When you go to the trouble of preparing Thanksgiving dinner, even though you already have more than enough to do when it comes to cooking all that food, you probably want to showcase your efforts on something nicer than paper plates. If you’re an old hand at tablescaping and are in possession of dinner service for 16 or so, not to mention a full complement of silverware that probably includes an asparagus server, then you’re not sweating it. But if you’re not sure where a bread plate goes on the table, or what a charger even is (besides something that plugs into your phone), we’re here to make setting a proper holiday table totally easy.
First things first: if you find it too fussy to set a traditional table, that’s absolutely fine. You can go as casual as you like, whether that means a full-on potluck Thanksgiving or scaling down the table service to one plate per person. However, as etiquette expert Maika Meier says, “When you’re setting your table, there’s nothing pretentious about it.” It’s not necessary to go overboard with specialized utensils; you can “just put the pieces on the table that your guests actually use.” What specific food you’re serving, then, will inform the look of your table, as much as your personal preferences and style.
From the very bottom up, the first thing to consider is whether you want to use a tablecloth, and/or a table runner. They obviously serve a decorative purpose, but they also help protect the table itself from spills and scratches. Then again, unless you’re going for disposable versions, you will have to clean them, which is good to keep in mind when choosing colors and fabrics. You might prefer to compromise with place mats, or use them in conjunction to help keep the other cloth clean.
Once the table’s covered (or left bare, if you prefer), there’s the question of chargers. These are large decorative plates that are designed to go underneath the plates you actually eat off of, and they’re completely optional. They can help protect your tablecloth from spills, or your bare table from condensation and heat, but many people simply like the look of them. Since their function is primarily to look pretty, it makes sense to leave them on the table for the duration of the meal, although some people remove them once the main course is served.
If you do use chargers, put your main dinner plates on top of them, and if you’re serving a separate salad course, it’s customary to place salad plates on top of the main plates. Your plate, or stack of plates, should be positioned about an inch from the edge of the table.
Next, put the silverware in place. The fork shouldn’t be shy and retiring, tucked under the edge of the plate where no one can see it, but sitting out in plain view about 1/2 inch to the left side of the place setting. (If you have salad forks, they go to the left side of the main fork since guests will pick them up first.) The knife and spoon go about 1/2 inch off to the right side of the plate, with the knife closest to the plate and with its blade turned inward. A handy way to remember what goes where is to count letters: “knife” and “spoon” both have 5 letters, as does “right”—so that’s the side they go on. The four-letter fork, on the other hand, goes to the l-e-f-t, conveniently enough.
If you’re using a bread plate, that should go directly above the fork/s, and if you have individual butter knives, they should rest atop the individual bread plates. Of course, if you have individual butter knives, you probably already knew that.
Then there’s the water glass. That goes right above the main dining knife, and wine glasses should be positioned just a bit below the water glasses—because guests will probably reach for the wine first!
If you need a trick to remember where bread plates and glasses go, just stand behind a dining chair and make the “ok” symbol with both hands parallel to the table. Your right hand will form a “d” for drinks, and your left hand will form a “b” for bread. Naturally, you can also find plenty of diagrams to refer to online, like this one:
Going in for nice dinnerware means your napkins better be cloth, and it’s best to fold them and place them in the center of each dinner plate, since this makes it easier for guests to retrieve them when its time to eat, and also lets you showcase any fancy folds you’d like to attempt. Nothing elaborate is required; you’re no cruise ship steward, after all—but if you are, definitely make some turkeys or something to perch on your plate, or else your talents are just going to waste. Those of us with more intermediate skills and ambitions can try some of the simpler pleats and folds outlined here.
Once all your places are set, there’s the matter of the centerpiece. It can be comprised of any number of things, from artful assemblages of pumpkins to more traditional flower arrangements, but make sure, whatever it is, it’s low enough that it doesn’t obstruct your guests’ view of each other; you don’t want to have to remove your beautiful botanicals from the table, but you also don’t want to impede conversation. A good way to check the height ahead of time is to put your elbow on the table (though that’s a no-no at mealtime, of course), with your hand straight up in the air. The floral arrangement or centerpiece shouldn’t be any higher than your palm.
You see? There’s no need to be daunted by the prospect of dressing your holiday table. With a few simple tips and tricks, it’s actually a really easy way to make your space—and your food—look its best, not to mention impress your guests, judgmental relatives included.
This holds true, too, even if you didn’t inherit any heirloom silver and don’t have the means (or the desire) to shell out for lots of fancy tableware now. There’s a whole world of dinnerware between fine china and Chinet! Plainer pieces, or even mismatched plates and glasses, still have a beautiful impact when arranged more formally on the table.
If you want to buy new-to-you without spending too much, you can hit up thrift stores and Goodwill; just look for items in the same general color family and you can create a cool monochrome table setting, or take this advice to heart and seek out complementary-clashing patterns and colors. If you’re hunting for cheap chargers, don’t even worry about the color or design; you can always spray paint them to match each other since you’re not actually putting food on them (do be sure you don’t actually put food on spray-painted surfaces!), but slipping them underneath your existing dinner plates can add real oomph and help tie everything together.
Or, if you have more cash to spare but just don’t want to commit to purchasing a lot of extra dinnerware, you can always rent it for the occasion—which is also helpful if you’re low on storage space and only feed a horde of hungry friends and relatives once or twice a year.
Then again, don’t do anything that’s going to stress you out even more! Staying calm, or at least attempting to, is imperative during the holidays. Be true to your own instincts and style as well, and remember, as long as you’re serving everything up with love, no one will mind eating off of paper plates balanced on their knees with everyone scattered around your rooms. The whole point is to enjoy being together, and to have a great time.