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Credit: Ana Hard

The 5 Rules That Still Really Matter When It Comes to Setting the Table

published Dec 6, 2019
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Setting the table these days is usually an unfussy affair. Gone are the days when you need a million forks and a complex strategy for figuring out which one to use when. Most hosted dinners don’t have five courses anymore, and most gatherings in recent history haven’t abided by traditional table-setting or etiquette rules. And, sure, maybe some of those old-school rules are a bit outdated.

But someone wise once told me that the purpose of a table setting isn’t to be stuffy or intimidating — it’s to communicate to the guest what’s coming and to make them feel comfortable. A set table gives your guests lots of clues: Beyond, possibly, where they should sit, a set table will tell a guest if they should serve themselves in a buffet style, and how much they might expect to be eating.

With that (and a bit of nostalgia) in mind, here are five rules you might want to think twice about tossing out.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Prop Styling: Helen Quinn

1. You still need more than one glass.

It might not be necessary to have several glasses on the table per person (no need for, say, two types of wine glasses, a water glass, a Champagne flute, a sherry glass, and a tea cup!), but two is really the magic number here. In addition to any wine or cocktail glass (that’s either set on the table or still in use from a pre-dinner living room hang) each place setting still needs to have a water glass — ideally to the right of the dinner plate because most people are right-handed. People get thirsty while they’re eating and might not want to quench it with a cocktail or wine. It’s a comfort thing, for one, and it keeps guests hydrated (read: they’ll hopefully be less likely to have a hangover the next morning). Consider it a thoughtful gesture. 

Our favorite water glasses: Duralex Picardie Tumbler, $28 for 6

2. You need cloth napkins (and other sustainable options).

We’ve only got one Earth, so make sustainable choices when you can. Cloth napkins can certainly seem stuffy and outdated, but there are so many fun ones on the market now (I love these and everything from this Etsy shop, especially!) and they can help eliminate a lot of paper waste. As far as plates, utensils, and cups, the real stuff is still going to be best (it’s reusable, holds up better, and feels more deserving of the prep that went into a meal). But if dish duty feels like too much on top of what you’re already doing and you need to go the disposable route, make sure it’s all compostable or recyclable. No, you’d never see a kraft paper cup on the table at Downton Abbey, but I like to think that Carson would have gotten the Crawleys there eventually.

3. A water pitcher is a must.

Some formal rules will call for water glasses to already be filled with water and that still holds true. In addition, you’ll want to include a water pitcher or carafe on the table. Guests love to feel self-sufficient and typically hate asking for things. A pitcher or carafe that’s already on the table helps them, well, help themselves. Plus, there’s something very restaurant-esque about having a pretty glass bottle filled with water. You’ll also be happy that you’re not constantly getting up to refill glasses for people throughout the meal.

4. Assigned seats can be kind.

You don’t necessarily need place cards, but it is smart to determine where people should sit and offer direction when you head into the dining room. No one wants to feel awkward or have to overthink — Can I sit at the head of the table? — plus some guests might have reasons for being placed in certain seats. Maybe Aunt Mary has a bum knee and needs to stretch out to the side, or a parent needs to help their toddler cut their food. You’re the boss here, so offer up thoughtful suggestions instead of forcing guests to fend for themselves.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

5. Centerpieces shouldn’t overcrowd the table.

Watch any movie set in the early 20th century (when folks were The Most Proper) and you’ll notice that centerpieces were kept simple. Although people back then weren’t as worried about saving space on the table (our portion sizes and offerings have increased quite a bit!), they knew that a dinner party is only as good as the conversation and that guests can’t exactly talk around massive floral arrangements running down the middle of the table. Don’t get so distracted by the aesthetics of the table that you forget function: Space candles out so people can still see one another, and do small, low floral arrangements.

Do you agree with these table-setting rules? Would you add any to the mix?