Learn how to set a table, from a basic table setting, to an informal table setting for a casual dinner party, to a formal place setting for a holiday.

By Real Simple Editors
Updated April 05, 2019
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How to set a table used to be common knowledge, but in today’s fast and busy world, knowing how to set a table properly has become somewhat of a party trick. If you’ve been tasked with hosting a baby shower luncheon, an informal dinner party, or a big Thanksgiving dinner and weren’t taught how to set the table as a child, no worries, we’ve got you covered. Here are detailed instructions on how to set a table properly for three different situations, from casual family dinners to a formal holiday feast. To make it even easier, we've included a table setting diagram for each scenario so you can easily visualize where to place each plate, napkin, fork, and knife. Bookmark this page so you can easily reference it as you're setting the table before the meal—or share the diagrams with your kids and task them with preparing the table for dinner.

Basic Table Setting

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If you’re getting things ready for an everyday dinner or a weekend breakfast, you might want to know how to set a table properly. For casual events, one needs just a basic table setting: a placemat, cutlery (fork, knife, and spoon), a dinner plate, a water glass, and a napkin.

Basic Table Setting Instructions

  1. Lay the placemat on the table.
  2. Put the dinner plate in the middle of the placemat.
  3. Lay the napkin to the left of the plate.
  4. Place the fork on the napkin.
  5. To the right of the plate, place the knife closest to the plate, blade pointing in. Place the spoon to the right of the knife. (Note: The bottoms of the utensils and the plate should all be level.)
  6. Place the water glass slightly above the plate, in between the plate and the utensils, about where 1 p.m. would be on a clock face.

Basic Table Setting Etiquette Tips

If you prefer, it is acceptable to set the napkin on top of the plate in a basic table setting, though some think this can create a more formal feeling.

Now that you know the basic table setting rules, brush up on your table etiquette.

How to Set a Casual Table

Knowing how to set a casual table will come in handy when you’re tasked with knowing how to set an informal table for a get-together or a laid-back dinner party. Essentially, the basic table setting, above, and the casual table setting are nearly identical, but in a casual table setting, there is the addition of a soup bowl and a dinner plate. As a general rule, only set out the glassware, tableware, and flatware that you’re going to be using. If you’re not having a salad course, all you need to set is a dinner fork. If you’re only serving white wine, a red wine glass is not needed. And if there's no soup course, skip the soup bowl and spoon.

Chargers are generally reserved for more formal place settings, but Real Simple home editor Stephanie Sisco says you can still use a charger in a casual table setting if you wish—just make sure it’s fashioned in a more laid-back style, like raw wood.

Casual Table Setting Instructions

  1. Lay the placemat on the table.
  2. Put the dinner plate in the middle of the placemat.
  3. Place the salad plate on top of the dinner plate.
  4. If you’re starting with a soup course, place the soup bowl on top of the salad plate.
  5. Lay a napkin to the left of the charger.
  6. To the left of the plate, place the fork on the napkin.
  7. On the right of the plate, place the knife closest to the plate and then the spoon.
  8. Directly above the knife, place the water glass.
  9. To the right and slightly above the water glass, place the wine glass or a glass for another beverage.

Casual Table Setting Etiquette Tips

If using individual salt and pepper shakers for each guest, place them at the top of the placemat. Otherwise, place them near the center of the table, or, if using a long, rectangular table, place them in the middle of each end.

Mastered how to set a casual dinner table, but need a refresher on what else you should keep in mind for your casual dinner party? Here, nine awkward entertaining moments you might encounter (and how to solve them).

How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

If you’re hosting an elegant dinner party, you might want to know how to set a table for a three-course meal. Real Simple home editor Stephanie Sisco says the biggest difference between a casual table and a formal table is the use of chargers, also known as presentation plates. Traditionally, formal place settings also tend to forgo placemats, but she says you can opt to use a round placemat underneath a charger for an even more formal look.

A formal table setting includes many pieces: 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. Though this may sound overwhelming, if you know how to set a casual table, it’s a very easy leap to knowing how to set a table with charger plates. To see all of this in motion, check out this video on how to lay out a proper table setting.

Formal Dinner Table Setting Instructions

  1. Lay an ironed tablecloth on the table.
  2. Set a charger at each seat.
  3. In the center of the charger, place a soup bowl.
  4. Place the bread plate to the top left of the charger (between 10 and 11 p.m. on a clock face).
  5. Lay a napkin to the left of the charger.
  6. On the left of the charger, place the salad fork on the outside, and the dinner fork on the inside. You can put the forks on the napkin, or for roomier settings, directly on the tablecloth between the napkin and the charger.
  7. On the right of the charger, place the knife closest to the charger (blade facing in towards the charger) and then the soup spoon. Note: All vertical flatware (salad fork, dinner fork, knife, and soup spoon) should be spaced evenly, about half an inch away from each other, and the bottoms of each utensil should be aligned with the bottom of the charger.
  8. Place a butter knife horizontally, blade facing inwards on top of the bread plate with the handle pointing to the right. (Note: In all place settings the blade will face inwards towards the plate.)
  9. Directly above the charger, place a dessert spoon (a teaspoon) with the handle pointing to the right.
  10. Directly above the knife, place a water glass. To the right of the water glass and about three-fourths of an inch downward, place the white wine glass. The red wine glass goes to the right of—and slightly above—the white wine glass. (Note: Since people traditionally drink more water than wine during dinner, the water is kept closer to the diner.)
  11. If using individual salt and pepper shakers for each guest, place them above the dessert spoon. Otherwise, place them near the center of the table, or, if using a long, rectangular table, place them in the middle of each end.
  12. If using a place card, set it above the dessert spoon.

Formal Table Setting Etiquette Tips

After the soup course is complete and the bowls are cleared, a salad plate will take the soup bowl’s position. Traditionally, a charger holds the spot for the dinner plate, and is removed after the salad course so the place is never bare. If you do not want to clear the table after the soup course and bring out dinner plates, you can place a dinner plate on top of the charger.