Q: I need help. We are hosting our first dinner for my in-laws, but I’ve never really set a table properly. How do you do it?
A: Don’t feel alone. Even though there’s much research out there that supports eating together as a family, we know that families have become very lax on where they eat their meals — everything from eating on their laps while watching TV, sitting in a straight line along the kitchen bar, standing up and shoveling the food in before going to the next event or the “grab and go” method by eating in the car on their way to an activity.
As a result of this casual eating lifestyle, many families have never set a table, let alone being “proper” about it. So I compliment you for wanting to know how to do it. Even though our family doesn’t “go the whole nine yards” when setting the table each evening, we do set the dinner plate, salad bowl, beverage glass, flatware and napkin correctly. It just becomes habit! And yes, just in case you are wondering, when I host a family dinner (which is every holiday), we do set the table as described below. And yes, I still get questions like “what is this fork (or spoon) for?”
Here’s a basic table setting for a formal dinner party. (Now, foodies — don’t get too shook up when I don’t include a service plate for this setting. That may be over-the-top for a “newbie”!)
If you have the table space, about 2 feet from plate center to plate center is ideal so there will be enough room for each person. Plates and flatware look best and are convenient when placed about 1 inch from the edge of the table. Flatware should be close to the plate, but not so it looks crowded. Only use the plates, flatware and goblets that are necessary for your menu. The flatware is placed in the order of its use, with the flatware to be used first farthest from the plate.
Set your dinner plate in the center (with the pattern, if there is one, properly positioned so that the “picture” faces the guest).
Place a folded napkin on top of the plate or to the left of the salad fork.
The dinner fork goes to the left of the plate.
The salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork.
Place your knife to the right of the dinner plate with the blade facing inward (toward the plate).
The dinner spoon goes directly to the right of the knife.
Place your soup spoon or iced tea spoon (if needed) to the right of the dinner spoon.
A small bread plate should be placed at the 11 o’clock position, with respect to the dinner plate.
Position a small butter knife across the bread plate diagonally from the upper left to the lower right (if your flatware service came with butter knives).
At the one o’clock position (again with respect to the dinner plate), set a water goblet or tumbler.
Place the iced tea/wine goblet to the right of the water goblet.
If necessary, place the coffee cup and saucer to the right of the spoons with the handle of the cup parallel to the edge of the table.
When salad isn’t served as a separate course, the salad plate should be placed to the left of the forks.
If soup is being served at the beginning of the meal, the soup bowl on a liner plate should be placed on top of the dinner plate.
The dessert spoon and/or fork need not be beside the dinner plate. They can be brought in with the dessert plate, or they can be arranged at the top of the dinner plate, with the handle of the spoon to the right and the handle of the fork to the left.
If you are interested in “wowing” your guests, choose a simple napkin fold that looks inviting. At our family dinners, I often will hand my “napkin folding” book and the napkins to the kids and ask them to pick out a design and fold the napkins for the table. It’s fun to see what they choose!
Here’s a simple fold called the “Havana” that you may want to try:
Fold the napkin in quarters with the free corners at the bottom pointing toward you (paper napkins will already come folded like this).
Fold the top flap up one half.
Fold each of the remaining flaps up to within 1 inch of the previous flap.
Fold back the sides and lay the napkin flat.
Here are a few rules of table etiquette that you may want to practice:
• Sit correctly at the table; use good posture, keep your hands in your lap or on the table, and keep elbows off the table while eating.
• As soon as you sit down at the table, spread your napkin across your lap (at a formal dinner, however, wait until your hostess put hers on her lap first). If you must leave the table during the meal, either leave the napkin on the left side of your plate (soiled part turned under, out of sight) or on the seat of your chair. When the meal is finished, put the napkin on the left side of your place, or if the plates have been removed, in the center. It should not be refolded nor crumpled up. Rather, it is laid on the table in loose folds.
• If you are serving food to guests, present the platter or bowl to the guest’s left.
• Pass food in a counterclockwise movement around the table. Use “please” and “thank you” as you ask the person nearest to an item to pass it to you.
• If you are a guest in someone’s home, follow your host’s lead. Don’t eat or drink anything until the hostess is seated and starts to eat.
• Cut meat one piece at a time, and then eat it before cutting another.
• Take small bites of food and eat quietly and slowly. Eat with your mouth closed and do not try to talk while you are still chewing.
• Eat all of the food taken on a fork or spoon at one time. Never remove food from your mouth, except bones, seeds or pits.
• If you want a second helping in your own home, ask for it. However, if you are a guest in someone else’s home, don’t ask. If there is more, it will be offered to you.
• It is very poor manners to use a toothpick at the table.
— Susan Krumm is an Extension agent in family and consumer sciences with K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, 2110 Harper St. She can be reached at 843-7058.