Tips & Techniques

How to Set a Table

November 16, 2012

Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today: breaking down the art, or science, of setting the table. 

Glasses  Napkins

Setting the table can be a little nerve-wracking. There seem to be so many rules, who can keep track of them all? Now that the season of hosting is upon us, we thought it'd be helpful to break down the art, or science, of setting the table. We'll also give you maps for basic, informal, and formal place settings. 

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The simplest rules of table settings: 

• Place utensils from the outside in, according to what you'll be using first (anyone who's seen Pretty Woman knows that one).
• Knife blades always face in, toward the plate.
• The water glass sits above the knife. 
• The fork generally sits to the left of the plate, with the napkin. 
• Spoons always go to the right of knives.  

The most important thing to remember: Relax. We promise that whenever you invite guests over for a home-cooked meal, they won't go away complaining about how you set your table. 

Basic Table Setting


The basic table setting is what most of us would use for weeknight dinners. No need for too many frills, unless you want them. 

The basic table setting includes:

• a dinner plate
• a fork, a knife, and a spoon
• a drinking glass and a napkin

If this is a casual weeknight affair, and you aren't serving a dish that requires a spoon, we won't tell anyone if you leave it off your table. 

Informal Table Setting


Maybe you're having a fancy brunch, or you're making a nice-but-not-too-nice dinner, and your menu includes three courses. The informal setting is what you're looking for. 

In this setting, you have: 

• A napkin resting where your dinner plate will go
• A salad fork and a dinner fork, arranged according to which dish you'll be eating first
• A soup spoon, if you're serving soup, a dessert spoon, and a dinner knife (yes, in that order)
• A salad bowl to the left of your forks
• The bread plate, with the appropriate knife, above the forks
• A water glass, a wine glass, and a tea or coffee cup

They say this is informal, read into that what you will. Looks fancy to us! 

Formal Table Setting


This is the setting for a holiday feast, or any other show-stopping meals you might serve. Let's pretend we're serving oysters, soup, salad, a fish course, and and entree.

Your setting will need: 

• A charger, or service plate, resting under the plate your first course will be served in
• A salad fork, a fish fork, and a dinner fork
• An oyster fork (which is the only fork that sits on the right of the plate), a soup spoon, fish knife, and a dinner knife
• Bread plate and butter knife above the forks
• A water glass, a white wine glass, and a red wine glass

 And after dinner, dessert and coffee or tea will be served with the proper serveware, of course. 

That big plate in the center is the charger. Food never touches it. While it does feel very formal, and etiquette dictates that it's a proper part of the formal table setting, we sometimes feel like it's just another dish to wash (and like they make more sense if you have a Downton Abbey-style kitchen staff making and serving your meals). If you have chargers, and like using them, more power to you. 

Dishes  Silverware  

Going Rogue 

There are some rules, like knife blades facing the plate, that we would never break but we're open to new ideas on the table setting front. How do you go rogue? Mix up the plates, or silverware? And are there any rules you stick to, no matter what? We want to hear about it. 


Whooz C. December 6, 2014
What a lovely article. Yes, asparagus is eaten with one's fingers wih small warm water bowls, with a slice of lemon in, placed above the bread plate to clean one's fingers in afterwards. In England the pudding cutlery is put across the top of the plate in informal settings. Bread rolls are never cut but broken or torn with fingers; the knife is merely for buttering the roll. We use decorative 'wine glass charms' that are placed around the stem of a glass to keep track of one's wine.
Lori November 16, 2014
It never seizes to amaze me how many adults do not know the basics of the proper table setting. Blades in is my biggest pet peeve!
baker2 October 19, 2014
I love charger plates and white dishes which don't fight with the colors of food. Charger plates can add color and interest to a table and on occasion when setting a table will leave them under the dinner plate. It may not be according to rules but.................
Robin S. October 2, 2014
At formal affairs, we always use pretty metal (gold, copper, silver) napkin holders, sometimes different ones used at the same event for people to remember which place setting (and drink glasses) were theirs by placing their holder below and a bit to the side of their glasses. I'm now idly wondering: Is there any proper/improper etiquette debate on napkin holders?
dymnyno November 18, 2012
We always set the water glass just above the knife. Wine glasses are set above the plate so that we can compare the wines. We usually have at least 2 or more glasses of wine and they are poured from left to right, so a third or fourth glass is placed to the right of the other glasses. Usually we are comparing vintages or if a guest brings a bottle from his cellar, we add that to the lineup too.
vvvanessa November 17, 2012
This reminds me of a sweet little video a friend of mine is in:
mrslarkin November 16, 2012
Oh boy, fancy!! i love table settings! If I won the lottery, I'd move to a house with a room just for the many vintage china and flatware sets I'd collect. But for now, we use my 21 y.o. chipped stoneware, and on special occasions, my Limoges wedding china.

My dad was a career waiter, and taught my sister and I early on how to properly set the table. Tablecloths were always mandatory. Paper napkins were okay, as long as they were on the right side of the plate. Also, an easy way I learned to remember the cutlery order is it's in alphabetical order, left to right - fork, knife, spoon.

One of my favorite things I found this Fall where the "fake" paper plates and red solo cups. They are fun and awesome, and top-rack dishwasher safe. We use them often.
Droplet November 16, 2012
You've managed to gracefully compact things, Kristy. One thing that I always noted during family gatherings when I was growing up is how a few hours into the event (not to mention by the end of it), when we haven't seen each other for a while, everybody has moved to sit by somebody else to chat some and soon we start asking each other which glass belongs to whom. I like the visual of placing the dessert fork at the top setting as well. Also, when more than one type of alcohol will be served, we put the glasses for the second and third variety in a cluster at the table and let those who wish to drink the alternative, to pick a glass for themselves.
katiecookstoo November 18, 2012
Interesting to read about your glass solution. With some still drinking cocktails, some wanting white wine, others red wine and then those who want tea and water or just tea, catering to the individual choice means the number and kinds of glasses can get way out of hand! I'm interested in how others handle this.
cheese1227 November 16, 2012
My mother in law puts the teaspoon and dessert fork at the top of the setting, between the glasses. Wondering if that is a British thing. She would know. Her mother made it so that when all three of her children went to Oxford, their less than higher class roots would not be evident in their table manners. They had to peel oranges at the table with a knife and fork. The only thing properly eaten with your fingers is asparagus, I am told.
Author Comment
Kristy M. November 16, 2012
I've heard that about asparagus, too.
The placement of dessert spoons and forks depends on how many utensils are already on the table. No more than three of any implement are to be on the table at one time, with the exception of the oyster fork. So if you don't already have three forks and spoons in a setting, feel free to add the dessert utensils above the dinner plate! I love the way that looks. Another detail from my research says that the tines of the fork always point to the right, and the tip of the spoon always points left (so when dinner service is cleared, the dessert implements conveniently slide to their proper sides of the dessert plate). I got into this research, can you tell?
Happy table setting!
Bonnie April 21, 2014
I am curious a to eating asparagus with your fingers. It this really proper? Thank you.
cheese1227 November 16, 2012
I love a beautifully set table. So pleased to see you passing along the rules of engagement (while still keeping things open for a little creativity.)
Author Comment
Kristy M. November 16, 2012
Thanks, cheese1227! These rules are definitely good to know, but I love to see how people mix things up.