Looking Proper: Understanding How to Set the Dinner Table

Have you ever sat down at a formal dinner and wondered what to do with all the utensils you see in front of you? Have you ever looked at all the utensils in your silver set and wondered what to do with all of them?

Knowing how to set the dinner table can raise your dining experience to a whole new level and impress your dinner guests.?

There are many ways to set a table, but just a few basic rules that can help you keep up with how to do it. The number of elements at a table setting will depend on how formal your dinner is. Read on to learn everything you know to set a perfect table.

Table Linens

Any good table setting should start with a fine set of table linens. If your table is of a fine wood, you may not need a table cloth to cover it, except for the most formal or special occasions. Putting down a tablecloth can add an extra measure of formality.

For a formal dinner, tablecloths should be large enough to drape down eight to twelve inches from the edge of the table. Putting a pad under the table cloth will help it drape well and keep everything on it well-anchored. It?s a good idea to add a bit of starch when you wash your tablecloths to give them a nice crispness.?

Likewise, you should always have starched napkins at formal dinners. There are a variety of shapes you can fold them into if you wish, but folded in half and then into quarters lengthwise should be fine. Make sure you match your napkins to your tablecloth, and choose a tablecloth pattern that will suit your space well.

If you aren?t using a tablecloth, it?s a good idea to put a placemat at each place. You can also use these in conjunction with a tablecloth, but it?s not done often. If you do go this route, be sure you use patterned placemats with solid table cloths and vice versa.

The Pieces?

With the linens in place, let?s take a look at the various pieces that make up a table setting, starting with the glassware. In formal place settings, you may have up to four glasses: the water goblet, the red wine glass, the white wine glass, and the sherry glass or champagne flute. Less formal settings may only use one or two of these glasses.?

Cutlery will vary depending on what you?re serving, but you always have the basics: forks, spoons, and knives. Forks can include the dinner fork, the fish fork, the salad fork, and the oyster fork. Spoons will include a soup or fruit spoon, and knives will include a dinner knife, fish knife, salad knife, and butter knife.

For dishes, you will begin with a dinner plate and perhaps a charger on the table. You may also begin with a soup bowl on top of the dinner plate if you have a soup course first. And you should have a bread plate and a saucer down if you plan to serve a coffee course.

The Basics

When you?re setting a table, there are always a few basic rules. Forks go on the left, knives go to the right of the plate, and spoons go on the outside. Water glasses go on the top right of the setting, and the butter plate goes on the top left.

In formal settings, the napkin can go on the plate. In less formal settings, the napkin can be folded and placed under the fork. And be sure to only use the utensils you need on the table; if you?re not serving soup, don?t?set a soup spoon.


For informal settings, you won?t need a full contingent of china. This can be used for normal family lunches and dinners and other basic meals. It?s a great idea to teach your kids how to set this style table because it will serve as the basis of all the other settings.

With an informal table, you?ll start with a plate in front of each place. The napkin can go either on the plate or to the left of the plate, depending on your preference. The water glass should go on the top right above the plate.

For the utensils, remember the acronym FORKS; you?ll start with the fork on the left of the plate. From there, you have the O of the plate, and then you?ll skip the R. Knives go next, forming the K, and then the spoon goes on the outside, finishing the acronym.?

Remember, knives should always sit so the blade faces the plate. If you have bread with dinner, the bread plate goes on the top left with a butter knife on top. None of the utensils should sit underneath the lip of the plate; give everything lots of space.?


An informal or casual setting can be used for luncheons, light dinners, and Sunday dinners. This will incorporate more elements of the formal setting than the basic setting, but without using your full silver service. This can work well for a three or five-course meal.

Like with the other settings, a casual table setting will start with the dinner plate. You?ll place the napkin on top of the plate for this setting, folded however you like. You may also use a napkin ring for this task if you like, but you should try to match your napkin rings to your cutlery finish.

A casual setting will use two forks, a dinner knife, and two spoons. The salad fork will go on the outside to the left of the plate, and the dinner fork will go directly next to the plate. The knife will go to the right of the plate, followed by the teaspoon or dessert spoon and then the soup spoon on the far right outside.

You will likely have a bread plate for a casual setting, so that should go to the top left of the setting. You will also have two glasses ? a wine glass and a water glass; you may also have a tea or coffee cup. The water and wine glasses will go to the top right of the plate, and the tea or coffee cup will sit on a saucer to the right of the other glasses.


A formal setting is the most involved of all the styles and will use every piece of silverware you own. This is what you use for Easter and Christmas dinners and the most formal events you host. Place settings like this come with an expectation of gowns and tuxedos, or suits at the least.

Most formal settings will begin with a charger placed under the plate, which serves as the underplate for each of the course plates. You should begin with the dish appropriate for the first course you serve and then take each dish away as you serve subsequent courses. If you like, you may place the dinner plate under the soup bowl.

You will begin your utensils with the dinner fork to the left of the plate, followed from inside to outside by the salad fork and then the fish fork. Your knives will go to the right of the plate, with the dinner knife on the inside and the fish knife to the right of that. From there, moving out, you will have your soup spoon and then, on the far right side, the oyster fork.

Your bread plate and butter knife will go in the same top-left position as in the other settings. On the right, you will place the water goblet directly above the knives. To the right of that, you will place the red wine glass and then the white wine glass, with the champagne flute on the far right side of the glasses.?

The important thing to remember when you?re setting the table is to move in order of your planned courses and alter the layout as needed. If your salad is served after your entr?e, put the dinner fork outside of the salad fork. Likewise, if your red wine goes with your entr?e, you should place that outside of the white wine glass.

The Art of the Dinner Table

Setting the dinner table is an art that is worth the time to learn. Knowing the etiquette of a table setting is a wonderful way to bring a sense of formality to your event and impress your friends. And when you find yourself attending dinners like this, knowing how to set a table will help you better know how to use the utensils in front of you.

If you?d like to learn more about all the best of the culinary world, check out the rest of our site at Intentional Cuisine. We are dedicated to helping you discover the best in the world of food because we believe life should be delicious. Check out more of our indoor food information to step up the quality of your dining experience.

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