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How to Set a Table

How to Set a Table

Photo of a beautiful table in grays, whites, and crystal wine glasses on a gray linen tablecloth. The title "How to Set a Table Like a Pro" is superimposed over the photo.

“How to Set a Table” may no longer be regularly taught in public school, but it is NOT a lost art! Setting a proper table isn’t hard, and everyone enjoys the beauty of an organized and attractive scene for a meal. A properly set table makes the meal seem fancy and attractive, no matter how inexpensive or basic your flatware, dishes, glassware, and menu are. Read on to learn where to put the wine glass, whether to use a tablecloth or placemat, and so much more!

Teach the next generation how to set a table by giving them the table setting diagrams in this article (we have provided a printable version) and asking them to copy it when they set the table for you. As a result, they’ll grow up more confident about their ability to host family meals and dinner parties.

Photo of six round tables beautifully set in white, gold, and blush for an outdoor event. This image represents proper spacing around and between tables.

The Tables and Chairs

For comfort, try to give each guest 24” inches of space at the table. A more formal table setting may require more space per guest, simply because there are more utensils, dishes, and glasses per setting.

Try to leave three feet around the table. This much space (minimum) will allow your guests to pull out their chairs and seat themselves comfortably.

Photo of fine china and crystal wine glasses on a silver tablecloth with black and white sequined polka dots. A silver silk napkin lays on top of a dinner plate. This image represents choosing the table linens carefully.

The Backdrop (Tablecloth and Placemats)

Use either placemats, a tablecloth, or both. Usually a table cloth gives a more formal feel, but there are certainly casual occasions where a tablecloth is the perfect backdrop to your table setting. An example would be serving a casual Italian meal on a red checkered tablecloth.

If you choose to use both a tablecloth and placemats, make sure you don’t make the table too busy. Usually, one needs to be a solid color coordinating with the pattern or print on the other. You’ll also need to consider the pattern on your dishes and napkins when choosing your placemats and/or tablecloth.

Different fabrics and textures can lend a more casual or more formal look to your table setting, so keep that in mind. Jute or denim placemats are definitely more casual than lace or linen!

Photo of a low flower arrangement of pink, burgundy, and greenery on a wooden table with wine glasses and gold-rimmed white china. This image represents choosing an appropriate centerpiece when learning how to set a table.

The Centerpiece

You may or may not want a centerpiece on your table. The main rule of dining table centerpieces is to not obstruct the view of your guests. If you choose a low centerpiece, guests will be able to admire it but see over it to converse. A tall centerpiece needs to be slender at your guests’ eye level when seated; it can then fan out at a higher level where it won’t be in the way of the guests’ line of sight. If serving the meal family style (with the food in the center of the table), the food itself can serve as your centerpiece.

Traditional centerpiece choices would include flowers, plants, fruit, candles, or a mixture of these. Other possibilities include sculptures; natural elements like wood, seashells, pinecones, antlers, gourds, etc.; pottery; books; empty vases or bottles; and baskets.

Make sure your table is protected from wax when using real candles and from water when using plants. Fresh or dried arrangements should not be in a position to “shed” into your guests’ food.

Photo of a black and white checked tablecloth with a round basket weave charger topped with a white dinner plate and silverware. A blue denim napkin is artistically folded with a silver napkin ring on top of the plate. This image represents the napkin portion of learning how to set a table.

A Note About Napkins

The cheapest paper napkin (or even paper towel) looks nicer when folded in half and tucked under the fork, so take the time on this little detail when you set a table—it’s worth it.

Consider the menu when you choose your napkins. Most people would prefer a sturdy paper napkin over a fancy cloth one when eating barbecue. If you want to use your best white linen napkins when serving spaghetti with tomato sauce, be prepared to have to treat and soak your napkins immediately after the meal, or they’ll be ruined.

Napkins can be folded with the crease toward or away from the plate, but this needs to be consistent at each place setting.

If you want to be adventurous with your napkin folding, there are lots of great tutorial videos on YouTube. A napkin—whether paper or cloth—folded in a fun or fancy way can add a lovely touch to any table.

We’ll go into specific napkin placement under each type of table setting.

A graphic with a black background and the text "How to Set a Table Like a Pro" in red and white with the Big Plate logo. It includes a visual representation of a basic table setting, as described in the text below.

Basic Place Setting

  1. When you set a basic table, first choose your backdrop. If a tablecloth, center the tablecloth on the table. If a placemat, center the placemat directly in front of each seat as close to the table’s edge as possible.
  2. Second center the plate on the placemat or in front of the seat if you’re not using a placemat. All the cutlery, glassware, and other dishes will be arranged around the plate at the center. Depending on the size and shape of the placemat, the plate may need to be further down on the placemat than directly centered top to bottom. The plate needs to be 1-2” from the table’s edge.
  3. Next place the cutlery on the table as follows, each with the bottom of the utensil aligned with the bottom of the plate: fork to the left of the plate, knife to the right of the plate with the blade facing the plate, and spoon to the right of the knife.
  4. Then put the napkin in one of three places: folded or in a napkin ring centered on the plate, folded or in a napkin ring to the left of the fork, or folded underneath the fork.
  5. Finally place the beverage glass on the right side of the plate, above the knife.
A graphic with a black background and the text "How to Set a Table Like a Pro" in red and white with the Big Plate logo. It includes a visual representation of an informal table setting, as described in the text below.

Informal Place Setting

  1. When you set an informal table, first choose your backdrop. If a tablecloth, center the tablecloth on the table. If a placemat, center the placemat directly in front of each seat as close to the table’s edge as possible.
  2. Center the plate on the placemat or in front of the seat if you’re not using a placemat. All the cutlery, glassware, and other dishes will be arranged around the plate at the center. Depending on the size and shape of the placemat, the plate may need to be further down on the placemat than directly centered top to bottom. The plate needs to be 1-2” from the table’s edge.
  3. Then center the salad plate on top of the dinner plate.
  4. Place the cutlery on the table as follows, each with the bottom of the utensil aligned with the bottom of the plate: dinner fork to the left of the plate, salad fork to the left of the dinner fork, knife to the right of the plate with the blade facing the plate, teaspoon to the right of the knife, and soup spoon to the right of the teaspoon.
  5. Next put the napkin in one of three places: folded or in a napkin ring centered on the plate, folded or in a napkin ring to the left of the fork, or folded underneath the fork.
  6. Place the wine glass above the knife.
  7. Finally put the water glass above and to the left of the wine glass.
A graphic with a black background and the text "How to Set a Table Like a Pro" in red and white with the Big Plate logo. It includes a visual representation of a formal table setting, as described in the text below.

Formal Place Setting

  1. When you set a formal table, first choose your backdrop. If a tablecloth, center the tablecloth on the table. If a placemat, center the placemat directly in front of each seat as close to the table’s edge as possible.
  2. Center the charger on the placemat (horizontally) or in front of the seat if you’re not using a placemat. All the cutlery, glassware, and other dishes will be arranged around the charger at the center. The charger needs to be about 1” from the table’s edge.
  3. Then center the dinner plate on the charger.
  4. Center the salad plate on the dinner plate.
  5. Next place the bread plate above and to the left of the charger (above where the forks will go).
  6. Put the cutlery on the table as follows, each with the bottom of the utensil aligned with the bottom of the plate: dinner fork to the left of the plate, salad fork to the left of the dinner fork, knife to the right of the plate with the blade facing the plate, teaspoon to the right of the knife, soup spoon to the right of the teaspoon, bread knife across the bread plate with the blade pointing left and down, cake fork above the charger with the tines pointing right, and the dessert spoon above the cake fork with the spoon end on the left.
  7. Then place the napkin in one of two places: folded or in a napkin ring centered on the plate, or folded or in a napkin ring to the left of the fork.
  8. Put the white wine glass above the knife.
  9. Next place the water glass above and to the left of the white wine glass.
  10. Put the red wine glass above and to the right of the white wine glass.
  11. Finally place the cup and saucer to the right of the soup spoon, with the cup’s handle on the right side.

Now you’re ready to host an event! Remember: it’s not about having the finest china or serving the most expensive wine. Make the best of what you already have by placing it in the proper table setting appropriate for your menu. Happy entertaining!

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