How to Set the Table

Posted by on March 9, 2010

When planning a sit-down dinner — whether for a holiday, a dinner party or a festive celebration — a beautiful table setting makes the perfect foundation for a memorable evening.

On any given holiday, one of my tasks was to set the dining room table. Setting the dinner table every night was so often a chore for me, but holidays were different. We ate in the dining room. We used the china, the real silver silverware, crystal glasses, miniature salt and pepper shakers, and even individual china ashtrays (it was the 1980s and smoking was still “in”.) DSCF2241

I would gleefully open my mom’s china cabinet and sit on the floor, pulling out all the china plates and serving dishes, quizzing my mom about the menu so I could select the right silver utensil to serve each of her creations.

And then, without fail, I had to reach for “the book.”

My mom had a beautifully illustrated book entitled Table Settings, Entertaining, and Etiquette by Patricia Easterbrook Roberts, and on holidays it was my guide. I had to get the book to remember how exactly to set the table for a formal dinner (or at least more formal than what we were used to every day). I would flip through the pages, admiring the well-appointed tables and dreaming of dinner at the White House, until I found the place setting diagrams. Below, I’ve recreated what I would call a semi-formal place setting which has become my standard for holiday dinners.


Here are a few reminders when setting your table:

  • Lay utensils in the order in which they will be used from the outside in. (Think about the scene in “Pretty Woman” where the hotel manager is teaching Vivian how to eat like a lady.) In the above diagram, the place is set for a soup course, followed by a salad course, the main course and a dessert course. Alternatively, the spoon could be used for a palate cleanser in between a salad course and the entrée. The spoon is generally on the outside, regardless of the sequence in which it is used.
  • Knife blades should face the plate.
  • The above diagram uses a charger plate under the dinner plate, and a simple, folded napkin. You could also use a decorative napkin ring or tie the napkin with ribbon or twine and place it on the plate.
  • The water glass or goblet is placed at the tip of the dinner knife, and the wine goblet next to the water glass.
  • Place a butter knife on each bread and butter plate. One of my trademarks is to use different butter knives at each place, since I collect antique silver butter knives.
  • For the dessert service, I prefer the European tradition of placing a fork and spoon at the top of the plate.
  • The utensils should be placed one inch from the edge of table, and each place setting should be evenly placed around the table, and directly across from one another.

Here’s the secret of busy hostesses: set the table at least the night before the dinner. I suggest this practice if you are using a formal dining room or you won’t need the kitchen table for meal prep (but I don’t know one cook who doesn’t use the table for something). If you can’t set the table in advance, get all the plates, napkins and utensils ready to go and stack them on one side of the table and cover them with a towel. This will make setting the table a snap on the big day.

For more smart solutions for busy people for gift giving, holidays and decorating, go to