand.

    When cutting/carving food, I always hold the knife in my left hand.

    When drinking, I always hold my cup/mug/glass in my left hand. Likewise, when pouring, I hold the jug etc in my left hand.

    Like one of my nephews (who is also left-handed) I set the table in reverse. The glass goes on the left hand side and the cutlery is set up with the knife on the left.

    I would add that the left-handed pastry fork and knives I have bought are very useful. In fact, I can’t ope without the left handed pastry fork!

    Chas

  24. Rosamund says:

    My children have all eaten with their fork in the right hand by preference as this is their dominant hand! I would say this stands to reason as young children rarely use their knives – everything is pre-cut for them! I object to the phrase eating the right or left handed way – as I think this is probably one of the very few instances where we left-handers have got one over on them!! (Therefore what society considers the RH way is actually the left but they can’t face up to it!!!)
    That said I am trying to encourage them to fit in with the social norms, but only my daughter is willing to try. If I encountered problems such as Catherine’s I would leave it – but as I’m the parent and not a teacher my kids feel v. comfortable ignoring me!!

    I also swap knife hands when buttering bread and chopping. In our favour – side-plates with their little knives are also on the left (should you be dining formally!) Spoon and fork desert eating however doesn’t work!

    • Lynn R says:

      Thank you, Rosamund! I, too find it annoying to have eating labeled as right or left handed. I live in the US and alway ate with the fork in my left hand – ALWAYS! If cutting was needed, I cut with my right hand. That way, I didn’t have to switch hands to use the fork to eat the cut substance. It seems pretty standard here (US) for right handers, when cutting food, to use the left for the fork and the right for the knife, having to switch their utensils after cutting. Didn’t see the utensils stay in the same hands until I went to a semester of college in England. What a smart idea! No more needless switching! Of course, I’m not at the extreme end of the left/right spectrum, so I can cut food at the table with my right hand with little problem. I suppose someone who WAS at the extreme end of the spectrum might need to switch. I DO use the left hand for cutting food in the kitchen – can’t imagine trying to do that finer work with my right hand!

      So, let’s just let everyone eat with whatever hand combo they feel most comfortable and confident using. As long as they don’t loom over their food or eat with their mouths open or such, hands used seems to be irrelevant!

      As to the cultures that consider the left hand the “dirty” hand and not to be used for eating, consider these two points:

      1) IF one washes ones hands after using the restroom/bathroom/toilet, as is proper and ALWAYS to be done, it doesn’t matter which hand you use for anything – both should be clean;

      2) Even if you DO wash your hands (as, apparently, a majority do NOT – may I say, “YUCK!”), studies have shown that the dirtiest surface in a restroom is the HANDLE ON THE EXIT DOOR (all those people who do not wash their hands touch it)! So, even if you are one of the minority of hand-washers, all that washing does you no good if you touch the handle bare handed on the way out. And most right handers use their right hands to open doors. So, NOW which hand is the “dirty” one?!

      May I suggest that everyone use the paper towel you used to dry your hands to ALSO open the door, thus keeping a barrier between you and that dirty old door knob! It’s becoming a trend here in the US, as more and more people learn of the dirty door knob statistic.

  25. Ruth Simmons says:

    There were 2 teachers at my infants school in the 1960’s who took exception to me eating with my knife in my left hand. I f either approached my table, I would simply swap the knife to my right hand then switch back after they had left! I am shocked that this is still happening, maybe Catherine should take it up with the school governors.

  26. Carol says:

    Tell the school to but out. Your son’s happiness is more important

  27. Katy says:

    If your son’s school insist in “bullying” your son into usung his cutlery the wrong way round see if you can change his school. Failing that I would get the education authority involved. If you get no help from them contact your MP. This, in my opinion, is bullying and shouldn’t be allowed, especially by a school.
    What would be for his own good would be if he was left to his own devices.

  28. Val Banton says:

    Glad your son is better Catherine.
    Just for the record, my family probably proves the inconsistency.
    Father, left handed, knife and fork LH, Spoon RH, just a knife for bread etc RH
    Mother, RH, K&F RH, Spoon RH, Just knife RH
    Myself, LH, K&F RH, spoon LH, just a knife either
    Son 1, RH, K&F LH, spoon RH, just knife RH
    Daughter, RH, K&F RH, Spoon RH, just knife RH
    Son 2 RH, K&F RH, Spoon either, just Knife LH, (guitar started LH but changed to fit in better
    and now RH, but still pretty good with left!)

  29. jo says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I am ALWAYS confused when given a fork and spoon for eating gateau in a dish for example….I never know which hand to put what in and always feel so clumsy!

  30. Paul Miles says:

    I consider that forcing a child to use implements of any description in anything other than their preferred hand is child abuse. I am a retired primary school teacher (left-handed, with two leftie daughters) and, from my professional experience, know of the mental harm that can be caused by the thoughtlessness inflicted upon Catherine’s son. I spent 20 years of my career trying to make my colleagues aware of the physical and mental needs of their left-handed pupils. I am willing to come to the boy’s school to support Catherine in her dispute with the school, or provide further evidence to email to Catherine.

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