Solutions to Dinner Party Seating Problems

Quick and easy answers to common dinner-table problems that will banish the hassles of being a hostess and allow you to enjoy the evening, too

  • Genevieve Roth

Dinner dilemma: When should you use place cards?

Recipe for success: Trust your instincts. Arranged seating can help defuse awkward situations, but it also adds an element of formality to your party. If that’s what you want, then it’s acceptable to use place cards for parties larger than four. If you prefer a more casual approach, use verbal direction for groups of up to eight, or as many as you feel you can manage. Just be prepared to bend a little if people don’t follow your directions precisely. Focus on getting a few key people in the right places. (Putting The Charmer in a middle seat, where he can direct the fun and smooth over any sticky moments, is a good start.)

Dinner dilemma: One table or more?

Recipe for success: Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies likes tables of six to eight for generating the best conversations, where everyone gets involved. If you have more than eight guests, split into two or multiple tables. That way, you won’t be yelling or straining to hear. The host’s table will always be viewed as the best place to sit, so if you’re sharing hosting duties with your husband or a friend, sit at separate tables. If you’re hosting alone, then make a point to mingle quite a bit, to ensure that nobody feels unimportant. And if you choose to go with more than one table, use the same seating rules that you would for a single group.

Dinner dilemma: When assigning seats, where do you start?

Recipe for success: Nigella Lawson, host of the Food Network series Nigella Feasts, always begins with those sitting nearest to her. “Sometimes that will be the most difficult person to place,” she says. “But sometimes it will be the guest of honor.” Generally speaking, it makes sense to start with the people who concern you the most. “You can always take your time with the Charmer,” says Marlene Holloway, a San Diego-based etiquette expert. “She can sit anywhere.”

Dinner dilemma: If kids are involved, should you have a separate kids’ table?

Recipe for success: Children will probably enjoy eating with one another more than with adults. Also, adults sometimes have a hard time relaxing when they have a child next to them. “Kids should be at their own table until they are old enough to contribute to an adult conversation,” says food and wine connoisseur Ted Allen. “I know nine-year-olds who can do that.” Teenagers can throw you for a loop. They won’t want to sit at a kid’s table. (You’re bound to hear “I’m not a little kid anymore, Mom!”) But they might not want to hang with adults. (“You’re so boring!”) Sit them with the kids for now. “A little teenage resentment is just something you’re going to have to learn to live with,” says Lawson. Amen.

Dinner dilemma: How long should you wait for a latecomer?

Recipe for success: If cocktail hour is over and late guests still haven’t arrived, you can start dinner without them. When stragglers finally get to your house, greet them graciously and serve them the course the rest of the table is eating. But don’t starve them as punishment: “If you’re on dessert and the poor people got so lost that they are just arriving, it’s definitely OK to bend these rules,” says Holloway.

Dinner dilemma: How do you keep the conversation flowing?

Recipe for success: If this is a mixed group, start by giving your guests an opportunity to get to know one another. “I like to place a sticker on the bottom of everyone’s dinner plate that has a tip about their neighbor,” says Holloway. “One might say, ‘The person to your left went to college with the host. Ask her to tell you a story about freshman year.’” As things warm up, try to draw everyone into one central conversation―or two if it’s a larger group. Avoid fragmented chitchat: It can be noisy and distracting, and it often leaves people out.

Dinner dilemma: What should you do if things get awkward?

Recipe for success: Change locations. “There’s always that moment in Victorian movies where someone says something that is staggeringly inappropriate,” says Allen, “and the hostess picks up her dinner bell and says, ‘I think we’ll adjourn to the library for dessert.’” The plan works. A change of location encourages a switch in conversations and gives you a chance to reseat anyone who is uncomfortable or making trouble. If someone drops a clanger midmeal, do the best you can to change the subject with a question. (“Mary, how was your mother’s trip to St. John?”) The rest of the guests will silently thank you.