How To Set A Table Perfectly For Any Occasion

Dining set on a wooden table

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

Bouquet of flowers on top of a table
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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

Table with a bouquet of flowers, napkins and white plates
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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.

Plates

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.

Bread plate

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.”

Silverware

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!

Napkins

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

Person setting up a table
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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

Utensil time

Beverages

Napkins

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

What comes next

Drinks

Napkin time

How to set a table: formal settings

Ready for the advanced class? Of course, you are!

Start at the beginning

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

What’s first and last

Which food goes where?

Food’s On!

Top view of a table with plates and food on it
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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!

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