How to Set the Table

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

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Modern Floral

One of the hippest trends in floral design right now is the low, mounded bouquet of one type of flower, and it’s surprisingly easy to make at home. Try this arrangement on Valentine’s Day if you receive roses sans a vase, or any day of the year that you treat yourself to some colorful blooms. The trick is using floral oasis foam, about $3 for a large block at craft stores.

Valentine 2010 032


Low & Lovely Roses


  • Valentine 2010 022A small, low bowl
  •  Floral oasis foam
  • Serrated knife
  • One dozen roses (or flowers of your choice)

1. Select a bowl that is about 4 to 5 inches in diameter such as a candy or nut dish, or even a cereal bowl.

2. Using the knife on a suitable cutting surface, trim the oasis foam to fit into the bowl. Following the instructions on the package, soak and float the oasis.

3. Trim the stems of the roses to about 3 to 4 inches, depending on the depth of the bowl. (Save the stems with the leaves attached.) Cut the stem at an angle. Place one rose in the center top of the oasis, then place a rose at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock, keeping them close to the rim of the bowl. Fill in with roses along the rim, creating a ring of flowers. Place the remaining three roses between the center rose and the ring.

Valentine 2010 0234. If desired, fill in any voids with greenery still attached to the stem. (The stem provides the stability to push into the oasis.) Trim the stem close to the leaves. Or, fill in with baby’s breath, purple statice or even sturdy green cuttings from your yard. (I often mix rosemary sprigs with roses.)

5. Check the oasis daily and carefully add water as needed. The flowers should last at least a week.

This arrangement is a great centerpiece for dinner for two or anywhere space is precious.




Finished rose centerpiece

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Planning Day 6: How

By the end of today’s hint, you should have a good handle on your Thanksgiving plans, including dates and times for completing essential tasks like menu planning, food shopping and preparation. Today is perhaps the most fun part of planning, and that’s the how.

How will you decorate the house?

Here are 6 easy, low cost ways to bring the best of the fall season into your home, just in time for Thanksgiving:
– Go outside and see what’s plentiful in your yard: are there seed pods, pretty fallen leaves, pine cones? Display them separately in low, clear vases or layer them in a tall, cylindrical clear container.
– Mound pine cones in a large, shallow dish on the coffee table.
– Pick up a wheat sheaf tied with a satin or velvet bow at a discount department store or craft store. Display on a side table or buffet.
– Add fall leaves (real or faux) to the shelves of a curio cabinet.
– Line up mini pumpkins down the center of a dining table or sideboard, or pile them into a clear bowl.
– Collect autumn-hued glass or pottery objects from around the house and display as a collection on the foyer table or art shelf.

How will you set the table?

Setting a memorable table is a snap when you decide on an overall style, then choose specific elements that fit your theme. First, think about what you already have – you don’t need to break the bank to create a memorable table. To get inspired, look at catalogs and magazines or visit trendy home stores and look at the table displays. How can you re-create that look for less?

Next, decide what mood you would like to set, whether it’s casual, rustic, formal or eclectic. Use the table below for ideas on what to look for to create your perfect tablescape.

Thanksgiving table collage

Table covering: Woven placemats
Napkins/Rings: Cotton napkins tied with hemp rope
Dishware: Stoneware in mixed colors & styles
Centerpiece: Pedestal bowl of gourds & pumpkins

Table covering: None
Napkins/Rings: Cotton, folded
Dishware: Pottery with wooden charger plate
Centerpiece: Wheat sheaf, pine cones, acorns & leaves

Table covering: Linen damask
Napkins/Rings: Linen tied with metallic organza ribbon
Dishware: China with metallic charger plate
Centerpiece: Autumn-hued floral arrangement with winter berries & wheat

Table covering: Layered table runners in varying textures & pattern
Napkins/Rings: Velvet trimmed cotton
Dishware: Everyday chinaware with stoneware salad plates
Centerpiece: Autumn branches in a large clear vase with pine cones & leaves

No matter mood you’re setting, candles make a great addition to the table. Whether you prefer pillars, tapers, votives or tealights (or a combo of all of the above!) keep in mind two points: (1) candles for the dining table should always be unscented (so they don’t interfere with the flavor and scent of the food); and (2) scatter candlelight down the length of the table.

One last tip: if possible, set the table the night before Thanksgiving; it will be one less thing on your to-do list on the big day!

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