How to Properly Set a Table in 8 Easy Steps

Dining table in a dining room

Arbor & Co.

Whether you're hosting a small dinner party or finally taking on Thanksgiving for the whole family, an easy way to elevate your host game is to get your table setting just right. While setting a table the correct way has become something of a lost skill over the years, we promise your guest will appreciate your attention to detail. The best hostess knows that a successful dinner party really only requires great food and great guests. But a beautifully set table is the icing on the cake that will make your guests feel a little more special.

To make your mom proud, we've laid out all the steps to properly set a table, thanks to advice from party planning expert, Dannyelle Nicolle-Ramjist of the blog Life is a Party, and etiquette guru Lisa Grotts, of the blog The Golden Rules Gal. But keep in mind that rules are meant to be bent, and you can always adapt the following advice to fit your own personal taste and needs.

Meet the Expert

  • Dannyelle Nicolle-Ramjist is a party planning expert and the founder of the blog, Life is a Party, which helps readers celebrate parties, holidays and life.
  • Lisa Grotts is an etiquette expert and founder of the blog The Golden Rules Gal. She has appeared on the Today Show and BBC News and authored a manners blog for The Huffington Post for eight years.

Materials Needed to Set a Table

  • A placemat for every guest
  • Utensils (specific pieces will depend on your menu)
  • A water glass and a wine glass per place
  • Linens such as cloth napkins, a tablecloth or runner
  • A dinner plate, salad plate and soup bowl for every person
  • A centerpiece (floral arrangement, candles)
  • Place cards (optional)
  • Coffee cup and dessert plate (optional)
  • A printed menu (optional)

Here's what to know before your next dinner party or a fancy dine-in night at home.

Lay Out Your Linens and Placemats First

The first step to setting a stylish table is to pick your linens. Whether you opt for a tablecloth, a table runner, or go au naturale is up to you, but we suggest feeling out your crowd to decide. More causal crew? Go with a naked table with linen napkins.

If you opt for them, a placemat should be set out at every seat with enough space between them for your guests to move about while eating.

Put the Dinner Plate in the Center of the Placemat

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but the plate always goes directly in the center of the placemat. If you are serving salad, a smaller salad plate goes directly on top of the plate.

If you're hosting an extravagant affair, a charger or service plate actually goes down before your dinner plate—but if you want to keep your party simple, you can skip this step.

The Napkin Always Goes to the Left of the Plate

We always love a good cloth napkin, but whatever you decide, remember that the napkin should be folded to the left of the dinner plate on a traditionally set table. If you want to mix things up, you can fold the napkin and place it directly on the top plate.

Flatware Is Placed According to What You Will Use First

Now we finally get to the hard(er) part. According to party expert Nicolle-Ramjist, cutlery is the most common thing dinner hosts get wrong. First, the fork should always go to the left of the plate on the napkin. An easy tip? "Fork and left both have four letters to help you remember," says Nicolle-Ramjist.

Next, the knife goes to the right of the plate with the blade facing the plate. Lastly, the spoon goes to the right of the knife. Make sure the cutlery all lines up from the bottom.

Place Glasses Above the Plate

Your drinking glass should always go right above the knife, to the upper right of your plate. If you have a wine glass, it goes to the right of the water glass. Serving coffee or espresso? That cup goes to the right of the wine glass.

Elevate the Setting for Formal Affairs

If you're finally hosting that big formal Thanksgiving, you may want to add a few extras. A bread plate, for example, is place above the fork (or forks, if you are serving multiple courses). An oyster fork is the only fork that would go on the right side of the plate (it would be the last piece to the right), and a dessert spoon should live horizontally above the plates.

Add a Centerpiece

If you want your tablescape to feel truly finished, a centerpiece is a must. But a centerpiece comes in many forms and can range from everything from a candelabra to a floral display. But Grotts cautions to consider the height of the flowers.

"Flower arrangements shouldn’t be too tall, as they can limit the conversation across the table," she explains. Plus, she says, because many people are allergic to fragrance, it's best to opt for low-scent flowers if your party is indoors.

Add Place Cards

If you really want to elevate your dinner party game, consider adding place cards to each setting. Not only does this give you a chance to add a little more personality to your tablescape, but it's a great way to avoid that awkward "where do I sit" shuffle that happens at every dinner party.

Struggling with assigned seating? Grotts says alternating shy and outgoing guests is a great way to keep the conversation flowing. Alternating men and women and splitting up married couples is another way she likes to mix things up and keep the party lively.

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