How to Set a Dinner Table to Impress Your Guests

You’re cooking up a storm to serve for a special dinner party or formal holiday gathering. But what about setting the table? That’s important, too. A beautifully arranged table will make your quests feel extra special–as well as compliment every dish you serve.

Formal place setting

Photo by David A. Land

A properly set table–think efficient and practical for eating purposes–isn’t rocket science, and it will show you’re a thoughtful host or hostess. It will also keep you calm and able to enjoy your guests during dinner because everything needed will already be on the table. We’ll outline the basic steps for setting a festive table so you feel totally confident about which fork goes where. Have no fear! It’s easy!

“FORKS” is the Clue
Start by placing the dinner plate in the center of a placement, or centered in front of a dining chair about two inches from the table edge. Next, say the word “FORKS.” This is your key to the order of the silverware you’ll place on either side of the plate. Starting on the left, “F” is for fork, “O” is for the dinner plate (its shape), “R” — well, skip that letter–and “K” is for the knife on the right side of the plate, followed by “S” for spoon. Always turn the blade of the knife in, to face the edge of the plate. (A tradition probably leftover from medieval days to symbolize no one at the dinner table would become aggressive!)

If you’re including a separate fork for salad, place this on the outside of the main dinner fork because it will be used first. What to remember: Silverware is placed on the table in the order it will be used; silverware used first should be on the farthest left and right sides of the plate.

Napkins
Once the silverware is in its proper place, arrange a folded napkin (open side towards the edge of the plate) on the left (outside) of the fork. As an alternative, folded napkins may be placed on the dinner plate, or inserted into the wine or water glass. Think festive!

Bread Plates, Salad Plates, and Glasses
Next up: if it’s a formal dinner, you’ll use small plates for bread and salad, and the stemware or glasses for water, wine and other beverages. Here’s another trick to help you remember their placement: Snap the thumb and first finger of your left hand together to make a “b,” and then do the same with your right hand to make a “d.” What does this mean?

  • “b” is for bread and butter – Bread and butter plates, plus the salad plates, go on the left side of the dinner plate above the fork; butter plates first over the fork, salad plates above them. Butter knives are placed horizontally across the butter plate.
  • “d” is for drinks – Glasses go on the right side. Place the water glass directly above the knife tip, and the wine glass to the right of the water glass.
table setting

Photo by Peter Krumhardt

All the Extras
Are you serving soup? If yes, place the soup bowl or soup plate (a shallow rimmed plate) on top of the dinner plate. (Fill the bowls in the kitchen; it’s easier!) And yes, you will remove the bowl before serving the main course. Tip: Remember to include an extra spoon for the soup–on the right, outside.

Having dessert and coffee or tea? Once all the main course dishes are cleared (including the salt and pepper shakers) from the dining table, place cups and saucers for each person on the right side below the water glass.

Where do the dessert plates go? They may be placed in front of each person, or serve the dessert at the table, and then pass the servings to your guests. A dessert fork or spoon may be placed on the plate, or, when you first set the table, place it above the dinner plate with its handle pointing to the right (Remember where the water glass is? That’s the correct direction.) so it’s easy for right-handed guests to pick up.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a link to a helpful refresher course video: How to Set a Table.

More Table-Setting Tips

  • When serving multiple courses, many hosts opt to serve them in sequence and place only the specific dish at the original table setting. For example, if soup will be served first, the soup bowl will be placed on top of the dinner plate and the salad dish can be brought out after the soup bowl and spoon have been cleared.
  • Avoid placing more silverware on the table than the meal calls for; casual meals won’t require multiple forks and spoons, but it’s still helpful to place them in the correct order.
  • Dessert silverware may be placed at the original table setting if you wish. The dessert fork or spoon should be centered above and parallel to the dinner plate.
  • Name cards are always a good idea for place settings if the dinner party is large and you want guests to mix and mingle. Place the cards above the dessert silverware, centered above the dinner plate.
  • Seeking ideas for a gorgeous holiday table? Here’s an article packed with ideas to inspire you: Recipe for the Perfect Seasonal Tablescape

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