Outdoor Entertaining

Almost-Free Ways to Make Your Table Look Uniquely Amazing

Create dreamy centerpieces and mood lighting with the materials you already have on hand.

April 20, 2018
Photo by Food52

This article was updated in January 2024.

I get a particular mini-thrill each time I thumb through a new catalog (or scroll through the Food52 Shop) filled with inspiring, over-the-top shots…of tablescapes! Yes, tablescapes. The extreme levels of matching leave me giddy—the placemats, the runners, the napkins—as well as the sheer amount of stuff that is packed onto each table: plates on plates on plates, oh my. And don’t even get me started on the glassware.

But then, after soaking it all in for a moment...I realize that there is no way I’ll be buying everything I’d need to recreate that look at home. Luckily for me and everyone else who dreams of pulling off a gorgeously decked-out table (in addition to the meal), there’s so much beauty to be found in working with what you have—not to mention, it can be a lot of fun, too. Below are 7 easy and nearly free ways to decorate your table to a state of stunning abundance using stuff you very well may have sitting around.

Photo by Rocky Luten

1) DIY a cool centerpiece

Use...Produce trimmings

We used kitchen scraps to create the unique display you see, assembling radish roots, carrot and kohlrabi tops, bok choy and celery “butts,” and more in a fun, graphic way. Whether you go with a single large platter, individual vases, or a mix, selecting just a few of your favorite scraps, cleaning them well first, and thoughtfully arranging them will ensure a strikingly scrappy centerpiece (rather than confusion about potentially misplaced compost). You can also add life by sprouting scraps like leeks, green onions or carrot greens. Just follow this easy method (you only need one week, sunshine, and fresh water!) and watch them transform into something new.

2) Give floral arrangements a scrappy twist

Use...Produce greens

Yes, vegetable scraps like fennel fronds and carrot tops are completely edible, but they also can be put to use on your table. Work them into more traditional flower arrangements (along with flowers from vegetables and herbs, like chive blossoms and fennel flowers), or spotlight them solo by plunking each type in its own vase.

Photo by Rocky Luten

3) Create a cozy home for candles

Use...Empty glass and ceramic containers

Squirreling away these containers is a smart move for storing leftovers—and you can also use them as candle holders on your table. I like small glass containers for tea lights, like those from yogurts or jam. Here we reused juice jars for taper candles. These are especially helpful for outdoor gatherings as they protect the flames from gusts of wind. You can nestle tippy candles in a bed of sand within the container. (Don’t have a long-nose lighter? Not to worry, Food52er lemons has a smart trick: “Just light the end of a piece of spaghetti—uncooked, obviously—and use it to reach down into the container and light the wick.”) If you want to take the DIY-ing up a notch, try pouring your own candles into (heat-proof!) jars, tins, or even mugs.

Photo by Food52

4) Improvise vases with Pitchers, Cookware or Recycling Bin Cast-Offs

Use...Tin cans, empty glass bottles, a pot or pitcher

Sometimes humble metal cans have cool graphic labels that you want to show off (especially tomato and coffee cans). Turn them into vases for flower arrangements, and try coordinating the colors of your flowers with those on the can. If the cans have less-than-exciting labels, no worries: Just take ‘em off. And, of course, there’s no need to limit yourself to cans. Give any pretty empty vessel that catches your eye new life as a vase—like this Dansk butter warmer or pitcher.

Photo by James Ransom

5) Give your table texture with a simple runner


I keep cheesecloth on hand for when the Saturday-morning urge to make ricotta strikes, and I’ve been known to reuse it after whipping up my batch of cheese to add softness and textural interest to table settings (rinsed out well and dried first, of course). Longer lengths make an effortless table runner (as we did in the photo above). If you want to change up its natural color, try dying it with—you guessed it—vegetable scraps (suggestions for scraps to use, here and here—both egg-dying tutorials, but the same principles apply).

6) Create a (couldn’t-be-easier) pizza pedestal

Use...An empty tomato can

One of my favorite local pizza places uses cheery, paper-labeled tomato cans to put pizzas on. It’s a table space-saver that makes me smile every time. You can adopt the same strategy at home, and there’s no reason to stick to just pizzas: Elevate appetizers, bread, or dessert on a platter or tray, and you’ll have ample room for food and your scrappy tablescape.

Photo by James Ransom

7) Add a little atmosphere with oil lamps

Use...Empty glass bottles

Sometimes glass bottles, especially liquor bottles with snazzy retro labels, are so cool it can almost be painful to relegate them to the recycling bin. So don’t! Use lamp oil and a flat cotton wick to give them a new life as flickering oil lamps, and add some fun mood lighting to your table at the same time.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Bill Sue Ringgold
    Bill Sue Ringgold
  • Lindsay-Jean Hard
    Lindsay-Jean Hard
I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.


Bill S. April 22, 2018
After spending all my money on ingredients for thanksgiving last year I didn’t want to spend more for table decor. Used some empty tomato and bean cans filled with sunflowers and garden greens, Kraft paper table runner. Lots of compliments from our guests! If it’s free, it’s for me!
Lindsay-Jean H. April 23, 2018
Love that! Kraft paper is so useful for so many things.