The Proper Way to Set a Table for Any Meal

Olivia Elsher

Jun 17, 2022

the proper way to set a table

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Does the fork go on the left or right? How many plates should I put out? We’re not having soup, but should I still set out a soup spoon? If you want to learn the proper way to set a table for a party, you’ve come to the right place.

Why Does Table Setting Matter?

Setting the table for your weeknight meals isn’t that big of a deal. You certainly don’t need cloth napkins and three forks for your meal of hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. However, you should consider setting the table anytime you want to up your host game for a dinner party.

When guests arrive and see a proper table setting, they know it is a special event. It’s not the burgers and beers they have when they come to watch the game. Putting in the extra effort to make your table look like it came directly from a nice restaurant lets your guests and your family know that you care about them and want to make it an exceptional time. 

It also ensures that everyone has the correct amount of dinnerware. By setting the table in advance of your guests arriving, you know they’ll have everything they need for the dining experience.

1. Basic, Everyday Table Setting

There is no need to go above and beyond during the week. Mastering the basics will set you up for success for more extravagant dining, so start here and practice setting the basic table by yourself or with your family during the week. 

For a basic meal, you’ll need a: 

  • Dinner plate
  • Fork
  • Knife
  • Spoon
  • Napkin
  • Drinking glass
  • Placemat, though not necessary

If you have a placemat, you’ll want to start by laying it on the table in front of the seat. Put the plate in the center of the placemat and place the fork to the plate’s left. Then, you’ll want to set the knife to the left — with the blade facing the plate — and the spoon to the right of the knife. Set the glass above the knife and the napkin to the left of the fork, and you’re set! 

Anything that you don’t need for dinner, you can omit from the place setting. If you’re having soup and have no need for a plate, replace it with a bowl. 

2. Casual Meal Table Setting

A casual table setting takes the basic up a level. A Saturday brunch with your friends or an informal dinner party for your family is the perfect occasion to set the table with a little bit more detail. 

Begin where the basic setting left off, and add a: 

  • Salad plate
  • Bowl
  • Soupspoon
  • Salad fork
  • Wine glass
  • Teacup — or coffee cup, depending on your guests’ desires

From the basic table setting, place the salad plate directly on top of the dinner plate, with the soup bowl to follow. The salad fork will go to the left of the dinner fork, and the soup spoon goes to the dinner spoon’s right. Place the wine glass to the right of the water glass, and then the teacup is placed next to the wine glass. 

Again, if you don’t need one of these items for your meal, simply remove it.

table setting for a formal party

3. Formal Setting For a Dinner Party

Are you ready to host a show-stopping holiday feast? Whether you’re hosting Thanksgiving this year or simply throwing a formal dinner party for kicks, this guide can help you impress.

Preparing the Table

Before you get out all of the bells and whistles to set your table, consider what goes under and around all of the dishes and silverware — the tablecloth and decorations! You don’t want just the place setting to be perfect — you want everything that goes on the table to really wow your guests. 

Iron. The. Tablecloth. It’s all in the details. Smoothing out wrinkles from your clothes makes a good appearance, so why would you skip over ironing the table cloth for a formal dinner? 

It would also help if you decorate your table a bit. Add a few small candles and season-appropriate decor, like a vase of spring flowers or a burlap table runner and some fake fall leaves. 

Setting the Table

Now, you can focus on the dishes. When setting the table for a formal event, add the following:

  • Multiple wine glasses for each type of wine you’ll serve
  • Dessert forks and spoons
  • Service plates
  • Bread plates with butter knives
  • Fish and oyster forks if serving those items
  • Salad plates and bowls as needed

Forego the placemat for a formal setting. Begin by placing the service plate in front of the seat. On top of that, add either a dinner plate, salad plate or soup bowl, depending on which course you’re serving first. To the right, place your knife, spoon, soup spoon and oyster fork in that order. On the left will be the fork, salad fork and fish fork. 

You can choose to place a napkin either to the left of the three forks, under the forks or atop the plate. Above the forks, add the bread plate and butter knife. Keep the water glass directly above the knife on the right, and add wine or champagne glasses next to it. 

If you plan on having dessert, place either a dessert fork or spoon centered above the plate. A spoon faces left, and a fork faces right. 

Because a formal dinner has more courses, it immediately has more dishes and cutlery. Again, add or subtract anything you won’t be using to avoid cluttering the table.

Learn the Proper Way to Set a Table

Setting a table the proper way doesn’t have to be a lost art. Always begin with the basics and add what you need to surprise your guests with an elevated dining experience.

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