It’s your turn to host Thanksgiving! Or Christmas! Or whatever. The point is, a bunch of people are coming over to eat, and you have no idea how to set a table that will wow your guests.
But what a hassle! Drag out the plates, count out the silverware, make sure the placemats are clean... Why bother? Everyone wears yoga pants to the office these days, so why not skip the table setting ritual?
I am convinced that learning how to set a table has several benefits for everyone. It’s more than just a handy chore for my kids to earn their allowance. Setting the table helps ensure that everyone at your party has a fabulous time -- including you!
Why You Should Learn How to Set a Table
When I set the table, I’m giving everyone everything they need. Hopefully, if I’ve set the table properly, there’s no need to jump up in the middle of the meal and grab a glass or a knife.
Additionally, knowing how to set a table makes me knowledgeable. It’s not often I dine in style, but I have been to my share of weddings. And, you know what happens when everyone sits down to eat at a wedding, right?
People stare at everything and have no idea which water glass is theirs or which bread plate they’re supposed to use! Inevitably, someone drinks from the wrong glass, and then someone else has to pass an unused one around the table.
However, because I know how to set a table, I know exactly which glass is mine. I don’t worry about grabbing the wrong one. In fact, I try to stake my claim to my water glass early, so everyone else follows suit.
What Every Table Setting Has in Common
Whether you’re at a formal luncheon or a casual dinner party, you’ll notice that every table has a few things in common. I know you know that’s obvious. Of course, we need plates!
However, I’m bringing this up because these basic items form the foundation of nearly every table setting you will encounter. Knowing these basics helps you when faced with 16 forks, 20 knives, and 8 different glasses. Every item at the table has the same set of basic rules, no matter what kind of event you attend.
I know. It’s so obvious, why did I mention it?
Well, there’s more than one kind of plate! There’s the dinner plate, the bread plate, the dessert plate, the charger plate, and a few others I didn’t mention.
The dinner plate
This is the biggest one of the bunch (unless you’re using a charger). This is usually the plate that’s dead center in your place setting. Everything else revolves around it -- literally.
Think of your dinner plate as a compass. It’s going to guide you around the rest of your place setting. Also, imagine a clock face on it with the 12:00 at the very top. This will help orient you to the rest of the dishes.
This is where you can put your bread, nuts, or chewed up gum (but wrapped in a napkin, please!). It’s a small plate that is usually found on the upper left of your dinner plate (around the 10:00 position).
I could never remember which side the bread plate goes on until I learned this handy trick!
Take your hands and hold them over the table, palms down. Make the “OK” sign, then check out your left hand. What do you see?
You should see something that resembles a “b.” And, that “b” stands for “bread.” So, anytime you can’t remember which bread plate is yours, give the table the OK sign and look for the “b.”
There are the basics: fork, knife, spoon. Really, that’s about it. It gets confusing when you’re at a more formal setting because there are more courses, which means more silverware.
We’ll explain later how to set the silverware up, but the easiest way to remember how to set a table with lots of silverware is this: outside, in. The first course you eat should have the silverware at the outermost part of the setting — the next course, the next level in.
For example, if you’re serving a salad course and an entree course, you’d place the dinner fork closest to the plate. Then the salad fork to the side of the dinner fork, so it’s farther away from the plate. As the salad course is served, you take the fork on the outermost layer to eat with.
Cups and glasses
Everyone needs a drink with food. It doesn’t matter if it’s water, juice, or wine. You’ve got to wash all that food down.
Glasses are always on the right side of your plate. If you can’t remember that, use the “OK” trick. Make the OK sign and check out your right hand. You should see a “d.” And what does “d” stand for? Drinks!
I don’t care what my kids say -- pants are not napkins.
You should always set a table with napkins. You can go simple (as we’ll explain below) or fancy (as we’ll also explain below). Paper, linen -- it really doesn’t matter. Just make sure your guests don’t have to use their pants.
How to Set a Table for Any Occasion
Breakfast, brunch, lunch, linner, dinner, or supper. It doesn’t matter what you call it, when it’s time to strap on the feed bag, you’ll want to make sure you know how to set a table for every occasion.
How to set a table with a basic setting
Start by learning how to set a basic place setting. This is a great way to teach kids and unfamiliar adults how to set a table.
Start at center stage
The dinner plate goes first and is the star of the show. Remember? Everything centers around it.
Place the dinner plate in the center of a placemat (or center it at the chair). It should be about one inch from the edge of the table.
The fork goes to the left of the plate. The knife is on the right of the plate with the sharp side pointing in. Place the spoon to the right of the knife.
A glass goes on the right side of the plate, just above the knife and spoon.
There are two places you can place a napkin, and neither is wrong.
You can fold the napkin and place it under the fork, if that’s your thing.
Or, you can place it on the dinner plate. If you place it on the dinner plate, you can roll it up and put a napkin ring on it. However, if you want to get fancy, you can fold it into fun shapes. Usually, shapes are reserved for formal dinners, but they’re fun! And who said pizza night couldn’t be fancy?
How to set a table: The fancier version
You’ve mastered the basic table setting. Fantastic!
Now you’ve got the skills to set a fancier table. How? It’s easy. You build off a basic place setting! This next level table setting skill is perfect for a brunch party or luncheon.
Start with the basics
Set a basic place setting.
What comes next
If you’re serving a salad, place a salad plate on top of the dinner plate and add a salad fork to the left of the dinner fork. Alternatively, you can put the salad plate to the left of the dinner plate if you are not serving bread.
However, if a bowl of soup is on the menu and not a salad, place a soup bowl on top of the dinner plate. Place the soup spoon to the right of the regular spoon.
Soup and salad? Place everything out.
Also, if you’re serving bread, the bread plate goes on the upper left of the dinner plate. And, if you include a separate butter knife, place that across the bread plate.
All the cups and glasses go on the upper right. Any handles point toward the right. In order from right to left, the cups would be a teacup, a wine glass, and then a water glass.
If you’ve got a salad plate on top of the dinner plate, you can place the napkin on the salad plate or fold it into shapes.
However, if you’ve got a bowl, you may not be able to pull this off. In that case, place the napkin under the fork. Alternatively, make a fancy shape and put it in the wine or water glass.
How to set a table: formal settings
Ready for the advanced class? Of course, you are!
Start at the beginning
Start with the basic place setting. Then keep adding on. Really! That’s all there is to it.
If you know you’re going to serve an appetizer course that requires a fork, a salad course, and the main dish, set out three forks. Serving soup and a sorbet course? Place two spoons. It’s that simple.
The only add on, in this case, is that in some settings, a dessert fork and spoon are placed at the top of the dinner plate. Usually, the fork points right and the spoon points left.
If you want to get really fancy, you can set a place card at the top of the dinner plate (on the table at the 12:00 position), and a salt and pepper shaker on each side of the place card (salt on the left, pepper on the right).
But, other than that, it’s just a basic setting amped up!
How to set a table for buffets
Maybe you’re like me, and you don’t really throw a lot of formal dinner parties. Perhaps you prefer potlucks, backyard barbecues, and buffet-style meals.
I get it. However, being casual is no excuse for not setting up a proper table. Even a buffet table needs to be set so that you can properly enjoy the food and the company.
Location, location, location
The single most important part of setting a buffet table is figuring out not only where to place the table, but what room you’re going to have the food in.
If you’re outdoors, you’ve got options. Yet when you’re indoors, you need to consider the flow of the room. Can people move about easily? Will they end up crowding to one end of the room?
Find a location that allows people to approach the food with ease, fill their plates quickly, and get out of the way.
Ideally, you have a large table that you can place somewhere so people can walk down both sides of it. You can feed twice as many people that way. However, you can push the food table up against a wall if you don’t have a large, open space. Just make sure people can move freely and that they won’t get stuck on one end.
What’s first and last
You want to make sure people start and end with everything they need, without having to double back. I know some of this will seem counterintuitive. But, trust me. It will make sense.
At the “start” of the table, the only thing you want to put out is plates. That’s it. Maybe napkins if they’re easy to carry. But you don’t want to include silverware! Why?
The reason is simple -- it’s one more thing that guests have to juggle. Either someone is trying to hold silverware and a plate in their hand while dishing out food, or they have to stop, put everything down, dish the food, pick everything up, and repeat for each stop.
This slows the line down. Place the silverware at the end. It sounds backward, but it’s not.
Also, I speak from experience when I say, placing silverware at the start of the line is a foolish move. Everyone forgets silverware and napkins and has to go back. Every. Single. Time.
Which food goes where?
Technically, there is no correct order to put out the buffet food. However, most experts suggest you do cold food first, then hot food. Why? So your guests aren’t burning their hands holding the plate as they walk down the line!
There you have it. Now you know how to set a table for almost any occasion. What’s even better is that now, the next time you’re at a wedding or fine dining establishment, you won’t look like a deer in headlights when you sit down. You are confident that that water glass is yours and you know that that bread dish is yours.
Even better, you can pass on your new found knowledge to your kids, your relatives, an even your neighbors. Your table setting skills will become legendary. And, before you know it, you’ll be the Martha Stewart of how to set tables!