The biggest eating holiday of the year is upon us. You’ve brainstormed the menu, shopped for sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and thawed the turkey. (You have thawed the turkey, right?) With all the fanfare and preparation around the main event, it’s easy to give short shrift to the canvas that will display the bounty: your table. (It can also be intimidating if you didn’t grow up around formal dining functions — which is most of us.) Here’s how to make your dining room table as elegant as the meal you’ve prepared.
The art of utensil placement
Most of us know that forks are placed to the left of the plate, and spoons and knives go to the right. It’s when the quantity of said utensils increases, so does our confusion. But, as etiquette consultant Pamela Hillings told Martha Stewart, “Table setting is based on logic.” It wouldn’t make sense to have unused utensils hanging out three inches away from our plate mid-meal. Which is why flatware is placed in order of use from outside in; flatware farthest from the plate is used first, while what’s closest to the plate is used last.
On the left side of the plate you have, in order from left to right: fish fork, salad fork, dinner fork. (Note: In Europe, salad is often eaten after the main course, which is why you sometimes may see the salad fork set closest to the plate. Feel free to do this yourself if you’re feeling extra-fancy.) On the right side of the plate, set the dinner knife, fish knife, and soup spoon, in left-to-right order. (Followed by the oyster fork, if necessary.)
The bottom of the utensils should line up with the bottom rim of the plate. (Martha Stewart says this plate should be a “charger” that will be removed once the guests have placed their napkins in their laps — but a basic dinner plate can serve the same function.)
Everything dessert-related goes above the plate, in the centre. The dessert fork should rest closest to the plate, with tines facing right, while the dessert spoon lies above the fork, turned the opposite direction (handle to the right).
A few final words on utensils: Many placement variations are possible based on the meal. For example, if soup is served between salad and the main course, the spoon should be set between the two knives. Avoid crowding the table with utensils you don’t need. (If there is no soup or fish, omit those utensils from the table.) Your formal table may simply have two dining forks, a knife, and a spoon, and that’s perfectly fine.
Bread and butter plate go where?
Though it’s par for the course during a regular meal, a formal dining occasion is no place to use a dinner knife to butter a roll and rest it next to our roasted kale. No, fancy tables have separate bread plates that sit to the left of the plate, above the forks. Lay the butter knife diagonally across the bread plate for maximum table couture.
Where to place stemware
Stemware resides to the top right of the plate (above the knives and spoons). When accommodating three glasses, place the water glass above the dinner knife, white wine glass directly to its right, and the red wine glass forming the top centre of a neat glassy triangle. Another option is to place all glasses in a straight line from largest to smallest: water glass, red wine, white wine, champagne flute (with the water glass resting just to the right of the plate’s midline).
Where does the napkin go?
When setting the table as a kid, my mum taught me to place the folded napkin underneath the fork. This, however, is a swanky table faux pas. Under-the-fork napkin placement creates noise as guests work to break the humble serviette free from its shackles, potentially causing silverware to clank to the floor. For peak sophistication, place the napkin to the left of the forks, or ideally in the middle of the plate — either nicely folded or rolled with a decorative napkin ring.
Lastly, create a seating chart
If more than four guests are expected, assigned seating is recommended. Consider making place cards in advance, to be placed above each guest’s plate. Martha Stewart also says, however, not to place your place card for yourself. We weren’t able to find out why this is poor etiquette. Just trust Martha on this, OK?