How to Set a Table for Every Occasion, According to Experts

published Oct 12, 2023
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detail of dining table with green runner, candles, plants, white place settings
Credit: Rikki Snyder

You’ve cooked. You’ve cleaned. And, of course, you’ve invited the guests. But have you set the table for your dinner party yet? If you’ve never heard the word “tablescape” before, or if even thinking about how to set a table properly has you running for the hills, never fear. No matter what type of occasion you’re planning — whether it’s a casual dinner party, weekend brunch, or a more formal holiday gathering — there are some basic rules to follow in getting that table setting just right. Before you know it, those plates, forks, napkins, and glasses will basically be setting themselves. Here’s everything you need to know to set the perfect table for a variety of occasions.

Why is setting the table important?

It’s not just about the food you’re serving, but about how you go about serving it. Think about the last dinner party you went to — how did seeing everything laid out nicely make you feel? “Table settings play a crucial role in setting the tone and atmosphere for an event,” says certified etiquette consultant Daena Jeanne Antonelli. “It’s very important to think about having the appropriate table setting because it is one of the first things guests notice. A well-set table enhances the dining experience.” Not to mention, the food will look that much better on a perfectly set plate, too.

Credit: Design: The Kitchn

The Basic Table Setting

This table setting is — as the name suggests — basic. But by no means is it boring! According to Antonelli, this setting can work for a variety of occasions, like everyday meals, family gatherings, and picnics. Even if all you’re preparing is eggs and toast, your guests will also be able to feast their eyes on your immaculate table setting prowess.

“When setting a basic setting, you want to use simple, durable dinnerware,” Antonelli says. “This will include basic utensils like a fork, knife, and spoon. Remember to place a glass for water or a simple beverage.” Here’s how to make this table setting come to life.

  1. Lay the placemat on the table.
  2. Place the dinner plate in the center of the placemat.
  3. Put the napkin on the left side of the plate.
  4. Put the fork on the napkin.
  5. On the right side of the plate, place the knife closest to the plate, with the blade pointing inwards. Lay the spoon to the right of the knife.
  6. Put the drinking glass slightly above the plate, in between the plate and utensils. It should look like it’s at 1 p.m. on a clock face.
Credit: Design: The Kitchn

The Casual Table Setting

Hosting a slightly fancier occasion, like an informal party, brunch, or barbecue? This is where the casual table setting comes in handy. For all intents and purposes, the basic table setting and the casual table setting are pretty similar, but they do have slight differences that make the latter stand out. “For casual settings, you would have the basics, but may add cloth napkins and placemats,” says Antonelli. “Feel free to use colorful, mismatched plates and glasses for a relaxed feel, and consider decorative centerpieces, like fresh flowers.”

The main rule to keep in mind? While this setting does typically include a few more items (like a soup bowl, a salad fork, or a steak knife), you only need to set out the items people will actually be using. No need to overload the tablescape with additional pieces that will just sit idly by! Here’s how to put together the perfect casual table setting.

  1. Follow the same steps as you did for the basic table setting.
  2. Salad on the menu? Place the salad plate on top of the dinner plate, and the salad fork to the left of the dinner fork. You can also place the salad plate to the left of the forks.
  3. Starting with soup? Add a soup bowl on top of the salad plate and a soup spoon to the right of the regular spoon.
  4. Place the water glass directly above the knife.
  5. Place a wine glass just to the right of the water glass.
Credit: Design: The Kitchn

The Formal Table Setting

Time to break out the fine china and glistening crystal! The formal table setting is ideal for weddings, galas, and upscale dinners, according to Antonelli. Whether you’re hosting a formal dinner just because, or inviting your closest friends and family for the holidays, the formal table setting is rich with elegance and sophistication. 

The initial table setting may seem overwhelming — especially because there are quite a few items you’ll need. Chargers and flatware and tablecloths, oh my! “Arranging a full set of utensils for multiple courses is a must,” Antonelli says. “Use linen tablecloths that are steamed or ironed, and napkins. Add more elaborate centerpieces or candles.”

But don’t worry — you can do this! Here’s how to put together the perfect formal table setting.

  1. Lay a tablecloth on the table. (Be sure to iron it first!).
  2. Set down a charger at each seat.
  3. Place a soup bowl in the center of the charger.
  4. At the top left of the charger, place the bread plate.
  5. On the left side of the charger, place a napkin, the salad fork, and the dinner fork. For extra panache, fold the napkin in an eye-catching design.
  6. On the right side of the charger, place the knife and soup spoon.
  7. Place a butter knife horizontally atop the bread plate, with the blade facing inward.
  8. Place a dessert spoon directly above the charger, with the handle pointing right.
  9. Place a water glass above the knife, the white wine glass to the right and slightly down from the water glass, and the red wine glass to the right and slightly above the white wine glass.
  10. Place salt and pepper shakers near the center of the table.
  11. If you’ve opted to use place cards, set them above the dessert spoons.

Other Table-Setting Tips

Still have questions about how to set the perfect table? Here are some additional tips from Antonelli.

  1. Coordinate colors. “Choose a color scheme that complements the occasion and theme,” she says. “This will also give you a more clean and uniformed aesthetic.”
  2. Flatware placement is key. Wondering where all those forks and spoons go? It’s pretty simple, if you follow Antonelli’s tips. Place forks on the left side of the plate and knives on the right. “Should you serve soup or fish, that flatware will go to the right with the knives,” she says. “Knife blades should always face the plate.” 
  3. Don’t overthink glassware. “Place glasses in the order they will be used, from outside in,” says Antonelli. The order to keep in mind: water, white wine, red wine, Champagne.
  4. Napkin placement. For a special added touch, use napkin rings. Place napkins on the plate or to the left of the forks.
  5. Don’t forget about centerpieces. Centerpieces can add that little touch of je ne sais quoi to your event. “You want to keep them really low or really high,” recommends Antonelli. “This will help for easy conversation during meals.”
  6. The thing about place cards. While not a necessity, place cards can help guests find their seats with a unique personal touch. Plus, “Everyone likes to see or hear their names,” Antonelli says.

And, voilà! You’ve now mastered three different ways to set your table, no matter what the occasion may be. Now all that’s left to do is plan your next event!