Afternoon Tea Course Order

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Traditional afternoon tea is served in three courses and usually on a three-tiered tray alongside a pot of tea. This illustrated guide shows what order afternoon tea should be eaten.

Illustration of an afternoon tea 3-tiered tray.
Credit: Alia Phibes

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It’s not surprising there is such a thing as afternoon tea etiquette since it can be quite a formal (*ahem* dare I say civilized) affair.

There are lots of rules to follow if you want to have proper tea which can be intimidating if you don’t know them.

The first few times I went for afternoon tea, I had no idea what was to be eaten first since everything comes out at the same time, usually on a three-tiered tray. I would just eat whatever caught my eye first.

Over time, I learned the proper order and that made me feel so much more comfortable since I knew I was doing afternoon tea the right way.

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Let’s get started on the courses.

First Course

Tea sandwiches and savories are eaten first. These are small bites that can be eaten in 2-3 bites. It’s funny how afternoon tea, which is seen as so formal requires eating with your fingers.

Eye the sandwiches and savories first before touching one to bring to your plate. You definitely don’t want to be touching anything on the tray that you’re not going to be eating. Eat off your plate.

Don’t place a bitten sandwich back on the tray but I think that goes without saying.

Finish all the tea sandwiches and savories before moving onto the second course.

Second Course

Scones. Well, scones served with jam and clotted cream is eaten next with your fingers.

I did a whole post on how to eat a scone properly so you may find that helpful.

Again, just touch the scone that you’ll be eating from your plate. Scoop a little of the jam and clotted cream using the spoons that are provided with the condiments and put them on your plate.

Knives are used to slather on the jam and cream onto your scones but the scones are eaten with your fingers.

Don’t cross-contaminate the jam and cream and the serving spoons. You don’t want to use the cream spoon to scoop the jam.

Most importantly, don’t use the serving spoons to put the jam or cream directly on your scone.

RELATED: Afternoon Tea 101: Clotted Cream and Devonshire Cream

Third Course

The sweets are the third and final course. This course is also eaten with your fingers.

All pastries and sweets should be small, each one gone in 2-3 bites. Please, don’t be an animal and lick all the sweets and call dibs.

RELATED: Complete List of Places for Afternoon Tea in NYC

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  1. Thank you, I’m going to the famous afternoon tea at Cedric Golet patisserie in Paris. I now know how not to embarrass myself!

  2. I read etiquette articles as a hobby, and this is the first time I read about afternoon tea courses. Thank you so much for posting this – fascinating!

  3. Hi everyone, some notes from Sweden. Next week some of my friends are having en English afternoon tea in our house garden, (all ladies are in the age plus 70,). One problem, only me who is drinki g tea, The other ones Coffee. Ok, cream Will be seved, scones as well, shortbread as well. I do hope to get nice weather and a lot of Sun.

  4. I have been lucky enough to take tea in many places around the world and I have taught tea classes in tea shops and in colleges. The proper order is, indeed, sandwiches, scones, then desserts. H owever, since I was a child I have never liked to finish with sweets. So…… I eat desserts, then savories. Unless it is a cream tea, I let my husband have the scones. I know this is not proper, but afternoon tea can cost a fortune, so I eat it as I please. ☺

  5. Is there a rule about what side of the tower you should choose your food from?
    Example, a tower for two had a strawberry tart but it was directly in front of my companion.
    Would they have first dibs on it?

    1. Hi Keitaya, yes, it would be better etiquette to ask your companion to choose first. Plus, it’s not a good idea to reach over so they would get first dibs.

  6. Pardon me, though I thought the order in which you have eats was scones first, tea sandwiches and savouries second and sweets last.

    Each post on afternoon tea etiquette seems to give a different order of having the food.

    The scones were on the top tier as they were covered with a food warmer in the early days. This meant having it on the first tier. But it is that, though it’s served on the first tier, you didn’t also eat them in the same order?

    This is rather confusing.

    But, if you follow the system of eating savouries first and dessert afterwards, it all makes sense.

  7. Truly a delightful read and illustrations. I laughed out loud several times, especially at “Please, don’t be an animal and lick all the sweets and call dibs.” Thanks for the awesome how-to 🙂