Let’s face it, weeknight dinners are considered a success if we get family members eating in the same place at the same time (the car doesn’t count!) — and proper table setting does not rank high priority. However, with holidays fast approaching and entertaining on the horizon, now is the perfect time to brush up on the correct way to set a table.
According to Empress of Etiquette, Emily Post, there are three types of place settings: basic, informal, and formal; and as one might expect, Ms. Post has loads of tips and tricks to help us keep our settings straight.
Basic Table Setting
Emily’s legacy lives on through her well-schooled heirs via a website aptly named The Emily Post Institute. It is here we begin with a handy (and kid-friendly!) mnemonic, to assist in laying out the basic place (i.e., every day) setting.
Think: FORKS. Reading the letters left to right: F stands for fork, and it lies to the left of the “O” (which is the plate — get it?); skip “R”; then, the knife “K” is to the immediate right of the plate, and the spoon, “S” lies on the far right. Voila!
To remember where to place the butter dish and the drink glass, Post advises, “Touch the tips of your thumbs to the tips of your forefingers to make a lowercase “b” with your left hand and a lowercase “d” with your right hand. This reminds you that bread and butter go to the left of the place setting (above the fork), and drinks go on the right (above the knife).” Two thumbs up!
No matter what kind of place setting you are using, Post reminds us that the cutting edge of the knife blade always faces the plate, and the napkin should lay to the left of the fork, or on top of the plate itself.
Informal Place Setting
The informal place setting builds upon the basic FORKS arrangement, adding more tableware and utensils.
The trick to remembering where to place the additional utensils is this: work from the outside in. The silverware that lies furthest from the plate will be used first.
To achieve the informal setting for a 3-course meal, Post suggests thinking of the plate as the “hub of the wheel” and setting it down first.
Next, place the forks on the left with the salad fork on the outside and the larger fork for the main course on the inside, closest to the plate.
As usual, the knife goes to the immediate right of the plate, followed by the spoon, with a soup spoon placed on the outside if necessary.
In addition to the bread and butter plate, and water/wine glasses (which remain above the knife and spoons), you may now want to add a salad plate, set to the left of the outside fork, as well as a coffee cup and saucer, placed above and to the right of the soup spoon. If coffee will be served with the meal, go ahead and set the cup and saucer out from the beginning. However, if coffee will not be making an appearance until after, it’s acceptable (and a space saver) to bring them to the table following the main course.
Dessert spoons or forks can be set horizontally above the plate (spoon handles face right; fork handles face left); or incorporated into the lineup beside the plate. A dessert fork beside the plate would sit closest to the plate, just inside of the large, main course fork, while the dessert spoon would lie between the knife and soup spoon.
The Formal Table
Okay, folks, you are now ready for the advanced, formal setting and your table top will be dressed to impress.
The formal setting introduces an extra, large “service” plate called the charger. We do not eat off the charger (heaven forbid!), as it is meant to provide a frame below the plates/bowls preceding the main course. When the plate bearing the main course is served, the charger is removed and the main plate takes its place.
Everything else remains unchanged from the informal setting with the addition of a few more necessities depending upon what will be served. Fruit, oysters, and fish each get their own implement, and each has its own placement rules: The fruit spoon goes to the right of the knives, replacing the soup spoon, the oyster fork goes to the right of the spoons, and the fish knife goes to the right of the dinner knife.
Is your head spinning yet? Well, remember this formal advice from The Post Institute: “No more than three of any implement is ever placed on the table, except when an oyster fork is used in addition to three other forks. If more than three courses are served before dessert, then the utensil for the fourth course is brought in with the food; likewise, the salad fork and knife may be brought in when the salad course is served.”
I trust we all hold our tongues and resist rolling our eyes if we note an extra, unwelcome fork on a friend’s table, but I digress … I’m sure she meant well, poor thing.
Setting the glassware gets a bit tricky as there can be up to five glasses per place setting. The line-up should go as follows: water goblet directly above the knives, just to the right sits the champagne flute, followed by a red wine glass, a white wine glass, and finally, the sherry glass. (Sounds like a fun dinner!)
I figure by the time they get to the sherry, no one is going to be paying attention to formality anymore, but this fancy, formal setting is sure to make a fabulous impression when guests are first called to dinner.
Best wishes for very happy holidays, and remember first and foremost, no matter where you place your forks, it’s the company and shared celebrations your guests will remember most.
Do you follow these rules when setting the table? Or do you just let the forks fall where they may? (And did you notice how many of the rules we broke in the photo above?)
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