Do you know how to set a table? It may be a dying art, but it’s still relevant those few times a year when we gather in thanks and celebration. A well set table makes a meal so much more enjoyable ~ let’s break it down!
If you’re a coffee table diner like I am, you might have forgotten how to set a proper table. Suddenly the holidays appear on the horizon and I’ve got to dig through my stash to find what I need for 8 this year. I figured some of you might be in the same boat, so today I’m breaking down the main points of setting a modern, practical table (no fish forks here, promise.)
When you think about it, good table setting is all about allowing your guests to have the best experience possible with your fabulous meal. It gives them the tools they need, where they need them, to chow down in the most enjoyable way!
is there a “correct” way to set the table?
There’s a time honored system for setting a formal table that’s been around for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way. I often go rogue and set my own table any which way, because it’s just not important to me, but there are those times when you want to ‘do it right’. So for those who are interested, I’ve tried to strike a balance between tradition and modern practicality. Here you’ll find the traditional placement of dishes and utensils for a multi-course meal, but there won’t be fish forks, six different beverage glasses, or weird utensils you have no idea what to do with (looking at you asparagus tongs.)
table setting: the basics
how to set a modern formal table
- butter knife and bread plate – above and to the left of the dinner plate
- salad/appetizer fork – to the left of the dinner plate, on the outside
- dinner fork – to the left of the dinner plate, on the inside
- dinner knife – to the right of the dinner plate, on the inside
- soup spoon – to the right of the dinner plate, on the outside
- dessert spoon and fork – placed horizontally above the dinner plate
- wine glasses (for white and red wine) – above and to the right of the dinner plate
- water glass – above and to the right of the dinner plate
- dinner plate – in the center of the place setting
- salad/appetizer plate – on top of the dinner plate
- napkin – on top of the salad/appetizer plate
In general, you use your utensils from the outside in, so the appetizer and soup utensils are on the outside of the setting (furthest away from the plate), and the dinner knife and fork are closer to the plate. So as a meal starts you use the flatware from the outside first, and work your way in as the meal progresses. Try to allow at least 24 inches of table space, per person.
Not serving soup? Just dispense with any utensils or dishes for courses you aren’t serving at your meal.
tips for mixing and matching
Didn’t inherit Grandma’s place settings for 24? Don’t panic! A mismatched look can be totally chic and brings a cozy, cazh vibe to your table. Here are a few tricks to achieving a cohesive look that isn’t matchy-matchy.
- If you have a lot of different dishes, but not a single large set that matches, pick a “theme” that will help you pick and choose a grouping that goes well together. Eclectic or vintage patterns from the thrift store look great together, or if you have a lot of white dishes, pick a second accent color to carry throughout your table, like gold, or green.
- I’m partial to the full fledged mix and match, meaning I purposely mix color opposites for an eclectic flair.
- The thrift store is a great place to inexpensively pick up a few items to round out your collection. Look for flatware in the same metal tone and finish as what you already own to keep things cohesive. It’s also a great way to be able to pick up individual pieces of flatware, rather than the sets that are often sold at stores.
- Think outside the box when it comes to drinkware. If you don’t have enough traditional wine glasses, many people love to drink their wine out of smaller juice glasses, or stemless wine glasses. They’re inexpensive and can be used by the family year round. Canning jars make a cute, rustic statement as drink ware, too!
old school napkin etiquette still applies!
- Napkins can be placed to the left of the forks, under the forks, or on the dinner plate.
- When you sit down, wait for your host to put their napkin in their lap before doing so yourself.
- If there is a napkin ring, place it to the left of your plate.
- Unfold your napkin above your lap, under the table.
- If you need to leave the table during a meal, place your napkin on your seat.
- Keep your napkin on your lap even after the meal is over.
- When leaving the table at the end of a meal, place the napkin to the left of the plate.
- And it goes without saying…no nose blowing, bib tucking, or spit-outs at any time.
napkin folding techniques
You can have a lot of fun folding your napkins in classic, or not so classic ways. I love this simple video from Pottery Barn demonstrating 3 classic folds.
how to use and care for silverware
If you’re hauling out silverware for a once or twice a year special occasion be sure to check out my post all about how to use and care for old silverware. Vintage silver and silver plate can and should be used, often!
do you need place cards?
Unless your group is quite large, I would dispense with formal place cards and let guests sit where they like. Place cards are more appropriate for a wedding, not a holiday meal.
now that you’ve got your table settings sorted, how about some recipes?
Here are a few meals worthy of a perfectly set table…
Questions and Reviews
Re: Table Setting, it would be great to have a “printable” form of this article to send to grandchildren.
I love that idea, I’ll work on it!
Thanks for the information – a lovely set table is so inviting and sets the mood and pace for the whole evening too. One of my favourite things is the thinking up center pieces. One thing that is also nice is keeping decorum because I think many people have lost the art of just enjoying someone’s company with pleasant chit chat. No politics!!!! lollolol
I don’t think your table setting is wrong but I think it is how you set it in America.
I was taught to put the dessert spoon and fork on the inside of the line of cutlery. Also there would not be the pile of plates already set in place.
I think, mostly, people are just glad to get their dinner!!
Yes, that’s the way my mom and grandmoms did it when I was growing up. Having them above the plate is more formal, but I think makes sense so people don’t confuse them with the main meal utensils.
Thanks for the reminder, we’re a pretty casual family but for special occasions it’s great info to have handy!
I’m ultra casual, but I did check my own diagram today!
This is wrong. Never place a napkin on a chair , not ever. If soiled it could damage the seat. Place the napkin to to the left of the plate. “If you need to leave the table during a meal, place your napkin on your seat.
According to my training, the napkin should not go back onto the table until you’re finished with your meal and are getting ready to leave. If leaving the table briefly (going to the restroom) the napkin goes on the chair. This is corroborated by many in my research, here for example.