How to Set a Table for Any Occasion (Plus, the Rules to Break)

The art, and science, behind it.

July 31, 2019

Is table-setting an art or a science? It's an answer we've been looking for (unsuccessfully) for years. Setting the table can be more than a little nerve-racking for most (don't worry, you're far from alone). There seem to be so many rules, it's hard to keep track of them. And then again, some rules can be broken—but which ones are those?

Here are our maps for basic, casual, and formal place settings, so that you're covered for every occasion. 

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First, the ABCs of table setting: 

• Place the plates on the center of the placemat.
• Lay the napkin to the left of the plate. 
• Place flatware from the outside in, according to what you'll be using first (anyone who's seen Pretty Woman knows that one).
• Knifes always sit to the right of the plates, and the blades always face in, toward the plate.
• The water glass sits above the knife, sort of where 1 o'clock would be on a clock face.
• The fork generally sits to the left of the plate, with, or placed on, the napkin. 
• Spoons always go to the right of knives.  

While these are the foundational guidelines for setting a table, it's important to remember to relax. Your table doesn't always need to look like it's jumped right off a Pinterest board. Often, we worry so much about getting every last detail right that we forget that when you invite guests over for a home-cooked meal, the last thing they're probably complaining about is how you set your table. 

Basic Table Setting


The basic table setting is what most of us would use for weeknight dinners (that don't involve a TV dinner), or a weekend breakfast with the family. There's really no need for frills in this case, unless you want them.

The basic table setting includes:

• A dinner plate
• A fork to the left, a knife, and a spoon to the right
• A drinking glass over the knife, and a napkin to the left of the plate, or on it

If this is a casual weeknight affair, and you aren't serving a dish that requires a spoon, you can happily leave it off your table. If you like the idea of using placemats, these could upgrade your Wednesday dinners without getting too fussy.  

Informal Table Setting


Maybe you're hosting a casual brunch for friends, or you're making a nice (but not that nice) dinner, and your menu includes a few courses. This is the informal setting you're looking for, according to these etiquette experts. Read into that what you will, because it looks pretty fancy to us. Essentially, you need to think of the informal setting as a built-up version of the casual setting. However, if the only upgrade from casual you're thinking of is that there's wine and an appetizer thrown in, subtract from this as you will. 

In this setting, you have: 

• A napkin resting where your dinner plate will go
• A salad fork and a dinner fork, arranged outside-in
• A soup spoon, if you're serving soup, a dessert spoon, and a dinner knife (yes, in that order, even though dessert comes after entrées). 
• A salad plate to the left of your forks
• The bread plate, with the appropriate knife, above the forks
• A water glass with a wine glass to its right
• A tea or coffee cup to the right of the wine glass

Formal Table Setting


This is the setting for a holiday feast, or any other show-stopping meals you might want to serve. Let's pretend, in this case, that we're serving oysters, soup, salad, a fish course, and and entrée. Traditionally, formal settings also forgo placemats, but that's up to you—some prefer to use a round placement under the charger.

One of the big additions to this setting is the use of a charger, or presentation plate, which is essentially a plate that no one eats from. While the charger does feel very formal, and traditonal 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 Downton Abbey-style kitchen staff making and serving your meals). If you own chargers, though, and like using them, more power to you.

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 to 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
• If using a placecard, the most traditional is to center it to the plate, at the top

After each course, the associated plate or bowl is cleared to make room for the next, which takes the position of the previous. After dinner, dessert and coffee or tea will be served separately with the appropriate serveware, of course. Unless, you're entertaining at Buckingham Palace, in which case dessert cutlery is always included in the setting, and is always above the plate. 

Going Rogue 

There are some rules, like knife blades facing the plate or arranging cutlery outside-in, that we try not to break but we're always open to new ideas that mix things up on the table-setting front. Here are some of ours:

• Breaking out the fine china is great, but so is showing off your creativity by mixing—and matching—different sets of china—just make sure they complement each other in color or pattern. A simple trick is to have one style for your basic place settings and mix it up with the accent pieces such as the salad and dessert plates. 
• Throw in some colorful glassware instead of sticking with a colorless glass palette.
• Mix antique with new serveware for added juxtaposition.
• Add an elaborately folded napkin with a more traditional napkin ring, or wrap it with a seasonal material. Or do something fun and have it pop up out of the glass. Or hang it off the table.
• Have fun with picking tablecloths and runners to add color and texture to your setting.

Now that we've got a better handle on setting tables for various occasions, we can safely focus on anticipating and avoiding other common entertaining mishaps.

How do you go rogue? Are there any rules you stick to, no matter what? Tell us in the comments! 

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Claire August 1, 2019
Could anyone tell me where table linen in the last picture of this article is from? It's gorgeous! :)
Julia August 13, 2019
tia July 31, 2019
For the glasses and bread plates, especially on a crowded table, you can remember which one is supposed to be yours by making the "OK" sign with both hands and looking down at them. Then it's just "b is for bread" and "d is for drink" and you know bread is to the left and your drink is to the right.
Eleanor M. July 31, 2019
I think napkin rings are lovely but an unnecessary affectation when used for occasional guest diners. In my (British) husband's childhood, the family's napkin rings (numbered 1,2,3 and 4) denoted whose (cloth) napkin was whose, since these were not washed after every use. If a guest is only going to be eating the one meal, it is likely that the napkins will be laundered after and there is really no reason to ring them.
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.