How to Set a Table Correctly for Your Next Gathering

By Judy Schumer


How to set a table was a skill taught in home economics classes across the country, and much like the home ec class itself, learning the proper way to set a table has become a thing of the past.


While the formal instruction in schools may have gone by the wayside, the need to know how to set a table hasn’t. People still host events, have friends over for dinner parties, and many just really, really like to construct amazing tablescapes.


We’ll show you how to set a table for three occasions: a casual lunch, an informal dinner, and an informal dinner. At the end of the guide, we also share our favorite tablescape ideas. Take notes, because once you learn how to set a table by practicing once or twice, you’ll find out that, much like learning how to change a tire or how to unclog a toilet, it really is a handy life skill to have!

formal-set table

Photo via Lory @ Designthusiasm


How to Set a Table for a Casual Lunch

If you’re having a casual lunch, whether indoors or outdoors, it’s a good idea to learn the correct way to set a table. Table settings make the meal more enjoyable by having everything your guest needs within reach.

For a place setting at a casual lunch, you’ll need one of each:

  • Placemat
  • Dinner plate
  • Napkin
  • Fork
  • Knife
  • Teaspoon
  • Water glass

The placement of each item for a casual lunch goes like this:

  1. Placemats are laid down on the table first.
  2. The plate is set in the middle of the placemat.
  3. The folded napkin is placed on the left side of the plate, then the fork is placed on top of the napkin.
  4. The other silverware goes on the right side of the plate. The knife is laid down closest to the plate (point the blade toward the plate), and the teaspoon is laid to the right of the knife. The ends of all the silverware should be even with each other.
  5. Finally, the water glass is placed on the table diagonal from the top edge of the plate, directly above the knife. You’ll want it to be close enough to the plate so your guests can easily reach the glass.




How to Set a Table for an Informal Dinner

Learning how to set a table for an informal dinner isn’t much different than how you would set a table for a casual lunch setting. Soup, salad, and wine are often added to the meal, requiring additional place-setting pieces. But if you aren’t serving soup or salad, you won’t need those utensils.

Don’t be afraid to get creative when hosting an informal dinner. Use different china patterns, either as complete place settings or mix and match individual pieces. Or, mix and match the crystal in the same way. Thrift stores are a fantastic place to buy china for a fraction of the price of new dishes.

For place settings at an informal dinner, you’ll need one of each:

  • Placemat
  • Dinner plate
  • Salad plate (if salad is on the menu)
  • Soup bowl (if soup is on the menu)
  • Napkin
  • Dinner fork
  • Salad fork (if salad is on the menu)
  • Dinner knife
  • Teaspoon
  • Soup spoon (if soup is on the menu)
  • Water glass
  • Wine glass

The placement of each item for an informal dinner is as follows:

  1. Lay the placemats down on the table first.
  2. The dinner plate is set in the middle of the placemat.
  3. If you are serving salad, put the salad plate on top of the dinner plate. If you’re serving soup, place the soup bowl on top of the salad plate.
  4. The folded napkin is placed on the table to the left of the plate. The dinner fork is placed on top of the napkin, next to the dinner plate.
  5. If you are going to have salad with your dinner, place the salad fork on the napkin, to the left of the dinner fork.
  6. The knife goes on the table to the right side of the plate, closest to the plate (point the blade towards the plate), then set the teaspoon to the right of the knife.
  7. If you are serving soup as one of your courses, place the soup spoon to the right of the teaspoon spoon.
  8. The ends of all the silverware should be even with each other.
  9. The water glass is placed on the table diagonally from the top of the plate, directly above the knife's point. You’ll put the wine glass to the right of the water glass, slightly above it.




How to Set a Table for a Formal Dinner

If you’re having a formal dinner, whether for a small celebration, a holiday gathering, or a large event like a wedding, knowing how to set a table for a formal dinner is a necessary skill to give your guests everything they’ll need during dinner.


Your setting will depend entirely on your menu. If you aren’t serving soup or bread, you can eliminate the dishes and utensils needed for those.

Before we dive into what you need and where you should put everything, here are a few tips to help you remember where everything goes (and it all makes sense!):

  • A tablecloth takes the place of placemats in a formal table setting.
  • A fork will always be on the left; both are four-letter words (fork/left).
  • A knife and spoon will always go on the right; all are five-letter words (knife/right, spoon/right).
  • You use utensils in a way that’s most comfortable, from the outside in. The eating utensils that are farthest away from the plate are used first. Salad is served first, so the salad fork is farther away from the main course fork. The same goes for the soup spoon, only on the right side. The last utensils to be used are the main utensils (dinner fork, dinner knife) for the main course.
  • Coffee cups and saucers do not need to be placed on the table for the main meal. Coffee is usually served with dessert.

For each place setting at an informal dinner, you’ll need one of each:

  • Napkin
  • Dinner plate
  • Salad plate (if salad is on the menu)
  • Soup bowl (if soup is on the menu)
  • Bread plate
  • Dinner fork
  • Salad fork (if salad is on the menu)
  • Dinner knife
  • Teaspoon
  • Soup spoon (if soup is on the menu)
  • Butter knife
  • Dessert spoon or fork
  • Water glass
  • Red wine glass
  • White wine glass
  • Place cards

The placement of each item for a formal dinner is:

  1. Cover the table with a tablecloth.
  2. Place a dinner plate on the table directly in front of each chair.
  3. If you are serving salad, put the salad plate on top of the dinner plate, and if you’re serving soup, place the soup bowl on top of the salad plate.
  4. The bread plate is placed above the dinner and salad plate, at 10:00 on a clock face. Place the butter knife horizontally on the bread plate with the blade facing downwards towards the chair and the handle pointing right, closer to the dinner plate.
  5. The folded napkin is placed on the table on the left side of the dinner plate. The dinner fork is placed on top of the napkin.
  6. If you’re going to have salad with dinner, place the salad fork on the napkin, to the left of the dinner fork.
  7. The knife is set on the table and to the right side of the plate, closest to the plate (point the blade towards the plate), then set the teaspoon to the right of the knife.
  8. If you’re serving soup to your guests, place the soup spoon to the right of the teaspoon.
  9. Place the dessert spoon horizontally above the dinner plate, with the handle facing right (the same direction as the butter knife). If you are using a dessert fork instead, place it horizontally above the dinner plate, but face the tines to the right and the handle to the left (opposite the way the butter knife is set). If you need both, place the fork above the spoon with the handles going the same direction.
  10. The ends of all the silverware should be even with each other.
  11. The water glass is placed on the table diagonal from the top of the plate and directly above the knife's point. Place the glass for the white wine to the right of the water glass, slightly below it. Place the glass for the red wine to the right of the water, slightly above it, and behind the white wine glass.
  12. Place the place card directly above the dessert spoon or fork (or both, if you’re using both).


Red vs. White

How to tell the difference between red and white wine glasses: White wine glasses have shorter bowls, making it easier for the sipper to smell the wine. Meanwhile, red wine glasses have taller bowls, allowing the user to visually analyze the color and viscosity of the wine.

fall-themed tablescape

Photo via Karins Kottage


More Table-Setting Tips

Part of the fun of inviting guests for a meal is letting your creative side run wild with table decor. Napkin rings, napkin folding, place cards, and centerpieces can all convey the mood you want to set. Holidays are especially fun; you can elevate a simple meal to a sparkling display that’s a treat for your senses.

If you need ideas for tablescapes or individual accents to add to the table setting, look no further. Check out these unique and beautiful ways to dress up your dinner table.


Napkin Rings

Napkin rings are a great finishing touch on a tabletop. If you decide to use napkin rings, place the napkin on top of the dinner plate or at the farthest left spot from the dinner plate, next to the salad fork. Here are some DIY napkin ring ideas from Hometalk:


Folded Napkin Designs

Along with napkin rings, another way to spice up a napkin display is to find a unique way of folding. If you fold your napkins, place them in the center of each salad plate or dinner plate, or place them next to the salad fork in the farthest left position away from the dinner plate. There are endless ways to fold a napkin, but here are a few fun ideas:


Place Cards

Place cards determine where your guests will sit. If you’re hosting a lunch or dinner gathering where the guests are acquaintances to each other, place cards are a great way for them to avoid any awkward and unintentional games of musical chairs. Place cards usually go above the dessert spoon or fork, but you can also display them more prominently by placing them in the middle of the salad plate or dinner plate. A few ideas for homemade place cards include:


Centerpieces and Tablescapes

Centerpieces and tablescapes add flair to your dining experience and can be a key part of your holiday decorating. Just remember: To encourage conversation, make sure diners can see around and over any decorations you place at the table. Here are some tablescape ideas broken down by season and holiday:

Do you decorate your table for holiday meals? Share your decorating tips in the comments; we love to hear from you!

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