The Right Way to Set a Table for Any Occasion

·4 min read

If you weren't one of those kids whose nightly chore was to set the table—or if you're facing your first formal dinner party, and the concept of multiple forks seems overwhelming— setting a table can be a daunting task. Where does the bread plate go (do I need a bread plate?!)? How many forks is too many forks? And what about glasses? Dessert spoon—what?! And while many of the "rules" of traditional, formal dining à la Emily Post may seem archaic today, the fundamentals remain the same, whether you're setting for a state dinner or a casual birthday brunch. And the best part it, once you know how to do it right, you'll have no problem setting any table—and, hopefully, even having a little fun with it. So without further ado, let's learn the rules.

Photo credit: Marco Ricca
Photo credit: Marco Ricca

For a formal table

Photo credit: Alice Morgan for House Beautiful
Photo credit: Alice Morgan for House Beautiful

We'll start with a formal table, because once you know how to do that, you can essentially just subtract the items you're not using to set a more casual version.

  1. Placemat: If you're using one, this should be the first thing you lay down, as it will serve as a kind of guide for the rest of the setting. Place the placemat one inch from the edge of the table.

  2. Charger: The charger is the term for the large plate that goes under all other plates—for a formal, served dinner, this is what the waitstaff will use to hold other plates when serving. In a more casual setting, you'd substitute this for the dinner, or largest, plate (more on that later). Put this in the center of the placemat.

  3. Napkin: There are several ways you can get creative with napkin placement. For a traditional layout, fold the napkin and place it to the left of the charger. Looking to switch it up? Try folding the napkin in a rectangle on top of the charger and under the salad plate, or using a napkin ring and placing it atop the plates.

  4. Dinner Plate: The largest plate, this goes atop the charger, centered.

  5. Salad Plate: Put this on top of the dinner plate. Note: depending on the meal being served, you may not have a salad plate, or have a soup bowl instead (in that case, put the soup bowl here!).

  6. Bread Plate: The bread plate goes on the upper left corner of the placemat.

  7. Forks: Place the forks to the left of the plates (usually on top of the napkin) in the order you'll use them. That means salad fork on the outside and dinner fork on the inside. If you're having seafood, place the fish fork accordingly. One exception: Hold off on the dessert fork!

  8. Dinner Knife: Place this to the right of the plates, closest to them.

  9. Spoons: Place these to the right of the knife, again, going outwards in in order of course (a good way to remember this is that RIGHT has 5 letters, like KNIFE and SPOON, the utensils that go there; LEFT has four letters, like FORK). Hold off on the dessert spoon.

  10. Dessert Utensils: The dessert spoon or fork goes above the plates, centered.

  11. Butter Knife: The butter knife can go either under the dessert spoon or knife or, if you have two dessert utensils, atop the bread plate.

  12. Water Glass: The water glass goes on the top right corner of the placemat.

  13. Wine Glass: Next to the water glass on the top right. Red wine gets the larger glass, white gets the smaller size.

  14. Champagne Glass: Next to the wine!

  15. Place Card: The place card traditionally goes above the dessert utensils, but if you're entertaining, feel free to have fun with it. Put the card with a name atop the plates, write it on a piece of fruit or other accessory, or use an unexpected vessel, like a teacup!

For a casual table

Photo credit: Alice Morgan for House Beautiful
Photo credit: Alice Morgan for House Beautiful

For a casual table, you'll use essentially the same method as above, just omitting any elements you're not using. Here's a breakdown:

  1. Plate: Place the largest plate in the center of the setting, either atop a placemat or not!

  2. Napkin: Place to the left of the plate or atop it (a napkin ring is a great way to add a pop to a casual table).

  3. Fork: On the left!

  4. Knife: On the right!

  5. Spoon: On the right!

  6. Glasses: Top right!

Once your table settings are complete (try to leave around 4 inches between each one), you're ready to move onto the fun part: decorating your table! Add candles, flower arrangements, or unexpected elements, like fruits, vegetables, or your favorite decorative objects. The more unexpected, the more interesting. After all, there's no better way to set the scene for a fun dinner party than with a conversation starter. Bon appétit!

Need some inspiration? See how designers set creative tablescapes below:

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Lead video styling by Lindsay Keller.

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