With July Fourth weekend just around the corner, we are officially in the thick of summer! We are anticipating many parties and gatherings this year and have our event planning hats on. Whether welcoming family and friends for a long-awaited celebration or planning an intimate date night, a beautiful dinner table makes an impression. Knowing how to set a dinner table for formal or informal summer entertaining is the key to a successful event! The tablescape sets the mood of the evening and can serve as a conversation starter. Follow our tips below on how to set a dinner table properly — from casual al fresco dining to elegant indoor entertaining.
Why Dinner Parties Matter: The Social Science of Eating Together
Though a curated meal and incredible vintage certainly leave an impression, nothing makes a meal quite like sharing it with another person. According to researchers, eating together actually has psychological and emotional benefits. Social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains in “Why Eating The Same Food Increases People’s Trust And Cooperation” for NPR’s Morning Edition. Quoting Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago, Vedantam notes that food plays a role psychologically. Fisbach explains that “eating the same food suggests we are both willing to bring the same thing into our bodies.” This common experience — and low-level risk — makes people feel closer to each other, breeding “trust and cooperation.”
Take a look at the History of Dinner parties to learn more how gathering together to share a meal, dates back centuries.
SHARING A MEAL MIGHT BE THE EASIEST WAY TO CONNET
A 2017 study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford found that communal eating has beneficial impacts. The study looked at the habits of social eating such as: how often people ate socially, how many friends they had, and happy they felt in day-to-day life. The survey also recorded scores from each participant regarding their “connection to their community” and their “overall satisfaction with life.” Results of the Oxford study suggest that “communal eating increases social bonding and feelings of wellbeing.” Additionally, the study showed that eating together “enhances one’s sense of contentedness and embedding within the community.”
Professor Robin Dunbar — conductor of the study — believes communal eating might be an evolutionary tactic. Dunbar explains results of the study point to the idea that “social eating has an important role in the facilitation of social bonding.” Furthermore, “communal eating may have evolved as a mechanism for humans to do just that.” Respondents to the survey noted that sharing a meal was the easiest way to connect with a friend or family member. In fact, “75% of respondents recognized that making an effort to see someone more often was best done by sharing a meal.”
With all of this in mind, a summer soiree may be the perfect way to kick off the summer season! As we emerge from two summers of restricted gatherings, people are more ready than ever to revamp their summer entertaining. Follow below to learn how to set a dinner table properly.
How to Set a Dinner Table Properly
GATHER THE ESSENTIALS
Now that we’ve looked at the science of dinner parties, let’s look at how to set a dinner table properly. Most dinner parties are planned at least a week in advance. However, intimate dinners with partners, parents, or close friends pop up out of nowhere – it helps to have a few basics on hand. If you find yourself hosting an impromptu gathering, these eight essentials will help you set a dinner table properly.
#1 A SET OF SOLID WHITE DISHES
Patterned dishes quickly become dated, wedding china often feels too formal and colored sets might not always match the mood of your event. As such, keeping a full six set of solid white dishes is your best bet. In her article “Be an entertaining pro” for Southern Kitchen, Heidi Rew notes “you can use white dishes for any occasion.”
They can be dressed up with crystal glassware and specialty flatware or dressed down with organic accessories. Unlike a paisley print or nautical stripe, “they never go out of style” or fit only a single theme. Rew notes that “you can always add more” to your table setting, particularly with “napkins, appetizer plates or chargers to layer.” Keep a set of both quirky and elegant charger plates on hand, so you are always prepared for any event!
#2 A LARGE SERVING BOWL OR CUTTING BOARD
A large serving bowl or butcher’s block can create an instant centerpiece for your table setting. It is stunning either filled with a salad, topped with charcuterie, or left intentionally empty. A solid acacia piece like this Williams Sonoma Wood Salad Bowl is just as beautiful filled with mozzarella and persimmons as it is unadorned.
The best part about having a serving bowl or butcher’s block on hand is that you can use them in everyday life. In an article for Food & Wine, Megan Soll writes that a butcher block can be used for meal prep during the week. Furthermore, “a big bowl is as useful for popcorn on a quiet movie night as it is for…a dinner party.”
#3 A CARAFE OR DECANTER
Even a simple decanter or carafe can add a lot to your table setting, particularly if the party is thrown together spontaneously. Not only do they add a bit of flair to your table setting, but they can disguise the quality of wine. UC Davis Professor Andrew L. Waterhouse explains in his article “How does decanting red wine affect its taste? And why is it suggested for red wine, but not white?” for Scientific American.
Professor Waterhouse writes that “decanting accelerates the breathing process, which increases the wine’s aromas from natural fruit and oak.” If the bottle you have in your pantry or wine rack is under a year old, Waterhouse recommends decanting before serving. He notes that decanting “softens the taste of the tannins that cause harshness and astringency in young wines.”
#4 CLASSICALLY SHAPED WINE GLASSES
Separate sets of champagne flutes and red wine glasses is ideal. However, this might not be practical for every home — especially those entertaining in city apartments with little storage. Opting for a set of multifunctional wine glasses is an excellent choice for year round entertaining. Instead of swapping out coupe glasses for tumblers, consider a versatile set in a classic shape.
In her article “The One and Only Wine Glass You Need, According to Sommeliers” for Kitchn, Geraldine Campbell offers a solution. Campbell asks Andre Mack — sommelier and founder of Mouton Noir Wines — which glass works best for all wine types. Mack recommends purchasing “‘crystal-clear and thin’” glasses that have a “‘stem with a bowl that’s larger than the top of the glass.’” This type of silhouette is “suitable for white, red, and bubbles.”
#5 DECORATIVE VASE OR POTTED PLANT
Whether pulled from your patio or kitchen windowsill, a potted plant can serve as a beautiful addition to the center of the table. Similarly, a decorative vase can add interest without flowers or herbs inside. In some cases, a neutral houseplant or empty vase is more effective as the centerpiece of a proper table setting. This is because it is less likely to interfere with the aroma of the food or wine.
#6 MODERN, MONOCHROMATIC FLATWARE
Monochromatic flatware is another must-have for versatile dinner party planning. Two-toned white and stainless steel flatware might work well for casual breakfasts and elaborately molded flatware might fit a fancy affair. However, neither is versatile enough to function for all kinds of dinner parties. Instead, opt for a classic set of silverware. Choose a set complete with dessert spoons, salad and entrée forks, a butter knife, steak knife, and soup spoon for each setting.
#7 PLACEMATS INSTEAD OF A TABLECLOTH
Tablecloths certainly add elegance and personality to a table setting. However, we rarely pull one out of the linen closet sans wrinkles, creases, or bizarre stains. We recommend you set a table with place mats instead of a tablecloth, except when serving buffet style. Placemats are often a better choice than tablecloths because they add depth to a tablescape while protecting the table itself. In her article “The Best Placemats” for The Strategist, Jenna Milliner-Waddell explains why placemats are better basics than the traditional tablecloth.
Milliner-Waddell writes that place mats “protect table surfaces against heat, cold, and food.” This is “especially important for delicate or vintage pieces” featuring wood, marble, stone or lacquer. Furthermore, place mats “are more versatile” than tablecloths, because they fit any type of surface — from banquet to bistro tables. If you choose to go with a tablecloth over place mats, a wrinkle-resistant fabric like bamboo or Tencel might be your best bet. We do recommend keeping one tablecloth on hand for serving tables — as pictured above.
#8 ATTRACTIVE CONDIMENT JARS
The Vogue Australia article “Five essentials every dinner party needs” notes that spices are much-needed. In fact, “something you can’t go past, but is often forgotten…is having the right condiments for the meal you are serving.” Of course, essentials like “salt and pepper are a must and a basic condiment that should definitely be on the table.”
Though ground spices and a variety of condiments are certainly important, so are the vessels they are presented in. Having a set of matching — or thematically similar — condiment jars ties a table setting together in an instant. We love this delicate Antique Brass and Glass Condiment Dish from Williams and Sonoma and these minimalist Kaloh Kitchen Storage Jars from West Elm.
How to Set an Elegant Dinner Table
In her article “How to Set a Formal Dinner Table” for Martha Stewart, Hannah Baker offers tips from the queen of elegant entertaining herself. Unlike casual indoor dining or al fresco entertaining, there are a few rules to a formal table setting. These include the arrangement of cutlery, glassware, and place cards. Note the cute graphic above for proper placement of each item in your table setting. Baker suggests hosts and hostesses think ahead on how to set a dinner table, adding champagne glasses only when a toast is expected.
The host or hostess should also keep in mind how the food will be served, placing the plates and utensils in order of use. “Once you realize table setting is based on logic, things become less intimidating,” says etiquette consultant Pamela Hillings in this Martha Stewart article. You begin eating a meal by using the flatware at the outside left and right and then working your way in towards the plate as the meal proceeds.
When entertaining a larger party, Baker recommends the host set up seating in advance to ensure ease of transition and comfort for each guest. Last but not least, once the main course has been cleared, the host or hostess must reset the table for the dessert course.
CENTERPIECES FOR FORMAL DINNER PARTIES
As for the tone of your formal table, experts recommend opting for warm-toned metals, carefully crafted ceramics, and delicate flatware. Elegantly folded napkins add a freshness to any formal table setting. A large but low centerpiece works best — adding visual impact without blocking faces from across the way. Rather than a small bouquet of flowers, opt instead for a sprawling display of seasonal vegetables or crawling vines.
How to Set a Dinner Table For Al Fresco
Whether an outdoor rehearsal dinner or casual backyard barbecue with friends, al fresco dining feels fresh and invigorating. In her article, “Al fresco dining at home” for Harper’s Bazaar, Ella Alexander offers insightful tips on how to set a dinner table for an al fresco event. First, Alexander suggests using “different items for dining inside and outside,” leaving delicate glassware indoors. Alexander notes that she often opts for “more rustic plates [and] antique cutlery which has a gentler patina and smoky glassware.” They are perfect “for a table that works better with the greenery of [her] garden.”
Colorful napkins, flickering candles, and neutral tones also work the best outdoors because they allow the beauty of nature to take center stage. For smaller parties, Alexander recommends laying a runner instead of a tablecloth. He also says “runners placed across a larger table can make the space feel more intimate” because it reduces the sense of empty space. When setting the table for buffet-style dining, consider this guide for buffet dining from @savvy_abode on Instagram.
How to Set an Informal Dinner Table
Both perfect for everyday use and casual entertaining, the basic table setting is as versatile as it gets! In her article “How to Set a Table” for Architectural Digest, Hadley Keller offers seven easy steps to creating a casual tablescape. First, Keller set a table with a place mat instead of a tablecloth. Next, hosts should set the dinner plate “in the center of the table setting,” topped by a salad plate and surrounded by cutlery. As with formal dining, the entrée and salad forks should be set on the left while the knife and spoon are on the right. Glasses — whether for wine or water — should be placed above the plate to the right. A simple centerpiece — like a bowl, cutting board, or houseplant — works well here!
Not the Host? What to Bring to a Dinner Party
The pressure is off for creating a stunning tablescape and getting the cutlery placement just so. However, guests also bear a certain degree of responsibility. As such, we leave you with a few tips on what to bring to a dinner party as a guest. Though you are the most important element to bring along, Alyssa Brown offers three additional suggestions in an article for Martha Stewart. Brown writes that guests should avoid “bringing along an unexpected dish” that could upend the host’s plans for dinner.
Instead, “the best thing you can bring to a dinner party is a token of your appreciation.” This might include a favorite “bottle of wine, a box of chocolates, or gourmet cookies for the host.” As mentioned above, you are the most important thing to bring to a dinner party. However, Brown specifies guests should bring “their best self.” They should arrive dressed correctly and brimming with polite enthusiasm. Lastly, guests should arrive on time and leave the host a final parting gift of knowing when it’s time to leave!