Gatherings from The Kitchn

How I Set a Swanky Thanksgiving Table: And 5 Tips for Decorating on a Budget

updated Jun 8, 2019
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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

I think that one of the most delightful parts of a big holiday like Thanksgiving is setting a beautiful table. This doesn’t have to involve enormous bouquets or laying out the silverware with a ruler (as much as I love that moment in the Downton Abbey credits). In fact, if decorating the table stresses you out, don’t worry about it! But I think that many of us enjoy setting a table for a special meal that expresses a bit of creativity.

For this Thanksgiving dinner, I wanted a beautiful table, but I didn’t have a lot of time to plan it out. So I decided to ask for some help, and I’m so glad I did!

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

Setting the Table: Better With a Friend

My friend Abbey Nova has a degree in the decorative arts and I adore her and her very good taste. We met through our respective blogs (she blogs at Abbey Goes Design Scouting) and since then we have become real-life friends. I have always loved her design sense and eye for beautiful things, so I asked her if she might help me brainstorm a pretty table for my Thanksgiving dinner. She did, graciously and with great energy, even loaning me her vintage napkin rings by mail! (She lives in New York and I live in Columbus, so she couldn’t be at this dinner, sadly.)

This leads me to my new favorite tip for setting a holiday table: Ask for help. If you have creative friends, doing a pretty table together can be a fun project, and they can see your stash of linens and plates with a fresh eye. They also may see ways to put them together that you wouldn’t have.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

My Table Inspiration

For this table, I told Abbey I was imagining “Gourmet Magazine, late-2008,” with their moody blue and teal palette. I know a lot of Thanksgiving tables revolve around harvest orange and red, but I like to shake it up a bit (see my 2010 table here, and 2011 table here).

Together we set up this table with just a few judicious purchases, including a dark blue runner, and a platter to hold a vegetable arrangement. I also picked up a few new linen napkins, which I needed anyway.

The one splurge on this table was the salad plates. I’ve been looking out for salad plates and Abbey turned me on to these gorgeous handmade plates from Anthropologie. (She’s kind of obsessed with them.)

I like to use holidays as an excuse to freshen up my tableware, trading out or donating things I don’t use much anymore, and adding a few fresh linens or plates to the cupboard for use throughout the following year.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

The Table: Piece by Piece

I had this dinner in our library/office, instead of our eat-in kitchen, partly because I love the books and the moody color on the walls, and also because I think many of you too are rearranging offices and living rooms to accommodate big tables of people! Thanksgiving dinner tends to be eaten throughout the house, right?

To get the mood and the colors right, we started with a blue runner and then that big gorgeous vegetable centerpiece (see instructions here for creating it yourself).

Each place setting had a place card and a big dinner plate, a blue salad plate, a water glass and wine glass, and a silver knife and fork, as well as a linen napkin in a napkin ring. Everyone got their own chocolate turkey in a tiny white pie dish.

To fill in the decor, we added marbleized votives, tall vintage candlesticks, and some small crazy gourds Abbey picked up.

And that’s it! I feel like it all looks like a lot more work than it was.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)
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Our office/library BEFORE setting up for Thanksgiving. (Image credit: Faith Durand)

For a closer look at the table and how we set it, make sure to look through the full gallery!

5 Tips for Decorating a Holiday Table on a Budget

1. Ask a friend to help, and to look at your stuff with a fresh eye.
As I said above, this is perhaps the single best tip I can offer in setting a table for a special event. It’s so much fun to bounce ideas off a friend, and to create Pinterest boards together! (Here’s my Thanksgiving Pinterest board.)

2. Use a runner instead of a tablecloth.
While I do like using casual tablecloths from time to time, I agree with Abbey, who says that people often just feel more uptight as soon as the tablecloth comes out. You worry about spilling something on it, and how to launder it. A runner is less expensive and more forgiving. I liked the strong splash of blue this one brought to the table.

3. Bring out your special things and borrow other people’s special things too. Have china stashed in a box? Or fancy heirloom silverware? Bring it out! That stuff is meant to be used, and it honors the people who shared it with us.

I used the silverware my grandmother passed down to me, and I borrowed napkin rings from Abbey, too; it was fun to have tangible pieces from both of them on the table.

These chocolate turkeys from Lake Champlain were a hit. (Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

4. Get creative with inexpensive materials.
This is the kind of thing magazines often say, and I always roll my eyes because it’s so vague and hard to figure out on your own. But again, working with a friend made this a reality. Abbey had the idea of using loose amethysts (which cost just a few dollars) to prop up the place cards.

She also sent me some fun gourds we scattered around the table. She found these in New York, but you could substitute chestnuts or seedpods from your yard, or rose hips like the ones I clipped off my bushes and put in the centerpiece. Those are inexpensive things I never would have thought of myself.

I did have one fun idea, though, on the budget front. I had this vision of serving dessert on little wood slabs, but couldn’t fathom spending the money that would cost. Then I found a cheap option: Cedar grilling planks! I picked up a couple packs of inexpensive planks (they smelled so good) and served dessert right on them.

5. Use candles, especially tall candles, strategically.
Don’t neglect candles; nothing can replace their flickering motion and light in adding texture and warmth to the table. I usually use low votives on the table, but for a holiday dinner I like to bring out the tall candles — don’t they feel so fancy? Just a couple, though; you want people to be able to see each other across the table.

Also? Candles are cheap. Light up lots of white candles, turn off the lights, and ta-da — instant atmosphere.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

Thank you so much to Abbey Nova!
Visit her at Design Scouting

Table Resources

Sources and links for the things I used at the Thanksgiving table. Many of these I already owned, or borrowed.



Dishes & Servingware


(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)
(Image credit: The Splendid Table)

Hear The Kitchn on The Splendid Table

Listen to Faith talk to Lynn Rossetto Kasper about our Thanksgiving menu on
  • Air date: Saturday November 23
  • Listen online or on your local NPR station

Photos by Rachel Joy Photos of Columbus, Ohio

Thank you to our friends at Lake Champlain Chocolates, Emile Henry, Duralex, and Aesthetic Columbus who provided products or let us borrow them. Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to write about products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and this particular article was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. However, the manufacturers did give us the product for editorial purposes.

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