How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

by Alli

As a southerner, I’m a stickler for proper table manners and table settings. One of the first things I taught my kids (when they were old enough) was how to set a formal dinner table.

I always added, “You never know when you’ll be invited to dine at the White House!” I’m still holding my breath on that one, but I think all kids (and adults) should, at bare minimum, know where the napkin, forks, spoons and knives go and how to properly use them.

At my house, most of our meals are informal until it comes to Thanksgiving and Christmas. These 2 meals are so special to my family and me, so I like to get fancy, complete with candles.

I’ve tuned out the cries of “I can’t see my food” from all the guys. They are such boys!  But deep down they love it, too!

One of my pet peeves is to see a formal table not set properly on a movie or a TV program. I mean, what is their problem?  

I know rules have changed, proper etiquette has been thrown under the bus and repeatedly ran over, but come on, at one point in your life you’ll probably be invited to a formal dinner. Will you know what to do? You will now!

How To Set A Formal Table


It’s not that difficult to set a proper table.  You just have to remember two rules:

Utensils are placed in the order of use.

How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

When you sit down to a formal dinner party and you see a gazillion utensils, don’t panic. Always start from the outside and work your way in.

The forks go to the left of the plate and the knives and spoons go to the right.

The knives are always placed with the cutting edge facing the plate.

Flatware should align with the bottom rim of the charger or dinner plate. (I’m a fanatic about everything lining up!)

The napkin is usually placed to the left of the forks or on the plate.

Stemware is placed above and to the right of the dinner plate: The water glass stands above the dinner knife with the wine glass (or iced tea!) to it’s right.

Formal Table Setting

Napkin Etiquette For Formal Dinner Table

When do you place your napkin in your lap?

Usually, you place your napkin in your lap as soon as you sit down. At a formal dinner, place your napkin in your lap after your hostess places hers in her lap!

When dinner is over, place your napkin to the left of your plate.


Have you ever been to a buffet dinner party and the food was not arranged on the buffet correctly? The main dish is always placed after the plates and serving forks.

How to Set up A Buffet

Do you ever host formal dinner parties?

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Addie October 21, 2014 - 8:26 am

Thanks for simplifying the proper table setting rules! It always looks so difficult when you see it set immaculately on movies lol

Alli October 21, 2014 - 11:04 am

It’s really very easy, once you learn the basic rules.

Colleen October 21, 2014 - 8:35 am

This is a great reference. I need to impart this wisdom on my kids. It’s so good to know basic etiquette!

Alli October 21, 2014 - 11:03 am

Especially in these days when it seems that proper etiquette is dead. 🙂

Paris (My Big Fat Happy Life) October 21, 2014 - 9:22 am

I remember always setting the table on casual nights with the fork, knife, spoon on the correct sides growing up. We always have more formal table on Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas too. One thing I didn’t know is that the a correct buffet is set up opposite of how I would have thought. I always thought you go to the right and around. Thanks for teaching me 🙂

Alli October 21, 2014 - 11:03 am

When it comes to buffets, I focus more on placing the foods in the correct order of how they will be eaten. Sometimes there’s only room to go one way on a buffet. As long as the food is placed in the proper order, you’ll be fine.

I forgot about Easter. We do formal for Easter, too!

Kristen from The Road to Domestication October 21, 2014 - 10:21 am

Oh my, I’m doing it all wrong! And I had NO idea that a buffet was supposed to be set up in a certain manner, wow!

Alli October 21, 2014 - 11:00 am

Kristen, I just always make sure the buffet flows in the order of how the food should be eaten with desserts, obviously, last and the main dish first, then the sides, rolls, etc.

Kristen from The Road to Domestication October 27, 2014 - 2:15 pm

By the way, thanks for linking up at the #homematters linky party! We hope to see you again this Wednesday! 🙂

Alli October 27, 2014 - 4:51 pm

I’ll be there!

Christine October 21, 2014 - 10:28 am

I’m always in charge of the table! The buffet advise I didn’t know about!! Good to know! With the holiday’s coming up-I know I’ll be using this a lot!

Alli October 21, 2014 - 10:59 am

I’ve got some additional party planning posts I’ll be sharing in the next couple of weeks. I’m gearing up! 🙂

Sonya October 21, 2014 - 10:47 am

I’m never hosted a formal dinner party, but this is great information to know. I will pin this. I need to learn this and then teach it to my kids when they are a little older. My son likes setting the table but it is not formal.

Alli October 21, 2014 - 10:57 am

I just think it’s a great thing to teach children because you just never know when they will need to attend a formal dinner once they are gorwn up (or before). 🙂

Tiffany October 21, 2014 - 11:50 am

These are great! My Aunts have been tryingt o get me to know these forever and this is a great ‘cheat sheet’ for me…thanks for sharing!

Alli October 21, 2014 - 5:47 pm

You’re welcome, Tiffany! When I was reading your comment I was reminded to go read your blog about Bloggy Boot Camp.

Tiffany @ ArtSea Chic October 21, 2014 - 1:20 pm

Haha I always look for an infographic or something to tell me how to properly do a formal setting for the holidays, this is great 🙂 We always whip out the fancy dinner plates and wine glasses for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Alli October 21, 2014 - 5:46 pm

When I was first married, I would have to look for something to help me, too. After a while it becomes second nature. 🙂

Jennifer Sikora October 21, 2014 - 1:25 pm

These are some great tips. I am one of those people that panic when it comes to a fancy place setting like this one.

Alli October 21, 2014 - 5:45 pm

No need to panic, Jennifer! Once you’ve done it a couple of times, it’s easy peasy. 🙂

Louida October 21, 2014 - 1:59 pm

I have never hosted a formal dinner, I’m usually the one that attends one. Thanks for these useful tips Alli!

Nancy October 21, 2014 - 2:55 pm

Wow as a fellow southerner I feel awful that I did not know this! Thank you for sharing Alli 🙂

Alli October 21, 2014 - 5:44 pm

You’re welcome! Always glad to help. 🙂

erlene October 21, 2014 - 5:22 pm

I’ve never had to set a formal dining table before. We’ve always had “family style” parties and everything is always sort of buffet style. This is definitely good info to know though. Thanks for sharing it.

Alli October 21, 2014 - 5:44 pm

Last year I set a formal Thanksgiving table for 12 and took pics for my blog. I didn’t like the way they they came out, so I did it all again the next day. I love a good formal dinner every once in a while. 🙂

Breanna October 21, 2014 - 8:37 pm

This is so helpful~ I loved it. I bookmarked this info tip for future use!

Alli October 21, 2014 - 9:20 pm

Thanks, Breanna!

Stephanie Pass October 22, 2014 - 4:24 am

This was lovely! I feel like I can set up my buffet line for the holidays and I’ll be doing it right! Thanks so much!

Alli October 22, 2014 - 6:58 am

Thanks for stopping by Stephanie! I always enjoy all of your posts!

Kathleen October 22, 2014 - 12:01 pm

Love this! Thank you. I love a formal table. Will try to set a nicer one for Thanksgiving.

Shirley Woodoo October 23, 2014 - 9:29 am

We do a lot of family dinners at our home but we are never formal. The Hubs and I enjoy eating out formal from time to time. We actually participated in a Formal Dinner Etiquette Class when we were in college which was fun. I think there were something like 6 courses because there were palate cleansers also.
Good graphics!

Alli October 23, 2014 - 11:39 am

We’re only formal (semi formal) on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The rest of the time we are pretty casual. 🙂


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