How to Set a Table – Proper Table Setting for a Formal Dinner

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Setting a table properly for a formal dinner is not difficult and you don’t need to have a lot of expensive dishes to make the table look nice.  While there are many variations to setting a table, the one illustrated is the most common.  Proper table setting is a must if you are planning a formal dinner party.

set a table

Proper Table Setting

Start with a cloth tablecloth or placemats and arrange a place setting for every person to be seated for dinner.  It’s not unusual to add one or two folding tables to reach the desired space required to seat everyone comfortably.

Make sure to allow enough room around the table(s) so guests can easily pull their chair back and rise, without being hindered by other furniture in the area. Plan and review your dining set-up several days ahead of your formal dinner, so you have time to borrow chairs and tables if need be.

Proper Table Setting

Think of a table place setting in terms of two rows, an upper row for the bread, beverage glasses or cup and a bottom row for the main place setting.

Top Row from Left to Right:

  • Bread plate with butter knife  – top left of dinner plate
  • Coffee cup and saucer or mug – should be top right of the dinner plate
  • Water glass – by bread plate
  • Wine and/or liqueur glass – top right

Bottom Row from Left to Right:

  • Salad fork (short fork)
  • Dinner fork (long fork)
  • Dessert fork (short fork)
  • Dinner plate, topped with either a salad plate or soup bowl
  • Small spoon
  • Knife
  • Soup spoon

Napkin Placement Options:

  • Inside empty water glass
  • Folded on the dinner plate
  • Folded beside the flatware on the left

Cloth napkins look the nicest and are best for placing inside the water glass or with a napkin ring to the left beside the cutlery.  Disposable napkins are quite acceptable and these are better placed folded on the plate or under the cutlery on the left.

Items That Give a Table Flair

  • An inexpensive plate charger placed under the dinner plates; or use one under the centerpiece
  • Napkin rings –  ensure you have enough for all the guests
  • A centerpiece – even a simple floral arrangement, seasonal ornament or candle trio can make a statement
  • Party favors to set the mood – can be placed on the dinner plate or just above it.
  • Place names –  if you want a designated seating arrangement
  • Wine glass charms – so guests can tell which glass is their’s
  • Candles are nice –  use unscented candles with guests and safe candle holders

Frugal Table Setting Tips:

  • Always cover folding tables for a ‘polished’ look.  Use a cloth tablecloth, clean solid color sheet or disposable tablecloth
  • A simple festive centerpiece can be a large glass vase or brandy sniffer filled with fresh cranberries floating in water, with a few orange slices and cinnamon sticks visible on the sides through the glass.
  • You can also add a couple of fresh evergreen boughs on the table, on each side of the centerpiece.
  • A fruit-laden platter also makes a nice table centerpiece
  • Not enough cutlery?  Borrow from a friend for a formal dinner; leave plastic cutlery for picnics
  • Choose a napkin color that compliments the centerpiece or table decor
  • Add a welcoming, naturally scented air freshener by simmering a little water in a pot on the range, with a couple of orange slices and sticks of cinnamon – half an hour before guests arrive or during the meal
  • You can find various plate chargers at dollar retailers


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