You have invited your boss over for a formal dinner. The food is prepared, but you are clueless about setting the table.
This is a common conundrum for non-Americans who have recently moved to the U. S. The nuances of American dining manners can baffle any foreigner.
Not knowing the proper American etiquette of table setting can rain on your parade when you are entertaining guests. Despite your best efforts, your invitees may still leave unimpressed.
Lack of decorum can be an eyesore at a formal event, and you definitely do not want that.
Well, lucky for you, we have designed an elaborate guide for setting the table, American-style. Once you go through it, you will be prepared to host any dining occasion.
The Major Components of an American Dinner Table
Pay attention to how these essential components are supposed to be set on the table. Since this is what makes the American dining style different from other styles, you can’t afford to make an oversight here.
Tablecloth and Placemats
Any clean, white, ironed tablecloth should be fine. But, if you have something fancier, this is its time to shine. Ensure that the tablecloth extends between ten to fifteen inches beyond the edge of the table. Neither too long, nor too short.
As for placemats, you don’t need them for a formal dinner. They are more appropriate for breakfasts, lunch, brunch, and informal dinners. But again, if you have some luxurious placemats you wish to put to use, don’t hesitate. No one is going to complain.
This is where it gets complicated. The more formal the occasion, the more pieces of silverware you have to put on the table. Think double digits. But, don’t let it bewilder you.
Having said that, you should only place utensils that are going to be used in the course of the meal. Placing unnecessary utensils just to make the table seem fancy is a rookie move. It confuses your guests.
Follow these golden rules for a smooth introduction to American cutlery etiquette:
- Never place more than three utensils on either side of the plate.
- Forks go on the left side of the plate. Knives and spoons to the right, with the knives’ edges facing toward the plate.
- Always place the cutlery in order of use. Silverware for appetizers is placed farthest from the plate, while those for the later courses, like the main course, should be kept closest.
- Don’t keep special utensils on the table. If dishes on the menu require special utensils, bring them out when the dish is served. Then, take them back when the guest is done with them.
Now we’ll take a deep dive into each type of cutlery.
There are five kinds of forks. These are for salads, fish, dinner, dessert, and oysters, respectively.
Fish forks and oyster forks are optional. If you are not using them, just put the salad fork, dinner fork, and dessert fork on the left, in that order.
Otherwise, the fish fork goes between the salad and dinner fork. The dessert fork goes to the top, handle towards the left. The Oyster fork is the only fork that is placed to the right, at the farthest position. Always place the points of all forks upwards.
Usually, there are three kinds of knives. These are for salad, dinner, and spreading butter. The butter knife goes on the bread plate; handle pointing rightwards. You should have the salad knife and dinner knife next to the spoons, to your right.
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There are three types of spoons — the soup spoon, teaspoon, and dessert spoon. The soup spoon goes right after the knives. Next is the teaspoon, and if there are already three pieces of cutlery to the right, place the dessert spoon above the plate with the handle pointing rightwards. Spoons should be placed with the concave surface upwards.
Plates and Napkins
The serving plate is at the center, as usual. The bread plate is at the top left. If there is a space shortage, place it at the extreme left of the table.
For a formal dinner, stick to cloth napkins, since the guest will place it on their lap. The napkin can be draped across the entrée plate along with the place card, or folded neatly on the left, beside the forks.
Glasses and Cups
For a strictly formal dinner, use three glasses: one for water, one for white wine, and another for red wine. These will be glasses of different sizes and shapes. They are placed at the top right. The water glass goes above the dinner knife. Beside the water glass, you will place the red wine glass. Below those, you will place the white wine glass. Use a different glass for champagne.
The cup and saucer, if you are serving a hot beverage, go to the right. Near the glasses, but closer to the guest.
Setting Up the Table Based On Levels of Formality
It is understandable if you are feeling perplexed right now. Who would have thought inviting guests could be so daunting? Well, there is good news. You don’t need to be so formal with everyone.
Ten kinds of cutlery, plates, and glasses are not required if you are just entertaining some friends or family. Even for a professional meeting, a semiformal table setup is enough. Only consider going formal when you are inviting over your company’s president, or someone of equal importance to you.
Here is how your dinner table should look on each occasion:
1. Basic or Casual
Plate at the center. To the left, a napkin with a fork atop. Knife and spoon to the right. A glass for water, and you’re good to go. You can always give your guests fresh utensils if they ask. Any extra eating apparatus is optional.
Set the table according to the menu. Ideally, two forks (salad, dinner), knives (bread, dinner), spoons (dinner, dessert), glasses (water, wine), and plates (bread, serving), should do. Remember this as the rule of two. Add or subtract any utensils as per your guests’ needs.
This is when you go all out. Use everything discussed in the previous sections. You need to put out separate utensils for every item on the menu. Using the same utensil to eat two separate dishes is against the American norms of formality.
The Host Is Allowed To Enjoy Too
The table may be set to perfection and the guests may be awed by your expertise and precision. Yet, the dinner party is not successful if you don’t enjoy yourself.
If you follow this guide minutely, it shouldn’t take you more than ten minutes to set the table. Don’t fret over this more than it’s worth. Enjoy your dinner. Most importantly, cook something delicious, or order from a fine restaurant and plate the items yourself if you are not a talented cook. When your guests are busy licking their plates, they won’t notice a misplaced knife or fork. Neither will it bother you.
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