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Planning a Formal Dinner

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Setting the Formal Table
Faux Pas

Don't use butter plates unless your menu includes something that includes bread and butter or some food that requires buttering, such as corn on the cob or baked potatoes.

Live and Learn

You face a tough decision when it comes to whether to include an ashtray as part of your formal table setting. In the past it was routinely included; however, it is not necessary these days.

If you know your guests smoke and you decide to put ashtrays on the table, place a small ashtray and matches in front of each person who smokes. They should know enough to not even think about smoking until after everyone has finished dessert.

Here's what you need:

  • Table decorations (centerpiece). When it comes to table decorations, many interesting variations and options are possible. Some examples of these decorations include flowers, fruits and vegetables, collections of figurines, and candles.
  • Butter plate and knife. These go to the upper left of your plate above the forks. The butter knife is placed horizontally across the top of the plate with the blade facing down. Some hosts place a few butter pats on the butter plate just before seating the guests, although it's also fine to pass a small plate containing butter pats with a butter knife for guests to help themselves.
    Don't own butter plates? Don't worry. Pass around a small dish containing butter pats or balls. You can also use a dish into which you have spooned soft butter or margarine from a plastic tub, or a decorative container that disguises the plastic tub of butter or margarine by fitting around it perfectly. Pass around a butter knife or other small knife with the container so that guests can serve themselves. Guests should take from the container what they want, put it on the side of their plates, and pass the container to the next person.
  • Salad plates. Salad plates range in diameter from about 7½ to 8½ inches. (Salad plates can also be used for dessert, to hold soup cups and saucers, or to serve small food items.) Many people don't have salad plates and simply put their salads onto dinner plates. Also, a separate salad fork is nice but not necessary. It is no great hardship to eat your salad with your dinner fork.
    If, however, you are serving a separate salad and cheese course between the entrée and dessert, each guest will need a salad fork and a small knife as well. The sequence is this: The salad plates should be in front of all guests at the center of the place setting. Then pass the salad bowl, followed by a cheese tray with a cheese knife. Next pass the crackers. You can choose to follow the crackers with softened butter and a butter knife if guests have a coronary death wish.
  • Napkins. These are best folded and placed in the center of the plate. However, they can also go to the left of the forks or can be folded imaginatively in the glassware. If you are an avid napkin folder, you can pick up some books on the subject and enjoy this opportunity to be creative.
  • Flatware. Set the table so that people eat with utensils from the outside in. As a guest, when in doubt, this practice is always a pretty safe bet. Another idea is to single out the classiest-looking, most composed person at the table and do what that person does. If you are wrong, at least you will be in good company.
    The dessert fork and spoon can go horizontally at the top of the plate, the bowl of the spoon facing left and the prongs of the fork facing right. You don't need both, but the fork often makes a useful “pusher” for the dessert. You can also serve dessert implements with the dessert.
  • Glassware. “Drink right, eat left” means that glasses go on the right and bread and butter plates go on the left. In other words, if you hold the fork in your left hand, you'd drink with your right hand.
  • Salt and pepper shakers. Place a pair of salt and pepper shakers at each end of the table. If you have a large supply of them, it's nice to provide a pair for each guest or a pair between two guests. Sometimes people use saltcellars, which are tiny receptacles for loose salt. These have a tiny spoon either in them or on the table next to them.
  • Candles. Use candles only at an evening meal. Place them in the center of the table or elsewhere, as long as you make the arrangement visually appealing and keep candles out of your guests' sight lines.

Many people also place candy dishes on the table, and it is a nice, sweet touch. Place one at each end. You can use a small dish or bowl or even a stemmed glass. A good idea is to include small, excellent chocolates.

Serving the Meal

Form follows function when you are serving the meal. Before you entertain, review the principles yourself and most certainly with any people you have hired to help you.

  • Serve guests from the left. The utensils should be positioned on the platter in a way that's convenient for the guest to reach them. Keep your arms close to the body to avoid banging people. The idea is to give the diner convenient access to the food.
  • Starting points. The woman on the host's right is served first. If the man on the hostess's right is the guest of honor, he is served first. After that, service goes around the table counterclockwise.
  • If a couple are guests of honor, then the wife sitting next to the male host is served first. The service goes counterclockwise and ends with the host.
  • Finished plates are removed from the right side. A good trick is to use your thumb or otherwise contrive to anchor utensils to the plate so they don't end up in people's laps. Never scrape or stack plates while removing them.
  • Wine is served and removed from the right side.
After-Dinner Coffee
Mind Your P's and Q's

Remember that coffee and teacups do not belong in a set-ting because they are correctly served after the meal.

After-dinner coffee comes in demitasse cups and saucers with small coffee spoons. The cup, saucer, and spoon are to the right of the guest's place setting. Coffee is served from the right, as are other beverages. Then pass a tray with cream, sugar, and a sugar substitute.

Alternatively, the host can place a large tray containing the coffee service on the table and then pass filled cups to each person.

If you have serving help, you might want to serve coffee away from the dining table, or you can carry the entire coffee service into the living room to pour. In this case, each guest comes up to the host to receive his coffee.

Cordials are served with coffee. You can also ask guests whether they would care for water.

Preparing and serving a dinner for your guests can be as easy or as difficult as you desire. A good idea is to decide well in advance how much effort you are prepared to expend, make a plan, and stick to it. Whatever you decide, your guests will be appreciative.



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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette © 2004 by Mary Mitchell. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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