Table Setting Etiquette 6 Best Rules: How To Set The Table Right

Table setting etiquette is a crucial life skill. Whether you are a host or a guest, you must follow the table setting guidelines to avoid any embarrassment.

What table setting etiquette is

Table setting etiquette is the set of rules to properly set a dining table. It includes setting the tablecloths, seats, cutlery, dishes, and glasses.

If you are hosting, follow table setting etiquette to properly set your dining table.

If you are a guest, know table setting etiquette rules to avoid any embarrassment.

Table setting etiquette rules

place a tablecloth or placemat

1) Set the tablecloth and placemats

Cover the table with a clean tablecloth. You can add placemats to delimit the place setting for each guest. Use placemats without a tablecloth only on informal occasions.

the optimal seating space at the dining table

2) Set the seats with a correct spacing

Set seats to allow as much elbow room as possible for each guest. A normal seat is between 60 and 80 cm (24 – 30 inches).

Plan one dish and one pair of clean utensils for each course. On formal occasions, change dishes and utensils after each course. On informal occasions, it is acceptable to use the same fork and knife for more than one course.

appropriate types of dish in table setting etiquette

3) Set & plan the appropriate dishes

Place one main dish for each seat. In general, the standard measures are around 30 cm (12 inches) in diameter.

Serve soup or pasta in shallow bowls. Place the bowl on top of the main dish plate.

Dessert, cheese, and fruit are eaten on smaller plates. The standard measures are around 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter. Do not place dessert, cheese, or fruit plates on the table before the meal. Bring them to the table when you serve dessert, cheese, or fruit.

Bread and butter side plates

In formal restaurants or on formal occasions, table setting etiquette requires one or two smaller side plates.

The bread plate is placed on the left side of the main dish plate.

The butter plate could be communal or individual to each guest. When the butter plate is individual to each guest, it is placed on the left side of the main dish plate, close to and above the bread plate.

table setting etiquette for utensils

4) How to place utensils on the table

Place forks to the left of the main dish plate. Knives and spoons to the right. You can find more about cutlery setting etiquette here.

For multiple course meals, place a pair of clean utensils for each course. Guests should use utensils out-to-in. Thus, the utensils on the exterior of each place setting are the first to be used.

Dessert utensils

Place a fork and knife for dessert too. If you are serving a soft dessert, such as ice cream or sorbet, a small spoon is appropriate. You can place dessert utensils on the table before the meal, or present them on the individual plates when you are serving dessert.

Special utensils

Some foods may require specific utensils. Such utensils are similar to regular ones but designed to eat a specific type of food.

Some examples:

  • Butter spreaders or knives.
  • Meat knives to eat some cuts of red meat.
  • Fish forks and knives.
  • Picks or two-pronged forks for seafood, such as crab or lobster, or snails.
  • Teaspoon to stir tea.

Set special utensils according to the same table setting etiquette as the regular ones. Limit their use to the specific food they are designed for.

how to set drinking glasses on the table

5) Set drinking glasses for water and wine

The most common glasses for water and soft drinks are tumblers. Wine glasses are usually stemmed glasses or in the shape of a chalice.

Place glasses on the right side of a place. Set them slightly above the position of the plate and above the knife and spoon. Place wine glasses on the right side of the water glasses.

Drinking glass etiquette requires guests to drink only one beverage with each glass. Thus, you must plan one glass for each type of beverage. If you are serving two red wines, you should present two different red wine glasses for each guest. Do not set a single glass for more than one different beverage. 

You can find more about drinking glass etiquette here.

How to put the napkins on the table

6) Place the napkins according to the local etiquette

In European etiquette, you should place the table napkin on the right side of the main dish plate. In American etiquette, the napkin is usually on the left side of the setting. Set napkins folded or rolled.

In restaurants or on formal occasions, the napkin can be placed on the main dish plate or on the butter plate. If you set the napkin on the butter plate, place it rolled.

You can find more on napkin etiquette here.

table setting etiquette mistakes

Table setting etiquette: the worst mistakes

The Rude Index identifies and ranks negative behaviors. 

A high score (8-10) means that the behavior has the potential to trigger a conflict with others. A medium score (4-7) means that the behavior risks making you look inelegant and unsophisticated. More about the Rude Index and its methodology here.  

Avoid the worst table setting etiquette mistakes. 

  • 9/10. Not allowing enough space for each seat.
  • 8/10. Placing utensils or glasses the wrong way.
  • 6/10. Not using a tablecloth.
  • 4/10. Placing napkins the wrong way.


  • Consumers’ Responses to Table Spacing in Restaurants: