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How to Set the Table

I’ve pondered for some time whether to write this post. Some may find it snobby. Others will dismiss it as elitist or old-fashioned. But my hope is that many will sing its praises! Because today I’m writing from my heart with a basic lesson of gracious living and etiquette that I believe needs to be revived.

I grew up at a time and in a place where manners were important. Where children said “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Sir” and where men removed their hats indoors. Where gentlemen opened doors for women and were rewarded with a kindly spoken “thank you.” Where white gloves were always worn on Sunday mornings and “talking back” was simply not tolerated. Yes, manners were important and expected.

How to Set the Table

Good manners and proper etiquette were taught to me and my sisters from the time we were toddlers. My mother is an elegant woman, an elegant hostess, with impeccable manners. She has an innate sense of the “right way” to do things and the ability to put people at ease. Those abilities have served her well in some of the difficult social and political positions in which she has served.

Even though we grew up in a very small town in rural south Georgia, my mother made sure that we knew much about the world beyond. She made certain that we knew something of ballet, art, opera and theatre. And that knowledge has stood me and my sisters in good stead all our adult lives. One thing that was always present in my parents’ home was a properly set table. No matter how busy Mama was, no matter how many directions we were heading for our individual extracurriculur activities, there was always a family meal at a properly set table. Even now, should you enjoy a sandwich at my mother’s home, you will enjoy it at a table with a correctly laid place setting. As our mother often says, we were “groomed to sit at the King’s table.” And we would have been completely comfortable there. An elaborate table setting never caused us a moment’s anxiety because we knew with certainty how to navigate it.

I’m amazed at the number of adults I encounter who do not know how to set the table. But then I’m pretty obsessive about it. Early on it became a lifelong habit which I believe may now be actually imprinted in my DNA. I’ve even been known to rearrange the table settings at open houses and furniture showrooms. Maybe that’s not polite. Told you I was obsessive.

As food bloggers, cooks or hostesses we spend hours lovingly selecting and preparing beautiful food for our families, friends and guests. How then do we present our carefully crafted recipes? Do we plop it onto a plate and sit down in front of the television? I hope not. Properly setting a casual table takes very little time. Maybe five minutes in total. Surely everyone can find five minutes during the day to make meal time a pleasant experience? If setting the table is not a ritual at your house, I’d like to challenge you to try it just once this weekend.

Basic Table Setting

A basic, casual table setting consists of a placemat to protect the table, a dinner plate set in the middle of the placemat, a dinner fork to the left, a knife and sp0on to the right. The cutting edge of the knife is always turned toward the plate. The napkin is folded and placed to the left of the fork. The glass is placed near the tip of the knife. Simple!

I have found that children do really enjoy setting the table. It becomes part of the mealtime ritual and helps them feel a part of the preparation. Even the smallest ones can help.

Correct table setting

This place setting is a little more involved. You see that there is an additional fork and spoon. The fork to the far left is the salad fork and the spoon to the far right is a soup spoon. This tells you, of course, that the meal will include a salad and a soup of some kind. We were having a tossed green salad and chili with this meal, thus the need for the additional flatware.

Now, I am not a complete stickler for the table setting rules. I’ll play around a little with napkins and extra pieces. It can make the table much prettier to use a vibrant napkin tied as shown above and placed on the plate. I know it’s not exactly proper but it shows a little more personality!

Proper table setting

And, finally, here’s a colorful casual table setting that I use quite often. You can see right away that we’re probably having steak with this meal because the dinner knife has been replaced by a serrated steak knife.

Elaborate table setting

Now, about that table setting from the top of this post. This is still a casual setting, but admittedly there is more to “decode” here, so let’s take a look. Remember that the flatware is used from the outside to the inside. So, first, we can see that we will be having bread with our meal and that there will be something to spread on it. The bread plate and butter spreader at the top left of the place setting give that away immediately. Also, since there’s a salad fork present, we’ll be having a salad course as well. On the far right, there is a somewhat different spoon. It’s larger and has a rounded bowl – a cream soup spoon. We may not know what the soup is but we know it won’t be brothy, right? The cup and saucer along with the stemware tell us that both a cold drink and coffee will be offered. Admittedly, this table setting is one that you would rarely see these days, but I’d rather know what to do when confronted with it, hadn’t you?

Before I wrap up this post, let me touch on one more thing. Table manners or dining etiquette. Do you teach your children to use good table manners? I know, I know, you’re so busy you don’t know whether you’re coming or going some days and table manners may be the last thing you have on your list of to-do’s. But, young parents, please believe me – it makes a difference. Not only table manners, but manners in general.

As Emily Post said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” Bravo, Emily! I completely agree. Everyone needs to know that they should place the napkin in their lap, how to hold a fork and knife, not to place their elbows on the table and to chew the food with their mouths closed. These are just so basic and easy to teach and go a tremendous distance to make meal time a pleasure. I’ve heard lots of people say, “Oh we’re just casual at home, but when we go out we make sure the kids use table manners.” My thought on that is that if children practice their table manners at home then you don’t have to worry when you go out to eat. They already know what to do and you don’t have to spend the entire meal teaching and correcting.

Whew. This has been a really long, wordy post. And, honestly, I hope it didn’t come across as being stuffy, or boring, or terribly old fashioned. I just feel deeply about some things and this is one of them!

You know what? Instead of old-fashioned, I’m going to start calling table setting “Granny Chic.” Yeah. That’s it! Granny Chic! So, go on and practice a little Granny Chic today!

I’d really like to know – do you routinely “set the table” in your house or is that an idea that is hopelessly old fashioned for you?

Other posts on table setting and dining etiquette:

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  1. You linked back to this post today. It is still one of my favorite of all time. Setting a gracious table, while ensuring that everyone is comfortable, is a talent often overlooked these days.

    Miss P

  2. I’m 30 yrs. old and always grew up with proper manners. We set the table every single night and ate together as a family. Yes please and no thank you for whatever you were asked. My parents were very strict. I raise my son the very same way. He sets the table and I cook and serve. He clears the table and together we wash and dry. I love this post!

  3. Hi Lana,

    First-time commenter here. :o) Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed this post. As a first-generation American, I grew up with a completely different set of “table manners.” Growing up in an Asian household, it was more “don’t speak unless spoken to.” And chopsticks were a mainstay.

    I make an effort to set the table before every meal. How I do it mostly based on what I’ve observed over the years. Thank you for pointing some things out that I’ve never caught on to!!!

    Thanks again – now I might have to plan a 5-course meal, just to use up all the table items!!!


    1. Thanks, Kim! I’m so glad I could help. There are lots of “rules” about American table settings but in this post I wanted to go over most of the basics. If you need more indepth information, just let me know. I’ll get out my copy of Emily Post :-)

  4. I enjoyed your post. My 3 children are adults now and it was always challenging to try to teach them good table manners. It was exasperting but worth the effort. I do believe they appreciate what has been taught to them. It’s nice now to set the table for just the 2 of us and enjoy a nice meal, whether it be in the dining room or our little bistro table. Thanks for your share.

    1. It really takes so little effort – just a few minutes, but makes the meal so much more civilized and enjoyable.

  5. I love this article and appreciate the reminders about some pieces I rarely use. Here’s a tip I use to help me: the words fork and left both have 4 letters, while the words right, knife, and spoon have 5, so fork goes on the left and knife & spoon on the right. My children have homes of their own now, but growing up the job of setting the table was always one of the chores about which they never complained.

  6. I love this post and everything that it stands for. I do not set my table on a regular basis but was brought up by a grandmother who “made” us learn the proper way to set a table (and hers was set for every meal). We were even scolded for improper settings. It just feels refreshing to sit down at a table that has been set and it needs to be practiced more often. Thanks for inspiring me!

  7. I try to set the table pretty but not at every meal. Life is busy and with different schedules, I’m happy for the meals we do have together! Great post!

  8. I have so enjoyed the comments. We are so fortunate that Mama taught us, lovingly, by example. Today would have been their 57th Anniversary. I think Daddy is smiling right now.

    Miss P

  9. Bravo! Our 4 year-old daughter is responsible for setting our table and is learning to do it correctly. In fact, I checked to make sure that you said something about the cutting edge of the knife facing the plate. :)

    Yes, our family ate around a properly set table every night, as do we.

  10. I think it great that you posted this. I wouldn’t know what to do if I planned an elegant dinner party. I’ve have been tempted many time, but it’s just that I wouldn’t know how to set the table appropriately.

  11. Beautiful tableware! I cannot honestly recall whether my mother taught me how to set a table, or whether I learned it in my Home Economics class at school. They no longer teach that class (quite a shame) however I have tried to teach my daughters both proper manners and how to set a table…among other things domestic.

    There definitely needs to be a resurgence of all things domestic…home should be a place of rest and rejuvenation, not stress and frustration….sorry, off the soapbox now! lol

    Loved your post. I’m glad to see that genteel ladies still exist!

  12. I’m only 22, but luckily grew up with the same manners being taught at an early age. I could properly set the table by the time was 5 and remember the dirtiest looks whenever I didn’t respond with a sir or a mam. It might be a little off topic, but we can be an example with our manners in a world that is quickly forgetting that a smile can brighten someone’s day. Great article to remind those who know and to inform those that don’t.

    1. I’m sometimes surprised by the puzzled looks I get when I say “thank you” or “you’re welcome” or even hold the door for someone else who is struggling with too many packages. People just really don’t know or expect good manners or kindness from others any more. It’s so sad.