Table Etiquette: The Place Setting

Before we can dive into the finer points of dining etiquette, it’s important to know the tools of the trade: the place setting. While most of what I share with you will be for somewhat informal occasions, you should know that formal place settings have up to 13 pieces of flatware! Talk about confusing!

Casual Place Setting

The typical place setting at my weeknight dinner table looks like this one:

Casual Table Setting

Casual Table Setting

This is a simple place setting that kiddos can easily remember … and it’s great to use as practice each night. It includes spoon, knife, fork, plate, napkin and glass.

A few things to point out … the knife blade faces toward the plate to help prevent any accidental cuts when picking up the knife. While a dinner knife wouldn’t likely cut you, a steak knife could.

The spoon and glass (for liquids), along with the knife, belong on the right of the plate while the fork (for solids) and napkin belong on the left.

Etiquette TIP: If you remember “liquids on your right and solids on your left”, you’ll always be able to remember where each utensil belongs. This will come in handy as you move from casual to more formal place settings.


Informal Place Setting

When I cook a large family or holiday dinner, I set a slightly more formal table. While this style is still considered informal, it’s a step up from casual. Take a look:

Informal Table Setting

Informal Table Setting

You can see a few items have been added to the casual place setting. We have another spoon, a wine glass and a salad fork. The napkin has been moved as well. A word of warning, the napkin can be almost anywhere even though it should be in the middle of the plate (or plate area). I’ve seen it tucked inside of a glass, which I dislike, but it’s common. If serving coffee or hot tea, you could add a cup and saucer immediately to the right of the soup spoon. Remember, liquids on your right, solids on your left.

Formal Place Setting

For more formal dinners, wedding dinners, or award banquets at conferences, the formal place setting is most appropriate. It is also more common than you might think, short of the place card. Take a look at what has been added:

Formal Table Setting

Formal Table Setting

We now have two wine glasses (yay!), one for red and one for white. Different wine will likely be served with various courses. The napkin has been relocated. A dessert spoon and cake fork have been added (yay, again!), as well as the cup and saucer. We also see a bread and butter plate and bread knife. Place cared are typically used in smaller, more intimate gatherings and weddings. While I see this setting frequently at business functions, I’ve never seen a place card in that setting.

Etiquette TIP: If you sit down to this and feel lost, don’t freak out. Others around the table are probably lost, too. Remember, “eat from the outside in … and top down.” Each course that is served will match a utensil to the farthest outside left or right space. For instance, salad is served before the main entrée in America, so you would use the fork farthest out on the left, the salad fork.


Royal Place Setting

If you think this looks scary, try sitting down to a royal setting. If you ever dine with Queen Elizabeth, this will come in handy! All kidding aside, I have, in my career, sat at a table with all of these items on a few occasions. It always makes me think of Dr. Seuss, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”

Royal Table Setting

Royal Table Setting

Why is this important?

I love telling stories to relay why “knowing your forks”, as my dear friend, Trish, says, is important. I’ve been in many situations where people have felt awkward or even embarrassed themselves because they didn’t know proper table etiquette. This one time, at a conference … I sat down to a place setting and realized I didn’t have any forks because the person next to me had mistaken mine for his. I’ve actually seen this happen several times with forks, spoons, glasses, cups, and napkins. I simply asked the server for a fresh set of forks. The gentleman next to me made some snide comment about how the server hadn’t remembered to set forks at my place setting when she set the table. Hmmm. I used this situation as a teachable moment and pointed out that, in fact, there had been forks at my place setting. I hope I didn’t embarrass the gentleman too horribly!

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