How To Set A Table For Dinner-Tips For 3 Different Occasions

A vast majority of us did not have the privilege of going to a finishing school. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn how to set a table for dinner.

Setting a table has been known to be a major cause of anxiety for many a hostess. But that shouldn’t be so as there are many resources on and offline that you can lean on to help you get it right.

And today is your lucky day! This here is one of those online resources that would give you world class guide and tips on how to set a mean dinner table.

Before we go on to discuss the various steps to setting a table for different types of dinner, let’s share some rules that would help you remember some of the things we would share.

  1. Place utensils in the order that they would be used either from the outside in or the inside out. Traditionally, etiquette demanded that the utensils be placed from outside in but that rule has been relaxed. So either way works. But we think it’s safer to go with the traditional outside in.

  2. You place forks to the left of the plate while spoons and knives are placed to the right (there are a few exceptions; one case could be if you know that your guest is left handed). To always remember this, sit at the table and mimic how you’ll use a fork and knife when eating.

  3. Place only utensils that would be used on the table.

That said, let the lesson begin!

How To Set A Table For Everyday Dinner

  1. Lay a placemat (if you’re using one)

  2. Next, place the dinner plate in the center of the place mat (setting).

  3. Then place the knife by the dinner plate to the right and the spoon after the knife (that is to the right of the knife).

  4. Put the water glass on the top right corner of the plate, above the knife.

  5. Finally, place the napkin under the fork or on top of the dinner plate.

Table Setting For A Casual Dinner

This is the table setting you have when you are having some friends over and you want to put in a little effort into entertaining them. So you go above what you’ll do when only you and your family are having a meal.

  1. Put the place mat in each person’s spot.

  2. Place the dinner plate on top of the place mat. Ensure that the dinner plates are all a match. Your table wouldn’t look good with dinner plates of different colors and designs in each place setting.

  3. Place the napkin to the right of the dinner plate or else put it on the dinner plate. Your napkins can be paper or cloth napkins.

  4. Since it’s a casual dinner you most probably would be using only one dinner fork and knife. So place the dinner fork to the right of the plate on top of the napkin.

  5. Place the dinner knife beside the plate to the right. Make sure that the blade of the knife is facing the plate. Fun fact: this rule was adopted to indicate non-aggression and as a sign of courtesy to the other guests.

  6. If soup would be served in this meal then place the soup spoon to the right of the dinner knife. But if no soup would be served then leave the soup spoon out of the setting.

  7. Place the dessert spoon above the dinner plate with it (the dessert spoon) facing left. The dessert spoon is usually smaller than the soup spoon and less depressed.

  8. Place the dessert fork directly below the dessert spoon with the fork facing the right

  9. Finally, place the wine glass to the right of the dinner plate directly above the soup spoon. Then the water glass beside the wine glass directly above the soup spoon

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Table Setting For A Formal Dinner

Now this is that occasion when you want to pull out all stops for one reason or the other. So for this occasion you have to have place mats that match your tablecloth. Not that this should be exactly the same design and all but you have to ensure that they both tie in and look pleasing to the eye.

  1. Put placemats in front of every guest’s chair.

  2. In a formal dinner, you can only use cloth napkins and every napkin at the table must match. Place the napkin to the left of the placemat. There are many innovative ways of folding napkins nowadays but the traditional way was to fold napkins in fourths or halves.

  3. Put a charger or serving plate down on the placemat, and then place the dinner plate on it.

  4. Depending on whether you are having salad or soup, place the right plate on the dinner plate.

  5. Place the dinner fork to the left of your dinner plate and the salad fork after it (that is to the left too). Remember the dinner fork should be close to the dinner plate but not touching it. You can also place these forks on the napkin or move the napkin farther away and place the forks next to the plate.

  6. Place the dinner knife to the left of the plate with the blade facing the plate and the tip pointing away from the guest.

  7. After the knife, you place the teaspoon to the right of the knife and finally, the soup spoon.

  8. Still to the right of your plate, place the glasses starting with the glass for the white wine, then the one for the red wine and finally, the water glass (the accompanying video would help you understand this better).

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For really elaborate meals, then you would have additional utensils and plates such as bread knife and plate, different wine glasses(already mentioned and positioned) coffee cup, dessert fork and more. Here’s how you’ll arrange a few of these extra utensils and plates:-

  1. Place the bread plate directly above the dinner fork and salad fork and then place the bread knife on it with the blade facing away from the guest.

  2. Next place the dessert fork above the dinner plate facing the right and then the dessert spoon directly above the fork, facing the left.

  3. After serving desserts, place the coffee cup to the right of the guest.

There are some more utensils but we doubt whether anyone one would go to such elaborate length for a formal dinner (except at Buckingham palace of course!).

We promised to drop an accompanying video so here it is:-

Common Mistakes To Avoid When Setting A Table For A Formal Dinner

Using The Wrong Tablecloth

Some people do not take cognizance of the tablecloth they’ll use in relation to the size and shape of the dining table. However, experts insist that the wrong tablecloth throws off the balance and ambience of the entire table.

Therefore, it is advised that your tablecloth should drop about 10 to 15 inches on every side of the table. If it is a casual or informal dinner then the drop can be only 10 inches.

Going Over The Top With Centerpieces

This is a rather annoying mistake that many host/hostesses make. They believe that the bigger and more ostentatious the centerpiece is, the better. But that is not so; a centerpiece should add to the overall ambiance of the table. But at the same time it shouldn’t hinder diners from interacting freely with one another.

True life story: A group of friends went for a wedding dinner and the centrepiece was so tall that they couldn’t see each other. After a few minutes of craning their necks around the centrepiece to get a decent conversation with themselves, they removed the centrepiece and placed it on the floor beside the table. Bad table manners? Maybe but really they  were there to have a good time with friends!

So dear host/hostess, go simple and elegant with the centerpiece so that everyone on the table can see each other. Test the practicality of your centerpiece by sitting on the table and checking whether you can see the person across from you without craning your neck.

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Placing Unnecessary Plates and Utensils On The Table

Many folks see the occasion of a formal dinner as the time to showcase their wealth of dinner and flatware. So they bring out all the exquisite china bone dinner set and everything in their cabinet. This is not necessary at all.

Only set out the plates and utensils that would be used. It doesn’t even make sense for you to create more items to be washed up after the dinner. Additionally, a guest might break or damage one of your lovely and priced dinner, flat or glass ware.

Using Only Matching Stuff All Through

Some people think that they must use the same brand or colors of dinnerware, cutlery and linen to set a table. Be creative when you are setting a dinner table. You can always do a mix and match of colors and designs.

A note of caution however is this; use the matching items for every place setting. For example, use the matching chargers (serving plates), and then if your mixing and matching, ensure that the dinner plates are the same and so on. Don’t use one type of charger for one guest and another for the next guest. Unless there is a method to your creative ‘madness’ or ‘unsualness’ and if there is, everything would surely tie in beautifully.

how to set a table for dinner
Mix and Match Table Setting

Placing Too Much Fragrance In The Dining Room Or On The Table

If you read many articles on how to set a dinner table, you’ll find that some people use scented candles and many other fragrant blooms. While this may be a nice touch, it can easily get overbearing.

We advise that you use fragrances sparingly so that they wouldn’t clash with the aromas of the meal. A room can really get stuffy and uncomfortable with too many fragrances.

Trust us when we tell you that a dining room replete with the sweet aromas of all the baked goods, delicious dishes and spiced wine would create wonderful experiences and memories for your guests.

Not Placing Serving Spoons On The Table

So many newbie host/hostess have made the mistake of forgetting to place the serving spoon on the table when they are setting the table. If you wait to bring along the serving utensils when you bring out the dishes, you may forget it.

So in other to avoid the embarrassment of flustering around looking for the serving spoon, it’s best to set out all the utensils that would be needed to serve the food while setting the table.

Not Providing The Right Utensils

Some host/hostesses just set the table with utensils that they have or think are necessary without consulting the menu. What happens if all you have on your table is a bread knife and you’ll serve your guest steaks?

In order to avoid ensuing embarrassment, always check the menu so that you’ll have all the correct plates, flateware and glasses on the table.

Not Keeping Essential Items Close By or on The Table

If your table is overcrowded and you cannot place your salt and pepper shaker in the center of the table, then you should consider having them on a side table along with the extras of items such as water, wine or sauces for some dishes.

It would not look nice for you as the host/hostess to be scrambling to the kitchen to get salt or pepper for your guests. In some cases, some guests would not even bother to ask for those items if they don’t seem them on the table or nearby. And this may detract from their dining experience.


You have seen all these tip and simple ways that you can set a great table for any type of dinner. That is the basics! The thing about us as human beings is that we have the capacity to be creative; so go ahead and wow your friends and family at your next thanksgiving dinner.

Also check out this post on how to choose great dinnerware.

Finally, you would do well to make your kids help you set the dinner table at home. Also teach them how to behave at a formal dinner table; they’ll thank you for it later in life.

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Chisom was raised in a home where something was always cooking or baking in the kitchen. She developed her love for baking and the culinary arts from an early age. Through the years she has undergone several formal and informal training on cake decoration. She obtained two certificates from The Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Arts. Her wealth was of experience spans over 30 years of hands on training and experimentation. She is proud to say that whatever tips and advice she passes on are tested and proven. She has also inspired many to great entrepreneurial heights in the world of cake decoration.

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