Place Settings 101

Place Settings 101

Dinner’s in the oven, Pandora is playing and your guests are expected any minute. But what about the table?

Many of us have a bad habit of waiting until the last minute to set the table – and then do so with little consideration of etiquette. Fortunately, with just a little pre-planning and the basics on hand, a beautiful presentation can be pulled together in no time. The details do make a difference – and can add to the overall enjoyment and ambiance of the meal.

Formal or Casual?

The type of occasion, the number of guests and the menu you’ve planned help you determine whether a formal or more casual affair is appropriate. Once you know the tone, take inventory of your linens, dinnerware, flatware and glassware, and be sure you have enough to complete your table setting. For guides to proper utensil and glass placement, see our handy guides below!

Table Setting Basics

Knowing how to set the table is something every good hostess should know. It sets the tone of the occasion and helps your guests know what to expect. After all, each piece in your place setting should correspond to a dish, drink or course being served at the meal. 

A full set of 12 place settings makes entertaining a breeze


With a formal setting, you may use all of your dinnerware: a first-course salad plate or soup bowl, a bread plate and a dinner plate. You can use just a dinner plate for a casual setting. A charger, the oversized decorative plate used to add texture or color to your place setting, is completely optional.

  • The dinner plate is placed in the center of the place setting an inch from the edge of the table.
  • The bread plate is positioned above and to the left of the dinner plate.
  • The salad plate and/or soup bowl is stacked on top of the dinner plate, but should be cleared before the main course.

Guide to setting the table


Only put out the flatware your guests will be using. For example, if you’re not serving soup, then don’t put the soup spoon out.

  • The dinner fork goes to the left of the dinner plate.
  • The salad fork is placed to the left of the dinner fork.
  • The dinner knife belongs on the right side of the plate, blade inward.
  • The place spoon, used for soup or dessert, is positioned to the right of the knife.
  • The teaspoon, used for stirring coffee and tea and can also be used for dessert or soup, is placed to the right of the place spoon.
  • The dessert fork is placed above the dinner plate, with the tines pointing to the left.
  • The butter spreader rests horizontally across the bread plate.

Drinkware is placed above the plate, to the right. Dessert-wine glasses can be brought out when the dessert is served.

  • The water glass is placed just above the knife.
  • Wine glasses are set to the right of the water glasses in the order in which they will be used.

Be sure to have plenty of dinner napkins on hand for large gatherings!

Table Linens

Table linens are the unifying element that completes the look of your table. Decide whether you want to use a tablecloth, placemats, a table runner or a combination of two.

  • Cloth napkins are folded or put into a napkin ring and placed to the left of the forks or on the center of the dinner plate. For more casual affairs, a folded napkin can be placed under the forks.
  • A tablecloth should be large enough to drape six inches on each side of the table.

Etiquette Guide for Setting the Table

Guide to Basic Table Setting

Basic Table Setting Etiquette

For casual family suppers or low key gatherings, a simple table setting like the one above is the proper placement for eating utensils and glasses. The fork should always be on the left side of the plate, with the knife and spoon on the right side respectively. Glasses should always be placed directly above the knife, with the water glass on the inside.

In this arrangement, we’ve placed the napkin next to the fork, but it could also be placed underneath the fork or on top of the dinner plate, depending on how you prefer.

Guide to setting your table for informal occasions

Informal Table Setting Etiquette

For an informal occasions, like a dinner party or supper club, you’ll likely have more utensils and glasses than your average weekly meal. For these gatherings, follow the guide above. The salad fork should be placed on the outside of the dinner fork to the left of the napkin. If you’re using a salad plate, it should be placed to the left of the salad fork.

As always, the dinner knife is on the inside, right of the place setting, followed by the dessert spoon and then the soup spoon on the outermost edge. If you’re using a placemat, all utensils should be inside the placemat, but the glasses, salad plates, and bread and butter dishes can float on the table.

As for the glasses, the water glass should always be on the inside directly above the knife, and any wine or champagne glasses or tea cups should be placed on the outside above the spoons.

Guide to setting the table for formal occasions

Formal Table Setting Etiquette

For special occasions and holidays, you’ll likely pull out all of the stops! Above, you’ll see the proper way to set the table, depending on what utensils you may need for the dishes you’ll serve. If you aren’t serving a fish course, there’s no need to incorporate a fish knife and fish fork into your place setting. Remember that all of your utensils should fit onto your placemat, if you’re using one, while glasses and bread and butter dishes need not be.

Of course the most important thing to include in your table setting is a welcoming atmosphere. Even without all the bells and whistles, a warmenvironment and a relaxed hostess ensure that your guests enjoy their meal, and more importantly, enjoy the company!

For more inspiration, follow the Ballard Designs Pinterest boards, or browse more entertaining ideas on How to Decorate.

How to Decorate Team

We enjoy spending days interacting with How to Decorate readers. From answering Design Dilemmas to writing How To articles and working with guest designers, our passion is to provide informative and accurate resources to help people solve their design problems.


  1. Reply

    A. Christiane

    December 17, 2016

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it yet again . . what is marked as a formal place setting in WRONG: the bread plate and knife – because bread never puts in an appearance at a formal supper, EVER; dessert service – beacuse the dessert service only comes in with the dessert itself; the teaspoon, cup and saucer – because coffee and tea is not served at the supper table but afterwards in the sitting room.
    Additionally, the knife/fork pattern is out of sequence as well. You have it lasid out that you will be ating your fish course with a dinner fork and your main course with a salad fork.
    And while we’re at it, if there is a salad fork on the table there is also a salad knife (which would correct the misalignment of cutlery.

  2. Reply

    Elaine McGinty

    September 14, 2014

    Perhaps the salad immediately next to plate is this course is last such as dessert or salad as last course. Rule use utensils from out to in?

    I didn’t understand the fork blades in first comment. Plz explain

  3. Reply


    August 29, 2014

    I thought the dinner fork was ALWAYS imediately to the left of the dinner plate. In the last diagram you have the salad fork closest to the dinner plate. I was always taught the salad fork goes to the left or outside of the dinner fork

  4. Reply

    judy Theisen

    March 5, 2014

    I have been serving formal and casual meals for many years but sometimes need to be refreshed on the table settings. This was very helpful. Thanks

    • Reply

      How to Decorate Team

      March 6, 2014

      Thanks Judy! We’re so glad you enjoyed reading this post.

      The How to Decorate Team

  5. Reply


    February 26, 2014

    Just to note that your first image of a place settling shows the dinner fork with the blade outward, not inward.

    I just learned this last week so I had to point it out! Dianna

    • Reply

      How to Decorate Team

      March 6, 2014

      Oops, thanks, Diana! Hope you enjoyed this post. I guess we need a little refresher course too, eh?

      The How to Decorate Team