Get a signed copy of our latest book, Emily Post's Etiquette - The Centennial Edition, for yourself or to give as a gift, and support Vermont's independent bookstore Bridgeside Books.

Join our Substack newsletter for more from Emily Post.

Table Setting Guides Hero Label

Proper Table Setting 101

Setting a table is not as difficult as it seems. However, the more formal it gets the more confusion can easily come into play. Many of us can navigate a table setting fairly easily. Even if we are unsure of a particular utensil or cannot quite decipher which order the courses will be served in based on the setting, we can make our way through by paying attention to others. But when it comes to being in charge of setting the table, one can easily draw a blank. (Are these forks different sizes? Do I have to count the tines? Which order do the glasses go in?) Breathe, we’ll start with the basics.

The first and basic rule to get you started is: Utensils are placed in the order of use; from the outside in.

A second rule, with only a few exceptions, is: Forks go to the left of the plate, and knives and spoons go to the right. (The oyster fork is the only fork placed to the right of the setting if it will be used.)

Finally, only set the table with utensils you will use. Not serving soup? Then, no soup spoon for you.

What kind of setting do you want to create?

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. A casual pot-luck with close friends or family certainly doesn’t need to be more than the most basic of settings. A formal affair, and menu, however will necessitate a few more utensils and a bit of style thrown in to properly pull off a fancy at-home meal. That being said, many skilled hosts have been able to pull off a formal meal with limited tableware by putting practicality first and utilizing a dash of creativity (and maybe some very quick dish washing between courses.)

Don’t fret if you do not have every utensil known to mankind. Salad and luncheon forks can often double as dessert forks, in our own set a fish fork doubles as the dessert fork (though we don’t suggest substituting an oyster fork for a dessert or salad fork – that might be going a tad too far.)

Here are few basics along with links to more details to help you set your table.

Basic/Casual Table Setting:

The basic or casual table setting can be even more casual than pictured here. Many families (and restaurants) regularly set the table casually in one of two ways.

1) All utensils are placed on the napkin: The napkin is placed to the left of the setting with the fork, knife (blade facing the fork), and spoon placed in that order on top of the napkin.

2) The napkin to the left with the fork resting on top of or next to it. To the right of the plate is the knife (blade facing inward toward the fork and plate) and a spoon (if necessary) set to the right of the knife. The water glass is placed above the knife or at 45-degree angle to the right of the knife.

Casual Table Setting

Informal/Semi-Formal Table Setting:

The informal or semi-formal place setting is fairly basic, and the setting will depend on your personal style, the courses you are serving, and what you have to work with for utensils, dishware, and glassware. Informal/semi-formal settings are wonderful for the classic dinner party. They bring just enough of a step up from our everyday settings to make the table feel special but don’t go so far as to make the event feel too stuffy for a Friday night with friends or a family holiday setting.

Note that the dessert utensils can be brought out with dessert or set above the setting during the entire meal. If set for the entire meal, the fork is placed so the handle points toward the left, and the spoon sits above the fork with its handle facing to the right. IMPORTANT: While we now see both configurations, traditionally, the dessert spoon is set above the dessert fork.

The butter knife is placed on the butter plate with the blade facing inward toward the diner. The table setting is mostly designed for right-hand dominant diners; thus, the butter knife's handle is placed so that it points to the right. This makes it easier for the right-handed diner to pick up the knife in their right hand.

Some hosts place the fork on top of the napkin to save room in the setting or to keep things slightly more casual. Other hosts feel this is not in keeping with the idea that each item should be touched only when it is to be used and that disturbing the fork to get to the napkin is less than desirable. At Emily Post, we say it’s really up to you and your style. We don’t see as much room for stylistic detours with the utensils themselves. We have seen some inventive settings with all the utensils at the top of the setting or flipped around so that forks are on the right and spoons and knives on the left, and they have yet to make us run right out to repeat it. NOTE: While we now see both configurations, traditionally, the dessert spoon is set above the dessert fork.

Not pictured but often used are wine glasses, which typically, in an informal/semi-formal setting, you’d have one (maybe two) placed to the right of the water glass.

Remember when you clear the table for dessert to remove the unused utensils (except the dessert utensils if they are out) as well as the butter plate and butter knife.

Informal Place Setting

Formal Table Setting:

Here, we have set a four-course meal (including dessert) without a wine glass and a five-course meal (including dessert and adding an oyster dish) with a wine glass. There are many, many variations that a multi-course meal could have when it comes to the setting. The soup may be served in between a salad and main course, which would move the spoon between the two knives; there could be a soup course and a palette cleansing mint sorbet course, which would mean using two spoons, or having spoons brought out for these courses. For the most traditional and formal of settings, the dessert spoon is placed above the dessert fork.

Finger bowls may be used, in which case they are brought out after a messy course instead of being placed at the setting the entire meal. A charger plate may be used (or not). The napkin might be set to the left or placed in the center of the charger. You could also be serving a different wine for every course which would result in a cascade of glasses flowing to the right of the setting. Options abound!

Formal Place Setting

View the Guides