Even When You are Busy, Consider a Tea Break

A cup of coffee may be what gets you started in the morning but, when afternoon comes, nothing can be more refreshing and revitalizing as a cup of tea.  Even during a busy day, stopping for tea time can be the ultimate treat.

Tea has had this reputation as an afternoon necessity for centuries. Civilized people have long welcomed that time about mid-afternoon as a time of respite and refreshment.  It became a more ingrained food tradition by the time of Henry VIII in the 15th Century through the reign of Charles II in the 17th Century when it was a habit of the masses. By the time of Queen Victoria in the 19th  Century, between 3:30 and 5:30 in the afternoon, it was a practice of nearly everyone to have afternoon tea.

In our busy lives, it is often difficult to honor the tradition of those days of the past with a full and substantial tea gathering, but it is a wonderful break, fancy or not, to observe this, however. If you are making your tea break an afternoon tea party, it can run the gamut from simple to grand. Either is usually a gathering that lasts about an hour.

Simple is just as it sounds…all you need is some good tea to brew (perhaps a Darjeeling, English Breakfast or Earl Grey), some pretty cups and saucers (mugs are never appropriate for serving tea except if you are enjoying it at your desk or kitchen counter), spoons, delicate napkins, a bright or subtly beautiful teapot and accompanying sugar server and a pitcher for milk (cream is usually considered more appropriate for coffee).  Lemon slices, not wedges, are a perfect addition.

Casual tea services are aplenty now in both modern ceramic shapes in vivid colors and designs often with matching teacups and saucers.  Tea services usually come with a large tray that all the pieces fit on, a teapot…strainer, sugar and milk server.  Often there is a bowl that the strainer can fit on when you have finished using it to serve the tea.

For a grander tea party, get more elaborate with delicate porcelain cups and tea service with accompanying pieces, perhaps in sterling or polished metals for serving the sugar, milk, and lemon… add some delectable pastries for nibbles such as scones, small tarts or cookies.  “Grand” doesn’t equate to “high” tea, as that expression covers a tea that is more like a supper, even though many misuse the expression to connote a very fancy tea. 



First, for those who serve the tea:

  • Serve the brewed tea using loose leaves as a first preference, second using bags. 

  • Heat the water and warm the piece you will serve the tea in by pouring hot water in it. Pour out the water than add the boiling water and the loose leaves or tea bags. 

  • Let the tea steep. This usually takes 3-7 minutes. For an extra touch, look to cover your teapot with a tea cozy, a cloth cover for a teapot that is used to keep the contents warm.  When the tea has steeped, serve. 

  • If you have used loose tea leaves, hold the strainer over the cup to hold the tea leaves. Some people, like the tea added in the cup already filled about a third of the way with milk. Then add the tea.  Many Brit tea connoisseurs prefer it this way.

  • Be sure to have lemon slices (a fork for these is so delicate and pretty) and sugar that can be in little squares served with tongs or plain sugar served with a spoon. Provide spoons so that people can add their own sweeteners or lemon. 

  • If you serve iced tea, it is always nice to make a sugar syrup that can be poured into the tea rather than sugar that needs to dissolve.

Now, for those who are served tea:

  • If the tea bag is in the cup, don’t squeeze and remove the bag to the saucer under your cup. The draining tea from the bag will get under your cup and drip on you.  If there is no receptacle for the tea bag, leave it in the cup. 

  • A thoughtful hostess will provide a place for the bag to go. Don’t even consider wrapping the string of the teabag around the bag to help get out every ounce of flavor.  And, don’t wrap the string around the handle of your cup!  Even if it is a temptation. And, never bob the teabag up and down in your cup.

  • Never leave a spoon in a cup.  Always place it on the saucer beside the cup.  This is a steadfast rule, even with soup…never leave a spoon in a bowl or cup.  And when it comes to a dish like a parfait, the rule holds fast…always put a spoon on the plate below, not in the glass or bowl that holds what you have been eating.

  • Here’s one more never: If you want to dunk a biscotti or doughnut in your coffee, it’s permissible when you are on your own, but at tea, no dunking!

  • Hold the cup in your hand and bring it to your mouth, don’t bend down to sip from the cup.  And, don’t blow on too-hot tea to cool it or don’t ask for ice cubes. 

  • Stir your tea quietly without hitting the sides of the cup or scraping the bottom of it with the spoon. 

  • Even on a chilly day, don’t cradle your teacup in your hands. And, by all means, never stick your pinky finger up in the air in that affected manner.  Your fingers should be close to your palm as they hold the cup handle. 



Catherine S. Arcure is a professional etiquette instructor, certified by the American School of Protocol®. During her many years as a food editor and writer, Catherine not only attracted a large and loyal following but also took every opportunity to educate readers in the social graces. As a director of development for the University of Michigan and other educational and performance-related organizations, she planned and coordinated major social events for groups ranging from 20 to 2000. In addition to cultural and volunteer activities in Manhattan, Catherine enjoys spending time with her twin grandsons, who are among her most avid students. If you have enrollment questions, please contact Catherine at her email at  csarcure@att.net.