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How to Set a Table for Every Occasion

well set table
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Parachute Team
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Knowing where to place every dish and piece of silverware within a place setting — not to mention the napkin and glassware — was once common knowledge. But in the modern world, lots of folks have no idea where to start.

So, how do you set the table? This guide will give you clear, step-by-step instructions on how to set silverware on a table and how to set a table properly for everyday meals, special occasions and formal dinners.

Why Table Setting Is Important

Why should anyone learn the proper position for plates, bowls, flatware and glasses? In decades past, the reasons were rooted in old-fashioned etiquette rules granting status to the host and showing how much effort they put into the meal. The correct place setting also tells diners which part of the meal is coming next and what to use for each course, in a full-course meal.

You (and/or your guests) may not be too concerned with these details. Still, knowing where to place each piece simply makes your tablescape look beautifully complete and the occasion feel more special even (who says daily breakfast, lunch and dinner can’t be occasions?).

Casual Table Setting Instructions

Let's start with casual table settings — how you’d set the table for nightly dinners at home with your family. This includes just the basics: a dinner plate, a water glass, a napkin and whatever silverware the meal calls for.

Here's how to set a table for everyday meals.

1. Set the plate on the table in the center of the seat. (You can straighten and space the chairs before getting started, and use them as a guide for your place settings.)

2. Place the folded napkin on the left side of the plate.

3. Set the fork on top of the napkin.

4. If the dinner calls for a butter knife or steak knife, place it on the right side of the plate, without a napkin underneath.

5. Set the water glass on the table just above the plate and slightly to the right — at roughly 1 o'clock if the plate were a clock.

Casual Table Setting Tips and Considerations

Some people like to use placemats for daily at-home meals. In that case, you'll set the placemat down first, centering it with the chair, then follow the above steps.

You could also place the folded napkin on top of the plate, but in many cases, this is considered a more formal setup. Lastly, if the meal calls for a spoon, you have the option to place it to the left of the fork on the napkin, or to the right of the knife on the table.

How to Set a Formal Table

If you're hosting a dinner party or planning a holiday meal with more than two courses, you'll want to go with more formal table settings.

You'll need a tablecloth, cloth napkins, placemats or chargers, dinner plates, salad plates, bread plates, soup bowls, dinner forks, salad forks, butter knives, steak knives, soup spoons, dessert spoons, water glasses and wine glasses. (Some pieces are optional, of course, and will ultimately depend on the meal you're serving.)

Here's how to set a table for dinner on special occasions.

1. Place the tablecloth evenly across the table. (You may want to iron it first to ensure it's smooth and wrinkle-free.)

2. Set a placemat or charger at each seat, centered in front of the chair.

3. Place the soup bowl in the middle of the placemat or charger.

4. Set the bread plate to the upper left of the place setting at about 11 o'clock.

5. Place the folded cloth napkin on the left side of the charger or to the left of the soup bowl on the placemat.

6. Set the dinner fork on the inside of the napkin (closest to the bowl) and the salad fork next to it on the outside.

7. Place the butter knife horizontally over the bread plate with the blade facing down and in.

8. Set the steak knife to the right of the soup bowl with the blade facing in, followed by the soup spoon.

9. Place the dessert spoon directly over the charger, horizontally, with the handle pointing right.

10. Set the water glass directly above the steak knife, then put the white or red wine glass to the right and roughly an inch down.

Proper Formal Table Setting Etiquette and Considerations

Once we know how to set a formal table, there are a few other things to consider when hosting a formal table gathering. 

Once the first course is finished, you'll clear the bread plate, soup bowl, butter knife and soup spoon and set down the salad plates. After those are cleared, you'll place a dinner plate in the center of each place setting.

When positioning flatware, be sure to space things evenly with about a half inch between each piece. If there's room for it, some formal plate settings put the napkin to the left of the forks instead of underneath them. Another option is to place it on top of the salad (if salad is the first course rather than soup).

If you're serving two types of wine, place a second wine glass just to the right and about an inch down from the first one. And if you're using name cards for your dinner, set them right above the dessert spoons.

How to Set a Table for Informal Dinners or Luncheons

What about when you're hosting less formal occasions, like a birthday party, dinner with friends or a luncheon?

Here's how to set a dinner table for informal occasions.

1. Start by setting a placemat in front of each seat.

2. Place a dinner plate in the center of each placemat.

3. Set a folded napkin on the placemat, so it lays to the left of the plate.

4. Put a dinner fork (and a salad fork if needed) on the napkin.

5. Place a steak knife, butter knife and/or soup spoon on the right side of the plate.

6. Put a water glass on the placemat, positioning it at around 1 o'clock.

More Tips and Considerations for a Sit-Down Dinner

Instead of using folded napkins, you can place rolled napkins on top of the plates. Consider tying them in the center with twine, colored ribbon or another material that nods to the theme of the event.

You might serve food family-style when hosting informal dinners and more casual get-togethers. In that case, you'll start with most pieces on the table and have everyone pass the food around. You can place a water pitcher on the table and offer wine and other alcoholic beverages on demand.

Find more tips for creating a stunning tablescape in our blog, Table Linens: Behind the Design + Styling Tips.

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Set a Table

Find answers to frequently asked questions about how to properly set a table below.

What is the correct way to set a table?

It depends on the occasion, but for a standard table setting, you can start by setting a dinner plate in the center of the place setting (on a placemat or directly on the table). Next, put a folded napkin to the left of the plate, and set a fork on top. Then place a butter knife (and/or steak knife) on the right. Finish with a water glass above the plate and slightly to the right.

What are the six rules for table setting?

The six rules for table setting are that 1) forks always go on the left, 2) knives always go on the right, 3) flatware is placed in the order it'll be used, 4) the napkin can go under or to the left of the forks, 5) glassware goes above the knives, and 6) red or white wine glasses go to the right and slightly down from the water glass.

How do you set a simple table?

For a basic table setting, start with dinner plates, then set napkins to the left with forks on top. Put a dinner knife on the right side, and finish with a drinking glass at the upper-right corner of the plate.

How do I incorporate a centerpiece in my table setting?

Simple candlesticks or a floral arrangement make excellent year-round centerpieces for any occasion. (If you go with flowers, just make sure they're short enough that they don’t obstruct diners' view of one another across the table.) You could also place a table runner underneath for an extra layer of elegance.

Tasteful Dinnerwear and Table Linens From Parachute

Now that you know how to set a table with silverware, plates, bowls and glassware, you're ready to host a get-together with confidence and grace. The dining collection from Parachute includes hand-crafted dinnerware, flatware and glasses. You'll also find sustainably sourced table linens, including tablecloths, table runners and cloth napkins. Shop the selection today!

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