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How To Set A Table: A Guide to Dining Table Settings

Follow our guide to stylish table setting for effortless fine dining

Knowing how to set a table properly is a skill that comes to the fore when friends and family set to descend on your meticulously planned dinner party. Hosting a dinner party for family and friends is one of life’s great highlights. It’s an excuse to slow down and enjoy good company over a delicious meal. But, as every veteran host or hostess knows, some food on a table does not a dinner party make. A truly spectacular meal – whether it be a grand late morning breakfast or a more formal Sunday lunch – requires a beautiful table setting that suits the occasion.

Something which continues to confuse even the most experienced of dinner party hosts is the various table setting rules which exist for different meals. Stick to this handy guide and discover how to set a table for dinner, lunch and breakfast as well as the steps for basic table settings that will see you through less formal affairs.

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Basic Table Setting

The topic of how to set a table is far from a small one. There are different options depending on the type of meal taking place, from an informal dinner party to hosting a lunch for a few friends. That’s where basic table etiquette comes in handy. It provides you with the foundations of setting the table before the meal – regardless of the level of formality.

Basic Table Setting Instructions

Even the most casual family dinners has a few constituent elements to the tabletop. Unless you’ve chosen a dish that’s best served in a bowl in front of the television, a casual table setting should always involve dinner plate with cutlery to the one side and some form of glassware to the right. The amount that you build up from here is entirely up to you, how much effort you want to go to and whether it’s a laid-back dinner party tablescape you’re looking for or something much more elevated.

Basic Table Setting Etiquette Tips

Looking for a crib sheet on how to lay a table? Here are seven helpful tips which should be remembered for any standard meal setting where you want to show you know your stuff:

– A table setting consists of a dining set, a cutlery set and glassware

– Make sure the base of any vertical silverware always aligns with the bottom rim of your plate.

– Always place knives with the blade facing inward on your table setting.

– The distance of your knife to your plate on your is the deciding factor for the spacing of each element of your table setting.

– Your dinner knife is also a great indicator for placing your glasses. Your water glass should be placed directly above it in your table setting with any other glasses being placed to its right.

– Glasses should always be placed largest to smallest from back to front. Glassware sets will differ but this is standard for most table setting designs.

– If you’re unsure of distinguishing between the different sizes of plate, in general, a side or bread plate is usually 15 to 18 centimetres, a salad or dessert plate is 22 to 25 centimetres, a dinner plate is 27 to 28 centimetres and a charger or service plate is 31 to 33 centimetres.

See our Guide To Luxury Dining Room Furniture for more tips specific on dining room styling.

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How to Set a Table for Breakfast

TThey say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but too often it consists of a quick sip of something warming and a slice of toast as we rush out the door to work. Recapture breakfast’s splendour by taking time out to properly enjoy your food and creating a pretty breakfast table setting. This table setting diagram shows an arrangement that’s for a more formal breakfast or brunch, but if you’re wanting to know how to set a casual table for breakfast-time, concentrate on your serveware. By positioning all of the breakfast options in attractive serving bowls and platters in the centre of the table along with stacked cereal bowls and plates for items like crumpets and breakfast pastries, it relaxes the atmosphere and encourages people to help themselves.

Breakfast Table Setting Instructions

For formal place settings, start with a dinner plate and flank with a fork, knife and dessert spoon. Even though you might be serving a hot meal for your sophisticated breakfast, it’s nice to include a bowl for cereal as well – it’s a quintessential breakfast element and your guests might want a bit of both. A bread plate and butter knife for toast or muffins is another item which should be included. Little individual jam or marmalade pots are a nice touch too. A cup and saucer is mandatory for that early morning tea or coffee but be sure to include a juice and water glass as well.

Breakfast Table Setting Etiquette Tips

One of the steps for how to lay out a proper table setting at breakfast also encompasses napkins. Though at this, the first meal of the day you can generally be a little more casual with any table linen. Crisp white napkins are always chic but don’t be scared to opt for a patterned style which can be accessorised with fun napkin rings.

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How to Set a Table for lunch

Being the halfway meal between breakfast and dinner, the guidance on how to set table for lunch sits somewhere between the two as well. Often, there’s a degree less formality at lunchtime compared to a dinner party, but if wine is being served, then the presence of wine glasses on the lunchtime table will very much upgrade the setting.

Lunch Table Setting Instructions

Like breakfast, lunch has the basic table setting foundation – dinner plate, fork and knife. Switch out the cup and saucer for a stemmed water and wine glass for a more elegant look. If wine isn’t being served, choose a more sophisticated tumbler to avoid the atmosphere becoming too informal.

Without the breakfast bowl, napkins can now be placed on the plate which breaks up the whiteness of the plate. Again, these can be a little more informal unless it’s a special occasion like a luncheon. If soup is being served, however, include a soup bowl and spoon – this spoon should be placed to the right of the dinner knife.

Lunch Table Setting Etiquette Tips

Don’t underestimate the effect of cutlery. By choosing a heavier, more luxurious style of cutlery, and laying them out following the basic etiquette tips shared earlier, the experience becomes far more formal.

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How to Set a Table for Dinner

Dinner is where things can get a little trickier. Extra courses equal extra crockery (like the side/salad plate shown in the diagram here) and, more importantly, extra silverware which is often where people get confused.

Dinner Table Setting Instructions

When preparing the table for dinner, the rule of thumb is to always work from the outside in so the outermost fork and knife set should correlate to the first course and the innermost set to the second course. The dessert spoon and fork are placed above the plates in an opposite arrangement as shown, though these pieces of cutlery aren’t quite so necessary at an informal dinner party.

Shown in the top right of this setting is the correct ordering for glassware too. Larger red wine glasses go to the back, smaller white wine glasses are placed in front of and the water glass should be closest to the table setting, just above the dinner knife.

Dinner Table Setting Etiquette Tips

Since dinner parties are usually more formal place settings than breakfast or lunch, opt for crisp white napkins over motif or printed ones and keep them tucked under the forks for a tidy finish.

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How to Set a Casual Dinner Table

Laid-back dinner parties follow a similar mindset to breakfast table settings. The arrangement on the table should be about sharing and self-serving rather than a seated service with allocated portions. It’s easy to assume that special events like Thanksgiving dinner or New Year’s Eve dinner should be full of pomp and ceremony, but they too can take on a more casual tablescape.

Casual Table Setting Instructions

Firstly decide whether guests are to be seated around the dining table or left to roam and enjoy their food wherever they land, be it in the neighbouring living room or left leaning against the kitchen work surface. If it is the latter, the table setting becomes more of a display of food as opposed to a place to eat. Therefore, think less about placemats and flatware, and more about filling the entirety of the table with a wide selection of coordinating serveware. You can use tableware as serving dishes if you run out too – a dinner plate can be perfect for displaying canapés and soup bowls suit side dishes and generous portions of sauce to spoon servings from.

Casual Table Setting Etiquette Tips

Because there is less focus on individual table settings, be sure to not forget a serving utensil for every single item on the table. Expecting people to use their own cutlery to dish your culinary delights onto their plate is a rookie error.

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How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

Learning how to set a table for a three-course meal is fundamental to hosting an elegant dinner party. Here, the utmost care should be taken to ensure that your table is set correctly. This is the sort of table setting where every detail counts.

Formal Dinner Table Setting Instructions

The foundation of a formal setting (and what sets it apart from a typical dinner setting) is the presence of a charger. The simplest way to understand how to lay a table with charger plates is to think of it as a decorative base plate on which all the other service plates rest. Because it is purely for decorative purposes, a charger is often more elaborately designed than its practical counterparts, making it a luxurious addition to your table.

The same rule of thumb for silverware placement should be applied to formal settings, however many courses are being served. This setting shows three cutlery settings for a starter course, fish course and main course – with utensils for the early dishes being placed on the outside.

Table linen should consist of a tablecloth that is either used to cover the expanse of the table or folded as a runner as well as napkins. Napkins should be placed to the left of the forks to allow each diner or a server to easily place napkins on laps.

Formal Table Setting Etiquette Tips

To truly elevate this table setting, consider providing each guest with individual salt and pepper shakers as well as individual butter dishes. But also, remember that the table setting is far from the only way to make sure your dinner party falls on the more formal side. The etiquette that is to be respected by all guests contributes greatly to the atmosphere felt by host and invitees. Whether you’re the person hosting and want to lead by example, or if you’re attending a supper party and want to make certain you have your dining manners in check, here are a few tips:

– Don’t pick up your cutlery or start eating until everyone at the table has been served. This doesn’t apply to tables of 8 or more.

– Don’t put your elbows on the table.

– Do ask to be passed a dish or condiment – never reach over anyone or their plate. But always offer to another guest first.

– If you need to leave the table, always excuse yourself.

– Place your cutlery together with the blade and tines facing upwards to 12 o’clock to signify that you are finished eating.


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