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, which will also elevate the formality of your Thanksgiving meal. 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 OK, 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 the dryer on “fluff” or “air,” along with a damp towel. You could also use butcher paper for a conversation starter, says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “It serves as a tablecloth, and you can pick it up and throw it away,” she says. “Kids can draw on it, and adults can write what they’re grateful for.” Get inspiration from this thoughtful prayer to share at the Thanksgiving table.
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. For easy cleanup at large, informal Thanksgiving meal, you could even use sturdy plasticware. “It doesn’t have to be formal, but it does have to be functional,” says Gottsman. “You don’t want something flimsy.”
Bring out specialty utensils, like grapefruit spoons or shellfish forks, with the course. “There’s usually not room on the table for all that,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and author of Poised for Success. Do the same with forks or spoons for dessert—you could even consider moving pie time to another room for a change of pace. Here’s what you should be doing 30 minutes before guests arrive.