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The Right Way to Set a Table

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Setting the table correctly can be a little overwhelming. It can be hard to keep it all straight! Which way does the knife face? Does the water glass go on the left or the right? Does the spoon go by the fork or at the top? Luckily, once you’ve got them down, the rules aren’t really all that complicated. We’re here with some simple tools and tricks to help you remember it all.

While there are different rules for place settings when it comes to levels of formality, there are some basic tenets that always apply. They are:

  • Utensils are set in order of use from the outside in.
  • Forks (almost always) sit to the left of the plate, while knives and spoons go to the right.
  • Water glass sits above the knife.
  • Knife blades face in the direction of the plate.
  • Only set utensils for what you’re serving. No soup? Don’t need to set out a spoon.
  • Basic Setting

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    A basic table setting is what you would use for a casual dinner at home on an average weeknight. Not fussy, and pretty simple. The setting consists of:

  • A dinner plate in the center with a napkin to the left.
  • A fork to the left of the plate.
  • A knife and a spoon (if needed) to the right.
  • A water glass above the knife, at the top right of the plate.
  • An easy way to remember their placement is the word “FORKS.” The order from left to right goes: F for fork, O for the shape of the plate, (just forget about R…) K for knives, and S for spoons.
  • The napkin can also be placed directly on the plate, and the spoon can be left out if you’re not serving anything that you’ll need it for.
  • Informal Setting

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    An informal place setting is used for a three-course meal, maybe when you’re having company over for dinner and the meal consists of soup, salad, an entree, and dessert.

    In this case, you’ll have:

  • A dinner plate in the center with a napkin nicely folded on top.
  • Two forks to the left of the plate. They go in the order they’re used, from the outside in. So the smaller fork, the salad fork, would be on the far left. And the bigger fork, the dinner fork, would be closest to the plate. (If you’re serving salad after the main course, the order would be reversed: dinner fork on the outside and salad fork on the inside.)
  • The napkin can be folded on the center of the plate, but it can also be placed in a napkin ring to the left of the forks, or folded and placed underneath the forks.
  • The dinner knife always goes immediately to the right of the plate with the blade facing inward.
  • Spoons go on the right side of the knife, in order of use from the outside in. The number of spoons (if any), depends on what is being served. Assuming soup is served first, the soup spoon goes on the far right, and the teaspoon or dessert spoon go to the left of it and to the right of the knife.
  • If serving salad, the salad plate can go to the left of the forks. However, it’s totally acceptable to serve the salad directly on the dinner plate in this case.
  • A water glass, a wine glass, and perhaps a tea or coffee cup go above the knife and spoons, to the right of the plate.
  • A bread plate would sit at the top left of the plate, above the forks. A butter knife should sit across the edge of the plate with the blade facing down, handle on the right.
  • A good way to remember placement from Emily Post: hold your hands in front of you and give a “thumbs up” sign with each hand to form a ‘b’ with your left and a ‘d’ with your right. This is a good reminder that the bread and butter (for ‘b’) go on the left, while the drinks (for ‘d’) go on the right.
  • If using a dessert spoon and fork, they can either be placed beside the plate or set above the plate. If above, the spoon is set on top with its handle facing right and the fork is placed below with its handle facing left. If set beside the plate, the dessert fork would go to the left of the plate with the other forks, set closest to the plate because it will be used last, and the spoon would go on the right, between the knife and soup spoon.
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    Formal Setting

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    A formal place setting is used for a special occasion meal where you’re pulling out all the stops, like a holiday dinner or other meal with more than three courses. This is an occasion where place cards are used, candles are lit, and centerpieces are arranged. A formal setting is the same basic rules as an informal setting with added glasses, utensils, and plates to go along with the additional courses. (Which means it can end up taking up quite a bit of space…)

    Some overarching rules:

  • Though the illustration shows more for ease, no more than three of the same utensil should be placed out at the table, regardless of how many courses are served. The exception to this is if an oyster fork is used in addition to three other forks, then it would be placed to the right of the spoons. If more than three courses are served before dessert, any additional utensils needed would be brought out with the corresponding course. Likewise, dessert spoons and forks would be brought out on the dessert plate when that course is served.
  • As before, knives should be placed with blades facing in toward the plate.
  • Utensils, as always, are still placed in the order you’ll be using them from the outside in.
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    Let’s assume you’ll be serving a shellfish appetizer, then a soup, a fish course, and an entree, followed by a salad, and then dessert.

  • A charger (a plate you never eat off of) is the center of the place setting. When the first course is served, the plate is put on the charger. After that is removed, the charger stays, and plates for any additional courses are set on the charger (except for dessert, as the charger would be removed after the entree).
  • As usual, forks go to the left of the plate. If there is a fish course to start, the fish fork would go to the far left. Remaining forks go in the order they are used, so our scenario would be: fish fork, dinner fork, salad fork, from left to right, because salad is being served after the entree. The oyster fork would go to the right of the plate on the outside of the spoons because a shellfish appetizer is being served. But this is the only time a fork goes to the right of plate!
  • The main dinner knife goes directly to the right of the plate. If additional knives are used, such as a salad knife or fish knife, they would be placed in the order used from the outside in.
  • If soup is served, the spoon goes to the right of the knives.
  • Glasses still go at the top right, above the knives and spoons. They are placed in the order they’re used and there can be as many as five. The water glass goes directly above the knives. The white and red wine glasses go next to that, to the right. A champagne flute or sherry glass would go to the right of that, if you were serving some bubbly with an opening course.
  • So there you have it! While formal settings can be kind of a doozy, the basic tenets for place settings remain the same. (And in any case, we bet your friends will be enjoying your company and cooking too much to critique your table!) Just remember these few tips and you’ll be good to go, no matter what the occasion:

  • FORKS from left to right. Forks on the left, O-shaped plate in the middle, (skip the R), Knives on the right, and Spoons to the right of that.
  • ‘b’ and ‘d’ hand trick. Bread plate on the left and drinks on the right!
  • Utensils are placed in the order they’re used from the outside in. Knife blades always face in.
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