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Go Ahead and Memorize This Easy Guide to Thanksgiving Table Setting

Tablecloths or placemats? Wine glasses in front of water or behind? Here's what you need to know.

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Table covers

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.

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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.

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If you have gorgeous plates you want to show off, place napkins on the side plate or underneath the knife and spoon. But you can also make the napkin the focal point, making a fancy masterpiece fold and placing it on top of the entrée plate. “The one thing I don’t recommend is putting the napkin in a glass,” says Whitmore. “It’s very hotel-style. It’s just too commercial.” Don’t miss these little etiquette tips to use when you’re a guest in someone’s home.

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The side plate goes to the left of the place setting. “There’s what I call the B and D rule,” says Whitmore. “Bread on the left, drinks on the right.” 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, and make sure to provide ample napkins and warm towels. These things chefs do on Thanksgiving will inspire you to spice things up.

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If there is one wineglass, place it at the top right of the plate, above 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. Don’t cry over broken glass–these products can fix any Thanksgiving emergency. 

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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. Plus, a fun name card, like writing each name in calligraphy on a little sugar pumpkin, will make guests feel special. “I tend to do that because I tend to be decorative,” says Gottsman. “It’s not because I want them to sit there, but because I want them to see their name.” (Related: Here are easy tricks to make guests feel more comfortable.)

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Small pumpkins or pinecones can add a festive touch to your Thanksgiving table, but the wrong decorations can take away from the fabulous feast you’ve planned. Fragrant candles will interfere with the taste of the food, and a huge centerpiece can get in the way of dishes and conversation. “You can’t see guests or talk through a table centerpiece,” says Whitmore. In another room, try these stovetop potpourris that smell like fall.

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If you’re serving buffet-style

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 entrée 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. 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.

Of course, make sure you have enough chairs and eating surfaces. Avoid benches and stools without backs if you have elderly guests or toddlers. (Related: Don’t miss these quick fixes for Thanksgiving dinner food fails.)

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Kids’ table

You may remember how wearisome adult dinner conversation can be as a kid. Setting up a separate table for the kids is a tradition worth upholding. “A kids’ table is fun, especially when you have different foods for that table because they’re more kid-friendly,” says Gottsman. Use brightly colored paper or plastic plates. The Sunday funny papers make great table covers, as do informal, plain-colored tablecloths with laundry markers so kids can write on the cloth during the meal. Set out a new cloth the next Thanksgiving, so 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 placemats, Thanksgiving-themed coloring books, and crayons. Try one of these awesome Thanksgiving games for kids.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest