Setting a table for a feast (or even just a large group) calls for some strategy. To keep the mood relaxed and enjoyable, you want to balance a variety of comforting cues with cleanliness and spaciousness—meaning, you want familiar aromas to fill the air and decorations to abound… and you also want to keep the table clear of dirty dishes and make sure each guest has enough elbow room.
Sounds simple enough—until you realize you want to put both a gorgeous centerpiece and your carefully prepared meal in the same spot on the table. Or that you’ve invited twelve, but only have enough china for ten. Then suddenly you find yourself saying something you never thought you’d say before: “The rules for a traditional table setting would come in really handy right about now!”
I’ve got you covered. Back in the day, I had to learn for a job which silverware was used for what—and in so learning, I actually learned the right way to set a table at the same time. As you plan to host holiday meals this year, consider these 5 handy tips for maintaining the energy of your party from appetizers to dessert.
#1: Plan to keep the food in the kitchen.
Some decisions are best made in advance, and this is one of them. Either plan to forego the cornucopias, gourds, and other fall decorations at the table and go forth with the take-one-and-pass-it tradition when it comes to food… or choose to decorate a formal table and keep it fresh all evening by leaving the food in the kitchen. I recommend the latter.
Here’s why: When food is the centerpiece, the table stops being lovely after that first round of serving. Water glasses get tipped over; serving spoons fall out of the sweet potatoes right onto your fine linens; gravy sloshes out of the boat—not to mention that the dishes themselves look ransacked.
Also, at occasions like Thanksgiving, with large groups of people, the amount of food can really interfere with the atmosphere, because there’s simply too much on the table. If you keep the food in the kitchen, there’s only one room to deep-clean once the meal is over, and you can decorate the center of your table with festive decorations that hold up all evening, give your guests their space, and look great for pictures.
#2: Set the table intuitively.
Large meals often take a long time to prepare—which is how multi-course meals were invented. While your guests are waiting for the entree to be ready, their hunger is kept at bay with small dishes, like salad and bread.
If you opt for multiple courses, set your table “top down.” This means have all the dishes your guests will need already at their place settings, with the first dish they will use on top, and the last dish they will use on the bottom. As each course is completed, the used dishes can be taken away, and the next piece of dinnerware that is needed will be ready and waiting underneath, clean and fresh for the coming course.
When it comes to silverware, place the first piece your guests will need at the outermost position (like a butter knife for a bread course or a salad fork for a starter salad). Remember that traditionally, to keep folks from digging in before the blessing, forks are placed on the left side of the plate (harder to reach for the large population of right-handed people), and spoons and knives are placed on the right. Knives should be placed with the blade facing inward.
If you like, you may wrap the first course’s silverware in the handkerchiefs or napkins guests will place on their laps, and position this silverware either above the place setting or directly on the topmost dish (pictured), and position all other courses’ silverware in their traditional locations on either side of the place setting. The napkin rings in this post are a great way to make place settings festive.
#3: Use placemats to designate each guest’s space.
Tables can get tight very quickly without some intentional planning. One thing you can do to ensure everyone has a little acre at the table is to put down placemats.
The technique I’ve used here is to layer two different placemats—one large, and one small. The larger placemat accommodates the silverware on either side of the guest’s entree plate, as well as the water and wine glasses.* The smaller draws the eye in to the food. Together, they offer each guest the impression that his space has been specially prepared for him, and he is welcome to get comfortable there.
Depending on whether you plan to serve a different wine with each course, how many napkins/kerchiefs each guest receives, you might opt to use a single placemat to keep the table feeling breathable and spacious.
*Guests are traditionally offered water before a meal, often alongside bread, intended to cleanse the palette. The water should be available all evening long, so water and wine glass should be separate.
#4: Leverage the season if you’re short on coordinating dishes.
As you can see at this table I’ve set, each place has approximately the same pieces—an entree plate, an appetizer plate, and a salad bowl. But not all the pieces coordinate from place setting to place setting. That’s okay!
The chances of you inviting the precise number of guests that you have coordinating china is slim. Especially in the autumn, when all the colors of the season work together, you can mix and match to create a curated, cozy effect. This can also help to put your guests at ease if they’re not entirely used to sitting at a completely formal table.
#5: Tier your centerpiece decorations.
There are two things you want to avoid when decorating the center of the table for a large meal: One, having centerpieces that are too tall for your guests to speak easily with one another across the table, and two, having centerpiece decorations that are too low and therefore come off as “flat.” Both provide distractions throughout the meal.
You can find a happy medium by using a three-tier system for decorations. For example, you can have a “tall tier” of tall, slim candles every 18 inches or so down the middle of the table; a “medium tier” of bowls of dried-cranberry-filled water and floating tea lights; and a “low tier” of greenery and small embellishments, such as gilded pinecones or dragon tears. See this post for how to create gilded pinecones and custom candle sticks that you can use as two of your centerpiece tiers!
The rest is up to you! The right food, music, games, and conversation will keep your meal merry all night long. Share the images you take of your formal table with us! We’d love to see!