How to Set a Formal Table

A formal table brings anticipation and excitement to holiday dinners. This guide outlines how to set a formal table, and offers some great decorating tips to enhance your presentation.

Setting a Formal Table 101

Table presentation is a big part of dining and can be the difference between a ho-hum meal and a memorable event. This is particularly true on special occasions like Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, when you're serving multiple courses to large groups. A formal table setting adds aesthetic appeal, ambience and structure to your meal. By taking the time to set a formal table, you also signal to your guests that you care about them and have worked hard to make the dinner a success. While it might seem a bit intimidating at first, learning how to set a formal dinner table is actually quite simple and logical. And once you know the table setting rules, you’ll have a valuable entertaining skill that’s sure to impress time and again.

Casual Table Settings

A casual table setting is ideal for everyday family meals, especially breakfasts and lunches, which typically involve fewer courses and require fewer accoutrements for the meal. Place mats are the standard marker for each setting. Set a folded napkin to the left of the place mat, then place a dinner fork (and salad fork, if needed) on top of the napkin. Place a dinner knife (and soup spoon, if needed) on the right side of the place mat. A water glass and wine glass of your choice is set above the dinner knife. 

Christmas Centrepieces & Place Cards

Special occasions like Christmas are a great time to incorporate centrepieces and place cards into your entertaining repertoire. Place cards add a personalized touch to the table, making your guests feel welcome and accounted for. It’s also a great way to introduce guests who may otherwise be unknown to one another. Place cards can be as simple as hand-folded cardstock with names written in a black ink pen or as elaborate and hand-crafted as you want them to be. Finally, the centerpiece crowns the table and helps set the tone of the dinner party. Consider using seasonal flowers, vintage knick knacks, candles and vases. This is an ideal chance to show your creativity and let your imagination go wild.  

Task Overview

Estimated time: 1 hour
Estimated cost: under $100
Skill level: Beginner
Number of people required: 1-2

Tools & Materials:

Formal Table Setting Steps

  1. Initial Setup
    Setting a formal table begins before your guests arrive. First, determine the number of chairs needed and space them evenly around the table. In front of each chair, set down a charger (a purely decorative plate on which all other plates are stacked) and a rolled napkin on top of it. Next, arrange your silverware on either side of the charger in order of usage. Forks go on the left side, with the first fork to be used placed at the far left; soup spoon and knives go on the right side, with knives to the outside. The first spoon to be used goes to the far right of the spoons, and the first knife to the far right of the knives. The silverware for dessert sits above the charger, with the dessert spoon on top facing left and the dessert fork below facing right. A bread and butter plate is set at the top left of the charger, and the butter knife is set across this plate, facing left with the blade down. Glasses are positioned above the dinner knife: the water tumbler goes first, followed by the white wine glass, red wine glass and champagne flute in that order, arranged counter-clockwise from the water glass.
  2. First Course
    Soup is a popular first course. The soup bowl should be accompanied by its own plate, which is set on top of the charger. Diners will find their soup spoons at the outer right, beside their dinner knives. When diners finish eating their soup, they should place their soup spoon on the plate beside the bowl, and then position the plate at the upper-right corner of the charger, where it can be cleared away.
  3. Second Course
    Once the soup course is cleared, the second course may be served. This course is usually fish, or possibly a small portion of pasta, served on a mid-sized plate. Each diner will find a short, broad fork at the outer left and the fish knife at the outer right. When diners finish this and all following courses, they should place their silverware diagonally across the plate to be cleared away altogether.
  4. Main Course
    There are two options for serving the main course: either plate the course before serving or set an empty dinner plate on the charger for the diners to serve themselves at the table. Once their plates are full, the diners will find a dinner fork and dinner knife at their outer left and outer right, respectively. Remember to replenish the wine as needed.
  5. Salad
    The salad (or, occasionally, the cheese) course should be served on a mid-size plate similar to the fish or pasta course. The salad fork is found at the outer left and has a broad end tine that can be used, if needed, for cutting. After this course, you should clear the salad fork and plate along with the bread and butter plate, butter knife and both wine glasses.
  6. Dessert
    Dessert and tea and coffee service are brought in together. Dessert may be plated or displayed whole at the table before being served. A tea and coffee service consists of a tea cup, saucer and teaspoon, placed to the right of the dessert plate. The water glass should be the only stemware remaining on the table.
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This article is intended as general information. Always be sure to read and follow the label(s)/instruction(s) that accompany your product(s). Walmart will not be responsible for any injury or damage caused by this activity.



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