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Mind and Manners: The Importance of a Formal Table Setting

November 9, 2021

In our “A Time to Gather” series, we’ll teach you how to entertain like a pro. This guide on the correct way to set a formal table setting not only offers simple tips but learn why there’s always room for good manners at the table.

Etiquette is always in style

A dinner table can be styled with the latest trends like a mix of vintage tableware, textures such as burlap or velvet, table runners with metallic or kantha stitching, and an everchanging scope of floral centerpieces. A formal table setting, however, never changes or goes out of style. All dinnerware elements are correctly in place and it can leave an even stronger impression than trendy dishware. A beautifully appointed table is part of being a hospitable entertainer in that it makes your guests feel special and brings you closer to those around you.

“You can immediately set the mood and communicate the importance of a shared meal through a formal table setting,” says Julie Mulligan, 1-800-Flowers.com’s lifestyle and crafting expert. “By taking the time to set the stage with all of the elements needed to enjoy the meal — from silverware, plates, and napkins to glasses, candles, and flowers — you let your guests know that they are important and worth the effort.”

Formal table setting fundamentals

Formal table setting with photo guide on where to set the utensils, glasses, dishes, and linens.
In this photo guide to a formal table setting, note that all elements are properly placed. Flowers, centerpieces, and food can be set to the host’s preference.

Table settings have two variations. A general setting includes tableware based on what you are serving. There are no glasses, soup bowls, or salad plates if they are not part of the meal. A more formal table setting is what you’d see at a wedding or black-tie event that will have a multi-course meal.

The formal table setting may appear chaotic from its repetitive use of glasses and utensils, but all pieces support the rules of mealtime etiquette. The rule is to work your way toward the plate with your utensils, beginning with the salad fork at the start of the meal. “It is very logical. It teaches you what fork and knife to use when,” says Charlotte Ford, etiquette expert and author of 21st Century Etiquette Guide to Manners in the Modern Age.

How to set a formal table

Get ready to set! Gather your tabletop pieces and allocate almost two feet of space for each setting. The plate is in the middle, at an inch from the edge of the table. The pair of forks are to the left, knives and spoons are to the right, drinking glasses above the knife, and bread plate above the forks. Fork tines point upward, and the sharp edge of the knife faces the plate. The napkin is either set on the plate, next to the forks or beneath them.

Formal table setting hacks

If the dinner calls for soup, salad, red and white wines, along with coffee and tea – the salad is on the dinner plate, the soup bowl is on the plate, with a soup spoon above the bowl pointing to the bread plate. The drinking glass, along with the red and white wine glasses, is set as a trio, and the teacup and saucer are below the glasses/next to the spoon.

Pro tip: Make an OK gesture with both hands and place it over the utensils. The left-hand makes a lowercase b, which points to the “b-for-bread plate.” The right hand creates a d, which points to the “d-for-drinking glasses.”

A complete formal table set

When setting a formal table, begin by draping the table with a tablecloth, placemats, or one or the other. A beautiful surface that aptly showcases an elegant table setting will also do. Make sure your table is cleared to accommodate all the pieces that will compose your formal table setting.

Flatware: Salad, dinner, and dessert forks. Butter and regular knives. Soup, dessert, and regular spoons.

Dinnerware: Plates, cups, bowls, saucers, platters, and serving pieces.

Glassware: Water goblet, milk, wine glasses, and sherbet glass.

Creating the mood

Personalizing the formal table setting is a way for the host to share stories and her style. You can create a welcoming atmosphere with candlelight, an enjoyable playlist, and flowers. Experiment with the setting’s design with a mix and match of colorful plates or stylish napkin rings. Place cards are a classic detail that removes any awkwardness associated with where to sit. A pedestal plate used as a centerpiece showcasing start-your-diet-tomorrow desserts looks divine. “I love the process of setting the table! Let’s face it, there is a lot of work that goes into preparing a delicious meal,” says Mulligan. “And my reward to myself is setting aside the time to create a beautiful tablescape using both cherished family pieces as well as items I’ve collected through the years. And of course, elevating it all with fresh flowers or greenery, and beautiful lighting!”

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