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How to Set a Formal Table

Everything on the table must be geometrically spaced; the centerpiece in the actual center, the “places” at equal distances, and all utensils balanced; beyond this one rule you may set your table as you choose.—Emily Post, 1922
We eat to fill our bellies. But we dine to fill our souls. No matter how caught up we get in our day-to-day routines, a meal is a chance to pause, take stock of what’s important to us, and enjoy time with our family or friends.Setting the table is a great way to remind yourself to dine. You don’t have to set the table “the old fashioned way,” but it does set guests at ease to have utensils and glasses where they expect them to be.

1. Clear the table of everything.

This sounds self-evident, but it’s tempting to shuffle bills and toys around just enough to make room for your plates. Don’t do it. Clutter on the table is the number one way to make a meal hurried and stressed.

2. Make the table as beautiful as you can.

Many families use table cloths. But for families with small children who will inevitably make a mess, consider investing in a set of nice place mats. When you have time, polish wooden tables to add a lovely shine.

3. Set the table with dinner plates spaced evenly apart.

(Vintage Emily Post suggests getting out a tape measure!) Make sure the plates are free from chips or dishwasher film.

4. Place the napkin on the left side of the plate or, if you’ve folded it elaborately, on top of the plate.

Never roll silverware up in a napkin.

5. On the left side of the plate (on top of the napkin), add whatever forks the meal requires.

The rule is to allow guests to work from the outside in. For most American meals, that means salad fork on the far left and dinner fork closer to the plate. (The salad fork is smaller or has fewer prongs than the dinner fork.) Place both forks prongs up. If your utensils are stainless steel, run over them with a damp cloth to remove any spots from the dishwasher. If you are using silver for a special occasion, be sure to polish it. (“Have silver that shines or none.”)

A well-laid formal table

6. On the right side of the plate, add your knives and spoons.

Again, guests will work from the outside in. For most American meals, that means the soup spoon (if you’re serving soup) on the far right with the tablespoon and then knife closer to the plate. The spoons go scoop-side up. And always face knives in, toward the plate, to prevent guests cutting themselves.

7. You can add a dessert spoon or fork directly above the plate.

Many American cutlery sets no longer have dessert utensils. Cheat and use a soup spoon or salad fork if you won’t be using them for separate courses.

8. Place a water glass at the top and to the right of the knife and spoon.

If you’re serving wine, wine glasses are either grouped to the right of the goblet or in a straight line slanting down from the goblet to the right. Polish glasses with a damp cloth as you set the table to remove dishwasher spots.

9. If you’re serving salad, add a salad plate to the left of the napkin and forks.

Bread plates go above the napkin and forks.

10. Don’t be afraid to use place cards

Place cards are especially useful if you’re hosting a meal with many people who don’t know each other—or if you’re trying to play matchmaker. The goal of a large dinner party is to make new friends or improve friendships, not to accommodate an intimate tête-à-tête.  Seat guests together who might enjoy each others’ company but who don’t know each other well. (Traditionally, husbands and wives never sit next to each other except at the most casual of meals.) Once you’ve decided a seating arrangement, neatly write your guests’ names on simple cards, about 1.5” high x 2” long. Put the place card on the table above the plate.

A beautiful table makes for a seamless and elegant dinner.

10 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on Caroline's Plate and commented:
    Love this tragic yet comical story. I think everyone can relate. Especially those with little ones (they can mess up hard work any day).

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  8. My mom has a great solution to the tablecloth problem. She purchases a piece of clear vinyl from your local fabric store, the size of a tablecloth. Right now it is covering (and protecting) a beautiful lace tablecloth, but she has also used wrapping paper and wallpaper for fun, seasonal table coverings. The vinyl is easily cleaned, and the table always looks nice!

  9. I love setting a formal table! It is so pretty. I blogged about my dishes in a post this summer…Don’t Knock it Until You Try It.=)
    When we visited Windsor Castle they mentioned using rulers, etc. to make sure everything is precise. I just eyeball it.
    Also, if your plates have a design, make sure the design is the right way, and consistent around the table.


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