How to Properly Set a Table

The Emily Post Institute

You’ve probably set a table or two in your day — maybe even starting from the time you were a kid. Whether this was a special holiday task or a daily chore to help out a parent cooking dinner, everything usually seemed pretty straightforward. Fork, knife, spoon, plate, glass, napkin — and done! Time to sit and eat.

You might not think you were missing anything. However, properly setting a table takes more than just the basics. Follow along with this guide and discover how to set a table the right way to make every occasion a little more special. Discover appropriate table settings for a laidback family dinner, as well as a fancy formal event!

Basic Table Settings

The basic table setting is what you might put together for a daily family dinner. A quick reminder that according to The Emily Post Institute, forks go on the left, and spoons and knives go on the right. Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty with a few more specifics:

  1. Place a tablecloth or placemats on your table.
  2. Lay the dinner plate in the center of the placemat or centered on the chair.
  3. Fold a paper napkin and set it to the left of the plate.
  4. Put the fork on top of the napkin.
  5. On the other side, place the knife closest to the plate with the edge facing the plate.
  6. Add the spoon next to the knife.
  7. Put a glass of water a few inches above the space between the knife and the plate.
  8. You can also put a bread plate a few inches above the fork with a butter knife.

If you’re having a soup or salad course ahead of the main meal, place a smaller salad plate and/or soup bowl on top of the main plate. All your plate settings and serving utensils should already be in place for the entire meal from the get-go.

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Slightly Elevated Table Setting

This style of table setting is pretty similar to your basic table setting, with just a few extra pieces. You’ll want to use this style when setting the table for holiday events and dinner parties with a three-course meal because it’s more formal without being too stuffy.

  1. Follow steps 1 – 3 from the basic table setting.
  2. Put the larger dinner fork on the napkin to the left side of the plate, closest to it.
  3. Place the smaller salad fork on the left of the dinner fork.
  4. Add the knife on the left side, closest to the plate, blade side in.
  5. Put the teaspoon to the right of the knife and the soup spoon on the end.
  6. Add a water glass and wine glass a few inches above the spoons and knife.
  7. Place the salad plate to the left of the forks (skip this step if you’re serving a salad with the entree).
  8. If you have bread and butter, place the bread plate and butter knife above the forks.

You also have a few other optional settings here. You can place a dessert fork or spoon above the plate horizontally, with the prongs facing the wine glasses. The spoon would face the other direction. 

If you plan on serving coffee with dessert, you can set a mug and saucer out from the beginning in the space between the forks and the glasses. You may also want to keep these for the end after you clear away the table to avoid a cluttered setting.

Formal Table Setting

The Emily Post Institute

This is the super fancy version of what you’ve seen above, usually reserved for fine dining and expansive holiday meals. It involves lots of china serving bowls and platters, tons of rules, and settings for at least four courses.

  1. Choose a tablecloth and linens. Typically, white is the formal choice, but themed events use other colors as needed.
  2. Place a charger plate centered in front of each chair. You won’t put a dinner plate on top of this until the first course is cleared away.
  3. Fold a napkin and place it on top of the charger plate. You can fold a unique design or simply lay it flat.
  4. If you plan on putting a name card or event gift on top of the plate, you can place the napkin in its normal position to the left of the charger plate.
  5. Put the forks on the left of the plate. The order from closest to the plate and moving out should be salad fork, dinner fork, and fish fork.
  6. On the right side of the plate, you should place the knife, as always, closest to the plate with the blade facing in.
  7. Instead of a spoon, place a fish knife next to the dinner knife. Now, add the soup spoon and an oyster fork on the end.
  8. Place the glasses between the charger plate and the dinner knife, working your way outward to the right: water glass, red or white wine glass, and champagne flute.
  9. The bread plate and butter knife go above the forks, with the knife placed diagonally at the 10 o’clock position.
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You have a lot of options for variation here — especially if you’re not serving a particular course. If you don’t have fish, skip the fish fork and knife. Not serving champagne, don’t put out the flutes. Any unnecessary piece can be left out depending on your personal dinner order.

You’ll also want to keep in mind that plates come out with the food already served instead of arranged in advance. Your charger and butter plates are the only ones that stay on the table. Bring salad and soup courses and remove the accompanying silverware as you clear away each course.

Extra Special Touches

Once your table is set, it’s time to consider the empty spaces in your formal setting and add decorative touches that enhance the overall look and feel of your table. Candles, place cards, and flowers are the most popular. You might choose to have a single centerpiece or lay out the decor symmetrically all along the table, depending on your aesthetic.

Accommodations for Left-Handed People

Traditionally, dinner settings are placed in such a way as to seem natural and intuitive for right-handed people. This means that people with a left dominant hand could have a tougher time eating — especially at a formal table. A few tips to accommodate left-handed diners include:

  • Seat them at the end of the table so they don’t elbow their fellow diners.
  • Place them at the left-hand corner of the table.
  • Pass food from the left to the right if you have more left-handed guests.
  • Reverse the above settings for left-handed diners.
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Final Thoughts

While these are old-school rules that most people may not actually recognize, setting a proper table helps streamline the serving process and makes people feel more at home for the occasion. Consider practicing all levels of table setting so you know what to expect when the time comes for a real event.

And if you’re looking for essential accessories to enhance any table setting, browse some of these free coupon codes to discover the perfect charger plates, silverware, serving utensils, and so much more!

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