Tips for Formal Table Settings

What are some tips for formal table settings?
Planning a dinner party or any formal occasion, your table setting can either add to the ambiance or distract from it. One great tip from Cathleen Hanson, one of the owners and founders of the International School of Protocol, which teaches proper etiquette to children, adults, educators, and businesses, is to choose your table setting based on the season. She offers these suggestions for summer time: "If your dinner party is during the summer, you might have a white table cloth. Then, you could decorate it with colored napkins…find something that is just fun. You could put your table outside. You can have an evening meal with candles outside on the patio. I have seen that done just beautifully."

For autumn and winter, she has these tips: "When you are getting into your autumn colors…you can bring in whatever is outside. You can have an individual vase at each place or one vase. In the fall, you can also use gourds on the table. With winter, you can also bring the outside inside. Pine cones are great. Bring some vivid colors inside, red is always a fun color for winter and blues are really pretty at the table."

To add a touch of color, flowers are always a great choice, but especially during the winter months they contrast against the coldness outside. "You might bring some things from outside, like branches, to mix in with the flowers. In winter, you want a little bit more light. So, use lots of candles. The more candles…the better. If you have a fireplace, place the table by the fireplace. Or add more candles around the room. Make sure everything is sparkling," Cathleen says.

"In the spring, you should bring in some bulbs. You have lots of wonderful flowers to choose from like fresh daffodils, which are always just exquisite. You should use lighter colors. This way you get in the mood of spring, and it really brightens people up," she concludes.

The only rule when it comes to a formal table setting is achieving balance throughout the entire table. The centerpiece needs to be in the center. The plates and utensils should be equally spaced around the table and so on. You also need to take into consideration how many courses and beverages will be served during the dinner. If you choose to have a complete six course meal with all the trimmings and drinks, you need to have enough room for the different utensils and glasses this will entail.

According to proper etiquette, a formal place setting should be laid out in this way: The plate is in the center, with the pattern facing towards the guest. To the left of the plate should be the salad fork, meat fork, and then the fish fork. To the right of the plate should be the salad knife, meat knife, the fish knife, and finally the soup spoon. If you plan on serving shellfish, the oyster fork would be the last thing placed to the right of the soup spoon. Any more utensils would crowd up the table and should be brought out with their respective dishes, such as a dessert spoon or fork. Dessert utensils can also be placed above the plate horizontally. If you are providing an additional plate for bread, this can be placed to the left of the place setting, above the forks, with a butter knife placed across it.

If you plan on serving more then one beverage, remember to place the glasses and goblets in order of descending height above the knives. With any place setting, adjust the utensils and glasses to your needs. Do not put out, just for formality's sake, something your guest will not use. You may confuse them and you can always add more personal touches if you have extra space.

Make sure to set out place cards, especially for a larger party, so guests can find their seats effortlessly. These can be as simple or as elaborate as the rest of the setting dictates and should be placed for easy viewing either on top of the napkin or centered above the plate. The best tip for formal table settings comes from Cathleen when she observes, "View the table as a canvas, and paint any picture you wish."