Party Pointer: How to Set a Proper Table

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Every night, from the time I was about eight until I went away to college, I had to set the table for dinner. There were six people in our immediate family, and we sat at a round table in the kitchen. Every night I got out all the placemats, the dinner plates, the flatware, the glasses, and the napkins from the cabinets and drawers.

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My mother showed me how to put everything in the right position the first time, and left me to my task that has continued to be mine even today, if I am at my parents’ house for dinner. Now, of course, these were informal meals without extra utensils and glassware, but as I neared adulthood, I consulted my mother’s trusty Amy Vanderbilt etiquette book and learned more about setting a formal table.

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I guess I thought everyone learned these table-setting procedures at home as children, but over the years, I have been very surprised at how many people, my age and younger, have no clue how to set the table.

It is quite understandable, however, in these days of eating on a tray in front of the television, eating in your car or eating at a fast-food restaurant that individuals are not learning how to set a proper table.

Then when they face a situation requiring the setting of a special table–in-laws coming for Easter or the boss coming for dinner or friends coming for a bridal or baby shower luncheon–these individuals get panicky that their table isn’t set the right way. But do not despair–help is on the way!

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Here are some tips on how to set a proper table:

  • Start with a dust-free clean table–then add a clean, pressed tablecloth or placemats if you like.
  • Figure out how many people will be eating and make sure you can fit your chairs about the table’s perimeter so guests can sit down and get up easily without bumping chairs or other guests.

  • Once you have your chairs in place, put out the placemats if you are using them and the dinner plates.  Make certain the plates are spaced on the table in the center of the chair space, so that all the plates will be positioned evenly and so that each guest has enough elbowroom. The plates should be about two inches from the edge of the table, and about 24 inches from the plate next to it.

  • Now that the plates are in position, you can use them as a reference point for positioning the other items in the place setting. Cups and glasses are placed on the right side of the plate and the butter and salad plates are to the left.
  • Flatware is placed in the order of its use. Forks should be placed to the left of the plate, and the knives and spoons go to the right. The first utensils you use are the ones on the outside. So if you are having soup, the soup spoon will be on the outside right, to the right of the teaspoon. If you are using a salad fork, it goes to the outside left of the regular fork.

  • The cutting edge of a knife blade should always be facing the plate.
  • Make sure all the utensil handles line up at the bottom near the table’s edge for a neater look.
  • Traditionally, the napkin should go the left of the forks. But you may also use decorative napkin folds or napkin rings, and place the napkins on top of the plate or under it.
  • Glasses should be positioned about the knives in a straight row, slanting downward from the upper left, going from the largest to the smallest. Don’t let the smaller glasses to be hidden behind the larger ones.
  • The coffee cup with saucer should be placed to the right of the setting with the coffee spoon on the right side of the saucer if you serve coffee with the meal.

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Check out the diagrams for different types of tablesettings at the Emily Post Institute. Learn the basic ways you can set your table properly, and then you can get creative. Next Friday, we will talk about other tablesetting tips. Please join us!

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