If you're having a party, whether 30 or 3 people are coming over, knowing how to properly set a table is an easy way to impress your guests. The "ooo"s and "ahh"s you'll get as folks flow into your dining room to see a fully set table will make the effort worth it. Forks and knives glitter in the candlelight, freshly pressed linen napkins are gently laid over themed chargers, crystal wine glasses sparkle in the light, one for red, one for white, perfectly placed in between plates.
Creating that scene might seem intimidating, but if you know where to put all the different elements of a table setting, you can easily put together a fancy table with minimal effort. To figure out where exactly to place everything, we reached out to etiquette expert Lizzie Post of The Emily Post Institute. Yes, the family business started by etiquette author Emily Post in the early 1900s.
For her, the most important thing to remember is her guests' comfort. "I really want my guests to be comfortable seated with one another, so I'm going to be thinking about spacing," she said. "I also really want my guests to be able to see each other, engage, and have table-wide conversation." That means no giant centerpieces or tall flower arrangements that break up the table.
How to set a table
Depending on how fancy you want to be, you can set a table that reflects different levels of formality. The Emily Post Institute labels these levels as casual, informal, and formal. The more formal the table, the more elements on the table.
Think of most everyday dinners where the table is set. It's a little fancier than a Tuesday night family meal, but not fussy in any way. "I don't think anybody's gonna bat an eyelash at a fork being placed on top of a cloth napkin vs. a paper napkin," Post said.
The plate goes in the middle. The napkin (cloth or paper) is folded with the fork placed on top to the left of the plate. The spoon and knife go to the right of the plate with the knife first, blade facing the plate. The water glass goes just off the right tip of the knife.
Think of a low-key dinner party. It's still fancier than your just-us weekend dinners because you have guests coming over, but doesn't completely clean out your dish cabinet with everything you got on your wedding registry.
In addition to the casual setting, there's a salad plate and soup bowl stacked on top of the dinner plate. Those get cleared out after each course. There's also a wine glass in addition to the water glass. "Your water glass goes closest to the knife tip," Post said of its position. "It's going to be the most accessible glass. If you think about your plate setting, it's at a 40-degree angle."
This is when you get it all out—dishes of all sizes, multiple wine glasses for each person, silverware for every dish. Before you get overwhelmed, let's break it down.
The silverware: The only piece of silverware added here is a smaller salad fork. Always place the silverware in order of use from the outside in. So the salad fork and soup spoon are on the outside, as they are for the first courses. The dessert spoon can be placed above the plate for later in the meal or be brought around when dessert is.
Napkins: If you can, upgrade to cloth napkins. And if you really want to get fancy, you could even press them. "It's set to the left of the fork so that you don't have to move the forks in order to get to the napkin," Post said. "Often the napkin is even folded in such a way so that you really only have to pick up one corner and the whole thing unfolds. You're not dealing with a napkin ring."
Glasses: Use the same rule as earlier. Keep the water glass closest to the plate setting and group or line up the wine glasses behind it. "If you were going to have a Champagne toast at the start of the meal, put that in front of the white wine glass," Post said. "The idea is that you want the glasses to follow in order of the courses with the exception of the water."
Plates: The plate setup is the same, but a charger has been added for decoration. There's also a bread plate to the upper left. "That's on the table from the beginning and will be cleared before the dessert course is served," Post said.
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