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How to Set Your Dinner Table for Any Occasion

Linda is a writer and lover of cooking and entertaining. Unique preparation techniques, gourmet food, and fine wine are her favorite topics.

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It’s time to pull out your fancy china and get ready for your upcoming dinner party. Inviting friends and family, preparing the menu, cooking, and setting the proper table can be a nerve-racking affair. Whether you’re hosting a formal four-course dinner, your family meal, a holiday buffet, or an outdoor barbecue, there’s a certain arrangement for table linens, plates, glasses, and utensils that you should abide by.

We’ll show you how to set the table for your next occasion depending on whether its basic, formal, or casual. Once you learn where everything goes, you can have fun mixing and matching dinnerware, sourcing beautiful napkins, and making a centerpiece to create a colorful table.

Basic Everyday Table Setting

To get ready for a simple family dinner or Sunday breakfast, there’s a simple way to set a basic table. Eating at the kitchen table or on the island makes it much more comfortable than using the formal dining room. An everyday meal helps bring your family together. Sit down to a meal and talk about everyone's daily activities without TV and smartphone distractions. All you need for a basic table setting is a placement, utensils (a fork, knife and spoon), a dinner plate, a drinking glass, and a fabric or paper napkin.

  1. Put a placemat at each place setting.
  2. Center the dinner plate on the placemat.
  3. Position the fork on the left side of the plate.
  4. Place the knife to the right of the plate with the cutting edge facing inward.
  5. The spoon goes next to the right of the knife.
  6. Set the drinking glass at the top right corner above the knife.
  7. Place the folded napkin on the dinner plate or under the fork.
This is the basic table setting for your everyday family meal.

This is the basic table setting for your everyday family meal.

Fancy Formal Table Setting

If you’re planning to host a fancy sit down dinner party, you’ll need quite a few items to set the formal table for your guests. Start with a tablecloth, centerpiece, and chargers. Pull together plenty of dinner plates, soup bowls, salad plates, bread plates, cloth napkins, salad forks, knives, forks, soup spoons, butter knives, dessert spoons, water glasses, and wine stems for reds and whites.

While it may seem a formidable task, it's relatively easy to make the leap from an everyday table setting to a setting for a four-course dinner. A basic place setting is simply embellished with additional utensils and dinnerware. To arrange the formal table, you must position each item in the right spot. Your gorgeous dinner table will be ready before the guests arrive.

Note: A tablecloth is preferred for a formal gathering.

  1. Use a charger at each place.
  2. Position the dinner plate, salad plate, or soup bowl in the center of the charger.
  3. The bread plate is just to the left of the center.
  4. Put the butter knife with its handle facing right across the bread plate.
  5. Place the cloth napkin on the plate or the left of the charger.
  6. The dinner fork goes to the left of the charger and the salad fork is on the outside.
  7. The dinner knife, teaspoon, and soup spoon are on the right of the charger.
  8. The water glass and red wine and white wine glasses are above the knife and spoons.
  9. If you have a coffee cup and saucer, place them to the right of the plate and utensils.
  10. Place the dessert fork handle to the left and the dessert spoon handle to the right above the charger.
  11. The place card should be on the center of the plate or above the dessert and fork.
Make sure you have each item in the proper place.

Make sure you have each item in the proper place.

Casual Buffet Table Setting

An indoor buffet or outdoor cookout makes is less formal than a sit-down dinner party. A buffet can be set up on the kitchen island, a picnic table, sideboard, or a portable folding table. These casual meals don't require place settings, but it’s nice to add centerpieces to spruce up the buffet table and seating area.

Planning a pot-luck or buffet gives you a bit of a breather and provides a laid-back setting to enjoy your friends and a self-serve meal. Draw out a diagram of the buffet table to see how it will flow. It begins with taking a plate, choosing cold and hot food dishes, breads, condiments, utensils, and napkins. The buffet line culminates with a table for beverages and desserts.

Position platters and serving bowls in a logical arrangement. Make sure similar foods are placed next to each other. Keep cold foods together and hot dishes side by side. Use ladles, large spoons, or tongs in the serving dishes and squeeze bottles for salad dressings and sauces to make it easier for guests to balance their plates.

  1. Use a large surface for the buffet.
  2. Create plenty of space around the table.
  3. Place plates at the beginning of the table.
  4. Label the foods.
  5. Place main dishes, sides, cold foods, breads and condiments.
  6. If you have room, add a table decoration for visual interest.
  7. Cups and beverages are toward the end of the line.
  8. Consider wrapping utensils with napkins so they're easy to grab.
  9. Place drinks, small plates, and desserts on a separate table.
A large table can be used to circulate around the perimeter.

A large table can be used to circulate around the perimeter.

© 2019 Linda Chechar

Start a Conversation!

Linda Chechar (author) from Arizona on May 10, 2019:

Liz, the royal table settings must take hours to set them up. I remember watching the behind the scenes from Downton Abbey. Each place setting had to be precisely measured! The royal banquets must be even more elaborate than the state dinners here at the White House.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 10, 2019:

Great idea to do overhead photo angle. This reminds me a little of programmes about laying tables at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle for state banquets.

Linda Chechar (author) from Arizona on May 09, 2019:

RTalloni, The Family Dinner Project is great! My husband and I set the table for every dinner. We sit and enjoy our meal and spend time sharing conversation. No TV or phones.

RTalloni on May 09, 2019:

Oh how much we miss by not taking the time to do just a little extra to show family and friends how much they mean to us! Thanks for showing how easy it is to set a table for time set aside to enjoy each other over a meal. Thought you might like to see this balanced look from The Family Dinner Project: https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/resources/faq/

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