Prim and Proper: How To Set a Formal Dining Table

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Are you looking to host a special dinner or impress guests with your hosting skills? Then it’s time to learn the basics of setting a proper table so you can instantly wow before the first canape is served. 

Overhead shot of a beautiful table. Image Source: Depositphotos

Formal dinner tables may not be as typical as they once were, but for special occasions and holidays, knowing how to set one is an excellent skill and adds an air of elegance and sophistication. We’re covering why, when, and how to set a formal table with step-by-step instructions to make the process a breeze the next time you host. Your guests may not even realize how a properly set the table can improve the dining experience and ambiance or instantly be impressed with your hosting skills. 

Either way, break out the fine china, stock the cocktail bar, and create a dinner everyone will rave about. 

Comforting table setting. Image Source: Depositphotos

Benefits of Knowing How to Set a Proper Table

Formal tables may seem old-fashioned, but if you’re planning a dinner party, there are benefits for things looking just right. The table can help to create an inviting atmosphere, ensuring that guests have all the utensils and glassware they need, as well as providing a visual aesthetic that elevates a casual dinner party to something elegant. 

Setting the table can also make guests feel more welcomed and comfortable while adding a subtle touch of class. Like choosing a good wine glass, having the right items on the table is a crucial component of the fine craft that makes a meal incredible. Consider setting a formal table for special dinners, holiday meals, wedding/anniversary celebrations, business dinners, or any meal you want to make a little more fun. 

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Step-By-Step Guide to Setting a Table 

Although it looks spectacular, setting the table only takes a few minutes and is a great chore to assign to the kids. Here are the steps for how to set a table, so you know just where everything goes. 

  1. Start by laying the placemats at each setting. Placemats not only add color and texture but also help make cleanup a breeze and protect against accidental scratches. 
  2. Next, Place the dinner plate in the center of each placemat with room for utensils and glasses on either side. If serving salad, nestle that plate atop the dinner plate and soup bowl on top of the salad plate. 
  3. Place napkins to the left of each place setting, crisply folded, or through a decorative napkin ring on top of each bowl or plate. Napkins are practical for cleaning hands while eating but also add a touch of elegance.  
  4. Then, arrange the utensils on either side of the plate. Place forks on the left side of the plate, place the folded napkin and the knives and spoons on the right side of each dish. The order in which these utensils are arranged depends on what type of meal you’re serving — for example, work your way from the outside in starting with the salad fork and ending with the dinner fork closest to the plate. The soup spoon should sit outside the knife, which should be closest to the plate on the right side, with the blade facing the dish. The dessert spoon should be arranged above the plate and perpendicular to the dining utensils if needed. 
  5. Next, set the water and wine glasses at the top right of each place setting, above and slightly to the right of each knife.
  6. Place a butter dish or bread plate above and slightly left of each fork, if using. 
  7. Finally, add other decorative accents or accessories for ambiance, like small vases, salt and pepper shakers, or name tags for seating arrangements. Small touches can add an extra pop of elegance to your table setting without making it look cluttered or overwhelming for guests.
Empty wine glasses on a table. Image Source: Depositphotos

Where does the wine glass go when setting the table? 

The wine glass should be placed at the top right of each place setting with a water glass. It sits above and slightly to the right of the knife. Just like setting a table, choosing the correct wine glass is an important detail. Have white or red wine glasses on the table, depending on your menu and the wine you intend to pair with it. 

Tips for Remembering Where the Utensils Go 

One tip for remembering where the utensils go is to “work from the outside in,” meaning to place the salad fork furthest out from the plate since it would be the first course. Same for the soup spoon outside the knife, as the soup dish would be served before the main course. 

From there, another tip is “right for the knife,” since most right-handed people use their knife with their dominant hand. 

Common Mistakes To Avoid When Setting a Table 

Avoid these common mistakes when setting up a formal dining table. 

  • Plan your meal ahead of time, so you know what utensils will be needed to enjoy each course, and make sure to set the table accordingly, working from outside to inside to ensure each knife, fork, and spoon is in the correct spot. 
  • Additionally, overcrowding the table can make it look cluttered. Try to minimize the height and width of items so guests can easily see one another when enjoying their meal and talking. 
Friends gathering at table. Image Source: Depositphotos

Tips for the perfect dinner party

Once you’ve set the perfect table, there are several additional tips to consider to ensure that dinner goes off without a hitch. 

  • Planning the meal and shopping ahead of time will minimize the day of cooking stress, allowing more time for making the ambiance perfect. 
  • For big parties, consider setting out the place settings early in the morning before the rush of cooking starts so you have one less thing to worry about. 
  • It can also be helpful to set up a buffet-style serving area for the main course. 
  • Consider having a few appetizers as guests arrive before everyone sits for supper. 
  • Have a bottle of wine decanted before and a pitcher of lemon water on a tray or counter nearby for serving easy refills. 
  • Have extra food storage containers handy for guests to take home leftovers.

Now that you know how to set a table, all that’s left is putting it all to practice. Setting the table adds an elegant touch to any meal and can ensure everyone has what they need, allowing you, the host, to enjoy more time at the table with your company. Every attention to detail will be appreciated, and future dinner parties will go off without a hitch. 

Kita Roberts is a world-traveled photographer and content creator writing for,, and

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