In this post: There are many ways to set a table. Here are a few common types you’re likely to see. Find out how to set a table in 3 ways – basic, casual, and formal settings – here.

It’s actually easier than you think to create a pretty tablescape. Especially when it’s broken down into an easy-to-follow step-by-step process that you can actually repeat every time you set the table, with some minor adjustments. 

shannon yellow shirt at table

What Kind of Setting Do You Want to Create?

Before you begin to set the table, you need to decide what kind of tablescape you are creating.

Emily Post says, “Remember to think about the type of meal you are serving, what you’re prepared to handle as a host, and what level of formality you’ve chosen for your gathering.” 

Are you having a formal sit-down dinner or just a casual catch-up with friends? That will determine the type of table setting you should use. 

There’s no need to worry about perfect table setting etiquette for the basic table or the casual table settings. And even for the formal table settings, don’t fret if you’re serving a fancier dinner and it’s not perfect either. We are not Martha Stewart – and we don’t have to be! 

You can get away with a lovely table even if you don’t own oyster forks or every type of glass known to man!

shannon yellow shirt setting table

Before You Set a Table, Get the Right Tools Together

Before you set a pretty table, you will also need to have the right “tools” on hand. 

The Supplies

  • Flatware. Forks, knives, and spoons are needed for any of the three main types of table settings. If you are setting a formal table you may require a few types of each. For example, salad forks and dinner forks, soup spoons and dessert spoons, butter knives and steak knives. 
  • Glassware. Glassware can be as simple as plain water glasses and as fancy as crystal goblets. I like to keep budget-friendly water glasses (purchased from Ikea), as well as a few kinds of wine glasses (some from the dollar store for “everyday” wine-drinking and some much nicer ones), lowball glasses, beer glasses, and some crystal sherry glasses I got from my grandmother. What you keep on hand will vary based on your space and the type of gatherings you typically have. 
  • Dinnerware. Again dinnerware can be plain and simple or as fancy as you like. We have our everyday stoneware/dinnerware that consists of coordinating off-white plates, side plates (that can be used as bread plates or lunch plates), pasta bowls, and soup bowls. And I keep a set of my grandmother’s simple gold-rimmed china too.  
  • Linens. Linens don’t have to be fancy or expensive. But it is really nice to have a few sets of linen, polyester, or cotton napkins on hand for special dinners. If you’re a tablecloth type of household, keep a couple of tablecloths around too. A runner and placemats are optional as well. 
  • Extras. I like to keep just a few extras for pretty tablescapes. My basic extras are a few sets of chargers – one carved wood set from Pier 1 was a 40th birthday present from Dean and is my favorite. But I also have a couple of cheaper versions from Michaels and Amazon as well that wipe clean really easily. I also like to keep a few sets of napkin rings and place cards too. You could also collect individual salt and pepper shakers for fancy dinner parties too. 

Centerpieces: Yay or Nay?

I love to add a pretty full centerpiece to the table. But not everyone does buffet-style meals like we do (getting our food in the kitchen before we sit down), so I’ve had questions like “where do you put the food?” when I’ve shared our tablescapes. 

So whether you want to add a full centerpiece or not is entirely up to you. If you do decide to use one just remember to use something long and narrow as a fall table centerpiece base. Or a collection of things to create a long and narrow centerpiece. 

How to Create a Pretty Centerpiece

1. Lay a base for your centerpiece

Centerpieces are the lovely focal point of your table, but they need something to ground them. Sometimes that can be as simple as a plain runner or tablecloth. But I like to mix it up a bit. 

2. Create your centerpiece

Centerpieces can be made of any number of things; candles, flowers, greenery, or a combination of those. 

3. Fill out the centerpiece

You can tuck candlesticks in between the greenery or florals. Depending on the season you can add berry picks, pumpkins, faux antlers, brass figurines, or whatever you like to fill out your centerpiece.

How to Set a Table: 3 Ways

Here’s how I create tablescapes at my house…

For all Table Settings

1. Clear and clean the table

Obviously, you need to start with a clean slate. Remove any existing centerpieces, salt and pepper shakers, placemats, or whatever has piled up on the table over time. No judgments here, our table is covered in stuff daily!

Next, you want to wipe down the table. This is one of those things that seems like it’s a no-brainer. But I have to admit, I’ve forgotten once or twice to wipe the table after I cleared everything off, only to get the table half set and realize that there are still crumbs and sticky fingerprints scattered around. Save yourself some time and wipe down the table as soon as you’ve cleared it!

2. Begin to layer each place setting with a base

I find that place settings are best layered. I like to start with a charger. My favorites are heavily textured or uniquely shaped ones that just peek out from under a lovely dinner plate. You could also begin layering each spot with a placemat instead of a charger. It just depends on your preference and what you have on hand.

Basic Table Setting

A basic table setting includes just what you need to eat: a plate, napkin, fork, knife, spoon, and water glass. 

Basic Table Setting

3. Set out the dinner plates

Whether you’re using chargers, placemats, or a tablecloth, the dinner plates are always at the center of each place setting. Everything else is placed in relation to these. 

4. Place napkins to the left of the forks/to the left of the plate

After the dinner plates are placed, lay a folded napkin to the left of each plate. Another option is to gather the napkin into a napkin ring and set it further to the left of each plate (leaving room for the fork or forks).

Or you can place the napkin on top of the dinner or salad plate for a casual table-setting option. 

pretty spring dining room tablescape
AKA Design fall tablescape thumbnail

5. Lay out the flatware

The flatware is the next thing to be placed at each place. For a basic table, the fork goes to the left of the dinner plate, on the folded napkin, or between the plate and the napkin/napkin ring combo. A knife goes to the right of the plate with the blade facing in (towards the plate). A spoon goes to the right of the dinner knife. For a casual or formal dinner party setting, more flatware is added. See below for details. 

6. Sit the drinking glass above the knife

A water glass next goes directly above the knife for all table settings. 

How to Set a Casual Table

In addition to the basic table setting items, you placed using the directions above, a casual dinner table needs a couple more things. 

casual table setting illustration

7. Add salad plates and salad utensils

If you’re going to be serving a salad, top the dinner plate with a salad plate and then add a salad fork to the left of the dinner fork and a salad knife to the right of the dinner knife. 

8. Bring in a wineglass

Additionally, a wine glass should be placed to the right of the water glass or goblet. If you are serving only one type of wine for your casual dinner, choose the wine glass accordingly (either white wine glasses or red wine glasses).  

How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

If you’re going to go all out and have a fancier, multi-course meal you may want to consider setting a formal table.

For a formal table setting, you need to again add onto both the basic and casual table setting items. 

formal table setting illustration

9. Add soup bowls and soup utensils

So for a formal table, you would now add a soup bowl on top of each salad plate as well as a soup spoon to the right of the dinner spoon. 

10. Add dessert utensils and another wine glass

Then to round out the flatware/glassware/dinnerware trio at each place, add a dessert fork with the tines facing to the right above the dinner plate and a dessert spoon with the spoon to the left above that. Then add another wine glass to the right of the existing wine glass. (Typically it would go water glass –> red wine glass –> white wine glass.) 

Formal table setting with labeling

11. Include any additional needed items

Of course, if you’re having a FULLY formal dinner and serving all the things, you could also add a: 

  • fish fork – to the left of the salad fork
  • bread plate above and to the left of the napkin with a butter knife placed on top 
  • a coffee cup and saucer above the forks
  • a champagne flute and sherry glass above the wine glasses

12. Add place cards

For a formal table place cards are to be placed above the bread plate and coffee cup. For all other types of place settings, you can get a little creative with your place cards. Make rosemary wreath place cards, clay pot place cards, or any other fun ways to declare who sits where. 

AKA Design Rosemary Wreath Place Cards on Plate 3 BLOG PIC
clay pots and wooden spoons as place cards
Gold white pink Easter table setting

13. Arrange your centerpiece

A centerpiece can be as simple as a vase of freshly cut flowers from your garden (or your grocery store) or a fancier more involved runner with florals and candles and other embellishments. See above for how to create a centerpiece. 

Rustic Spring Table Setting |
more farmhouse style in the suburbs holiday table

Add Special Touches

After I look after the dishes, glassware, and flatware that will be needed for the meal, I like to add a special touch to each place setting. 

setting a holiday table

This can be anything from personalized ornaments at Christmas or place cards to a baby boo pumpkin in the fall. It’s those little touches that make a big difference.

neutral layered spring table setting
We've put together a pretty pastel spring dining room table to share with you. Plus all the resources for you to create it at your house too!
Layered fall table setting

Don’t Forget the Rest of the Dining Room

Of course, you can’t set a pretty table and forget the rest of the dining room! 

holiday wreaths on back of dining chairs

For this Christmas table setting a few years ago, on the back of each fabric dining chair, I pinned a lovely little wreath for a little holiday fun. (The pin is tucked into the cording on the top of each chair, so it’s out of the way.)

how to pin a wreath on a chair


Why do we set the table?

We set the table for all sorts of reasons. Usually to set the tone when having guests over. Although if you eat alone frequently, it may be nice to set a nice place for yourself once in a while too. 

Which side does the napkin go on?

The napkin typically goes on the left side of the main plate to the far left. Although if you’re short on table space it’s also a popular option to place the napkin, in a napkin ring perhaps, on top of the dinner or salad plate. 

Why does the knife face the plate?

The knife blade faces into the plate so it doesn’t have to be turned when picked up. It’s also safer to have the sharp edge tucked near the plate. 

Does the spoon go on the right or left?

The dinner and soup spoons go on the right, on the far side of the knives. A dessert spoon goes above the place setting. 

What do you need to set a table?

You need the basic trio of dinnerware, glassware, and flatware. How many and which of these you have depends on the type of table you’d like to set. At the bare minimum, you should have dinner plates, water glasses and forks, knives, and spoons. 

What is the point of a table runner?

A table runner mainly adds color and texture to your tablescape. But it can also help protect your table a bit from hot dishes, dripping wax, and sweating water glasses. 

How long should a runner be on a table?

Table runners come in all sizes. Generally speaking, a runner should either just short of each place at each end of the table, or hang 6-10 inches off each end. 

What do you put under plates?

You can put a tablecloth on the entire table and/or use placemats and/or chargers under each dinner plate. 

Are placemats out of style?

Placemats are not necessarily out of style. While there are plenty of ugly options out there, there are also lots of beautiful placemats to choose from. It really just depends on the look you’re going for. 

Do you use placemats with a table runner?

Yes, you can use placemats (or chargers) with a table runner. Placemats and chargers not only look nice, but they can also protect your table from hot dishes as well. 

Do you put a rug under the dining room table?

You can if you choose to. While I agree that it looks very pretty to have a rug under the dining table, we’ve found as a family that it is just not practical. Things get spilled and more importantly, it’s much harder to slide chairs in and out from the table with a rug. 

So that’s how you set a table three ways – basic, casual, and formal – plus some other ways to make the dining room pretty. What’s your favorite table-setting idea?

shannon photo and sig oct 2022