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How to Set a Table

posted in Around the Kitchen by Kathy Maister

Many of us are in the habit of eating in front of the TV. Yes, the nightly news and ‘Entertainment Tonight’ are OK once in a while, but given a choice, I would rather have a bit of candlelight and conversation.

An ordinary, simple, plain, basic meal can be turned into an occasion by just taking the time to “set” the table. The first year my husband and I were together, we ate in the dining room every single night, by candle light, no matter what I made for dinner. It was wonderful! We don’t do it that way as regularly now, but it’s special when we do.

There are a just few basic rules about setting a table.

First, the plate should be approximately one inch from the edge of the table. The forks go on the left, and the knives go on the right, with the sharp side of the knife pointed towards the plate. Water or wine glasses go just above the knife.

For a more formal setting, the bread plate goes to the left of the fork. If you have a small knife for the bread or rolls, lie it across the bread plate.

Forks and spoons for dessert are placed at a cross ways at the top of the plate.

Most people wait to put coffee cups out until after the main meal is served, but whether you do it before or after, they go to the right of the knife.

To summarize, if you’re sitting down at a formal setting, the bread plate on your left is yours, you reach for the drinking glasses on your right. If there is more than one fork and knife start from the outside and work your way in for each course.

There is nothing better than candlelight to add a bit of ambiance to a meal. Even if you are eating off paper plates with plastic cutlery, you could change the entire tone of the meal by dimming the lights and eating by candlelight. But remember, the dinner table is not the place to use scented candles. You don’t want the scent of the candle to compete with the food.

In fact, watch out for other scents. Make sure the scent from flowers is not overwhelming the room or the food. Perfumes and aftershaves are great as long as you don’t drench yourself before dinner.

Centerpieces (e.g., flower displays) should not be too high as to block the view of another dinner across the table. Talk about a conversation stopper!

Any other tips for improving a simple but elegant table setting?

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Claire said:

This post made me laugh because my mom is always asking me which side of the plate the fork goes on! She always wants to put it on the right! However, in seventh grade, my school requires a class called Career Discovery, in which there is a unit that teaches you how to set the table. Over all these years I have remembered that the fork goes on the LEFT with the knife and spoon on the right. I don’t know if mama will ever remember!

Marko said:

I set table in my family for years, and I do it very well, even though it’s not some kind of hard job. I had some problems while I was 10 when I started setting the table, especially because of the position of eating utensils, but I found the way to solve that problem, and it was very easy. I would have taken a fork in one hand, a knife in another, and if that fits with me, then it’s ok, if not – I would’ve changed the places. After years (now I’m 18), setting eating utensils became a mechanical action.

I’m new to cooking (actually I don’t know a thing), next school year I have to go to university, and must learn how to cook. That’s how I found this site on the Internet. Thanks Kathy very much.


Kathy Maister said:

Welcome to Marko! Good luck at school and I am delighted to be able to be a help to you in learning how to cook! Cheers!

Jim said:

OK, so why does the last picture show the KNIFE with the sharp side away from the plate? That is always a “no, no.”!

Kathy Maister said:

Hi Jim – Shall we tell Macy’s! :-)

If you look carefully, the handle of the knife in the bottom photo is oddly shaped. The designer of this flatware clearly has made up new rules!

Anne-Lisse said:

I love how your site isn’t just limited to recipes and cooking. What a lovely post on table settings. I’m planning to open and bed and breakfast next year so this will be very helpful!

Linda said:

I am planning an Italian dinner party. Where should I place the little olive oil dish for bread dipping? I will have a dinner plate, salad plate, bread plate and a wine glass on the table at the same time. Help?


startcooking said:

Hi Linda,
I’m not sure that there is an official place for small olive oil dishes???

At restaurants one dish is often shared and set in the center of the table. I have also seen the dishes placed on the left side near the bread dish.

I love dipping bread in good olive oil and I am sure your guests will consider it a real treat!

Have a Ball!

Shanna said:

I am bookmarking this article for future reference. It’s very handy!

And I have a simple trick for remembering in what order to set the utensils: alphabetically! Forks, Knifes, Spoons. F – K – S.

It doesn’t help with the details of desert spoons and salad forks, but it definitely helps with the basics, anyway.

startcooking said:

HA! Great idea!

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