How to Properly Set a Table


Setting a table properly has always been important. It shows guests that they are welcome, and it also sets the tone, of formality while eating, which ensures that people get along, dine in comfort, and enjoy a convivial experience.

We may eat in a more casual way these days, but that doesn’t mean we should let table-setting rules slide. The rules for setting a table have evolved over the years, and every culture has its own protocol for setting a table, either in a formal or casual way. Setting a table correctly imposes a certain order on the way we interact, and it reminds us that there is a code of civility for social interaction at the table. So remember these simple rules and you’ll always set your table properly.

Formal dinner table setting

How to set a table for a formal occasion

When you are entertaining guests or marking a special occasion, you will want to know how to properly set a table. Lunch may be a little more informal in terms of table-setting rules, but setting a dinner table requires the right placement of cutlery, glassware and tableware.

A formal dinner table setting includes many pieces, each dedicated to the different courses and sides. As always, one must start on the outside with the cutlery and work your way in. The pieces you will use to set the table include a tablecloth, chargers, dinner plates, soup bowls, salad plates, bread plates, napkins, salad forks, dinner forks, knives, soup spoons, butter knives, dessert spoons, water glasses, red wine glasses, and white wine glasses.

Obviously, all pieces should be clean, and each piece should be polished with a soft cloth and preferably steamed, especially if the pieces have been in storage for a long time.

Steps to properly set a dinner table

  1. Place a clean and ironed tablecloth on the table. Make sure it is perfectly clean and there are no creases. 
  2. Place a charger plate at each place.
  3. Place a soup bowl in the centre of the charger.
  4. Place a bread plate to the top left (11 on the clock face) of the charger.
  5. Lay a folded or rolled napkin, with a napkin ring to the left of the charger.
  6. Place the forks, starter and main, to the left of the charger, with the first use items on the outside.
  7. Place the knives to the right of the charger, the sharp edge of the baled faces the centre. First use items begin on the outside.
  8. Place a butter knife horizontally on the bread plate, with the blade facing the charger.
  9. A dessert spoon is placed above the charger.
  10. The water glass goes directly above the knife, to the right of the charger.
  11. To the right of the water glass and about 2 centimetres lower, place the white wine glass. The red wine glass goes to the right of, and slightly above, the white wine glass.

Steps for basic table setting

The basic setting is acceptable for all occasions and is the minimum of formality for any eating occasion, be it breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner, or whatever else.

  1. Put the placemat at the seating
  2. Put the dinner plate on top of the placemat.
  3. The napkin goes to the left of the dinner plate, folded or rolled.
  4. Place the fork on the napkin or to the right of the napkin.
  5. Place the knife to the right of the dinner plate with the blade facing in.
  6. Place a soup spoon to the right of the knife.
  7. Place the water glass above the plate to the right.

Table setting casual

Steps for casual table setting

Setting a table properly for casual occasions follows much the same rules as the basic setting. A charger plate is generally reserved for a more formal setting, but may still be used for the casual setting if you like. The casual setting differs from the formal setting in that it only requires the cutlery, glassware and tableware that you are strictly using. Usually, in a casual setting, you will not need both a red wine and a white wine glass, but just one for what you are serving. If, throughout the meal, you switch wine you can also switch the glass at that point.

  1. Put the placemat on the table.
  2. Place the dinner plate on the placemat
  3. Place the salad plate on top of the diner plate.
  4. If serving soup, place the soup plate on the salad plate
  5. Place a napkin to the left of the placemat.
  6. Place the fork on the napkin or to the left of the napkin.
  7. Place the knife to the right of the dinner plate, edge turned in and the soup spoon to the right of the knife.
  8. Place the water glass above the knife.
  9. Place the wine glass above the water glass and slightly to the right.

These rules apply for typical western table settings and of course, will vary according to what is being served. For Asian, Chinese or Japanese table settings, another whole set of rules apply. The basic rule is to lay the chopsticks horizontally on the serving tray, closest to the diner, with the head pointing to the right. The rice bowl is to be placed on the left, and the soup bowl on the right. In a set with udon or soba, this takes the place of the soup bowl on the right.