The Traditional Table Setting
Table Covers: The first step in setting the table is deciding on the table covering. Conflicted about using a tablecloth or placemats? If you have a beautiful table, consider using placemats instead of a tablecloth. Mats can be plain or patterned, woven or made of rush, as long as they're heatproof. If your table surface needs to be protected or is already damaged, use a tablecloth. The cloth should be big enough to drape 6 inches over each side of the table. Some tablecloths need a heatproof protective mat laid under them to prevent spills from penetrating through to the table surface.
White tablecloths are traditional for formal meals, but you can also use lace or plain-colored cloths. Patterned cloths are okay, as long as they don't make the table look too cluttered once it's set. If a tablecloth is wrinkled or creased, throw it in a clothes dryer set on 'Fluff' or 'Air' along with a damp towel.
Cutlery: Don't let the fork run away with the spoon! Forks go on the left, spoons and knives on the right. They should be placed in the order in which they will be used, with the first utensil on the far end from the plate, the second utensil closer toward the plate and so on. Knife blades should be turned toward the plate.
Bring out specialty utensils, like grapefruit spoons or shellfish forks, with the course. Do the same with forks or spoons for dessert.
China: The side plate goes to the left of the place setting. If the first course is a cold one, such as a salad, set the dish at each place before guests sit. If you're serving finger foods that might get messy, set out finger bowls with warm water and a lemon slice.
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Glasses: If there is one wineglass, place it at the tip of the main-course knife. If there is more than one glass, arrange them in the order they will be used, outermost first. Bring liqueur glasses or brandy balloons to the table with the liqueurs.
Napkins: If you are using a fancy fold, place the napkin on top of the main plate. Otherwise, place it on the side plate or underneath the knife and spoon.
Place Cards: Using place cards avoids awkward moments when guests seat themselves and wards off potential problems if a fussy aunt sits next to a sloppy child or a fur-loving fashion slave sits next to a social activist. You can make place cards by simply folding in half an unlined index card and writing in calligraphy.
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Place the plates, flatware and napkins close to each other on one side of the table. Use large 12-inch plates instead of 9-inch entree plates so diners have enough space to pile on the fixings. Check the table occasionally to refill certain dishes and to rearrange serving platters that are messy.
Of course, make sure you have enough chairs and eating surfaces. Avoid benches and stools without backs if you have elderly guests or toddlers.
For a compromise between a formal dinner and a buffet, set the dishes in the kitchen and have the guests serve themselves. Then serve seconds and dessert at the dining table.
The Kids' Table
You may remember as a kid how wearisome adult dinner conversation can be. Setting up a separate table for the kids is a tradition worth upholding. Use brightly colored paper or plastic plates. The Sunday funny papers make great table covers, as do informal, plain-colored tablecloths. Buy laundry markers so kids can write on the cloth during the meal. Set out a new cloth the next Thanksgiving; then years down the road you can reminisce and read the cloths. Whichever you choose, use padding to protect the table.
You could also take a tip from restaurants by setting out paper place mats and crayons. Coloring books with a Thanksgiving theme or other activity books can be placed on the kids' table as well.