How to Set Your Dinner Table

Use our handy tips and diagram to take the guesswork out of setting the dinner table.

Napkins on the right or the left? Which way does the knife face, anyway? Sometimes it’s just plain hard to remember. Follow this guide and your table will look picture perfect, whether you're going formal or casual.

1. Chargers and Placemats
For a formal table: Place a charger, or presentation plate, at every place setting. If you like, you can place a soup bowl or salad plate on top of it when you serve those courses, but the charger should always be removed before you serve the main course. You also have the option of removing it immediately after guests sit down — the idea is to dazzle them with a beautifully set table when they enter the dining room, and to hold their places at the table. Finally, if you don’t have a set of chargers or just don’t want to bother, you can cheat with the dinner plate instead, or simply use placemats. In this modern age, even formal rules are made to be broken — just be careful with Grandma’s china!

For an informal table: Use placemats at every place setting, or nothing at all. If you’ve got a beautifully grained wooden dining table, why not show it off?

2. Forks, Knives and Spoons
For a formal table: Forks go on the left and knives and spoons go on the right. (To remember: “Fork” has four letters, as does “left”; “knife” and “spoon” both have five letters, as does “right.”) Diners eat from the “outside in,” meaning soup spoons and salad forks should be farthest from the place setting, since soup and/or salad is typically served first; utensils for the main course — the dinner fork and dinner knife — should be closest to the place setting, since the entree is served last. The knife’s blade should always point inward, toward the dinner plate, since a blade pointing outward might come across as unfriendly, or possibly unsafe. Space all flatware as evenly as you can, depending on the size of your table and number of guests, and align it with the bottom of the charger or dinner plate.

For an informal table: The same rules apply as above, although usually you would have only a dinner knife and fork, and either a salad fork or a soup spoon, depending on how elaborate your menu is.

3. Water and Wine Glasses
For a formal table: Water glasses are always positioned directly above the point of the knife. Wine glasses are placed immediately to the right, with red wine glasses closer to the water glass than white wine glasses, if you are serving both types.

For an informal table: The same rules apply as above, although unless you and your guests are serious oenophiles, you can usually get away with just one wine glass for either type of wine — or use a simple glass tumbler instead. And your water glass and wineglass don’t have to come from the same glassware set — feel free to mix different styles.

4. Napkins
For a formal table: Place napkins to the left of the forks if there’s room on the table; otherwise, you can place them under the forks, or position them on the charger or placemat.

For an informal table: Place them under the forks, or in the middle of the place setting.

5. Bread Plates
For a formal table: Rarely seen at home in these carb-conscious days, bread plates go above the forks, with the butter knife laid horizontally or diagonally (pointing toward 10 o’clock) across the plate and the blade facing away from the center of the table.

For an informal table: Just break bread together the low-key way and pass a bread basket around the table.

6. Dessert Forks and Spoons
For a formal table: These go directly above the main place setting, positioned horizontally, with the fork’s tines facing right and the spoon’s bowl facing left, and the fork closer to the place setting than the spoon.

For an informal table: You don’t need these on a casual table; give them to guests when you serve dessert.

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