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How to Set a Formal, Casual, and Buffet Table


Entertaining at home is one of life’s greatest pleasures; a wonderful opportunity to bring family and friends together over delicious food and drinks. Anticipation is all part of the fun, so it’s worth indulging in some planning well in advance:

  • What atmosphere do you want to create – formal or casual?
  • Do you want to provide a seating plan or allow people to mingle and chat?
  • What about a theme or dress code?

To help you map out your event, we’ve put together a guide on how to dress and lay a table to suit the occasion, from casual, formal, and buffet style dinners.

Setting the scene

Your party or dinner may well mark a special season or event. Think about what colour scheme may be best suited:

  • White, gold, silver, red, and green are all celebratory hues that work well around traditional holidays such as Christmas and New Years, or for other celebrations such as Weddings and Naming Ceremonies.
  • Pastel yellow, powder blue, and pale green are all perfect for spring festivities and are usually associated with Easter, even though in Australia it is more around autumn than spring time.
  • Black, orange, and red all evoke the spookiness of Halloween.
  • Golden yellows and oranges are perfect for mellow harvest themes around autumn.

There are many ways that you can incorporate a colour scheme into a table setting, through the use of tablecloths, napkins, placemats, tableware, and flowers. You can also take advantage of seasonal props like striped candy canes, tiny shiny baubles, and fir cones for Christmas; brightly painted eggs and fluffy fabric chicks for Easter; and all manner of gory emblems including cobwebs, witches hats, and chocolates for Halloween. These can be tied onto, around, or even slid into napkins, scattered around the table, or hung from little ‘trees’ made of natural twigs.

Big, blousy pots of flowers and dramatic plants are a great way to provide dramatic focal and talking points around the room, however take care with what you place on the actual dining table itself. Go for long and low centrepieces and arrangements so that people sitting across from one another don’t have to constantly peek around tall displays to converse.

Flickering candles on the table really enhance the ambience and provide a glowing, flattering light. Ensure, however, that there is no hazard, or purchase battery powered fake candles if you’ve got lots of kids about.

Cutlery, condiments, and spacing

Whether you’re planning a formal or informal dinner, there are some basic table rules that need to be followed for the comfort and safety of your guests:

  • Allow between 60-77cm for each person’s table setting. This ensures that your guests aren’t too cramped and constantly elbowing each other whilst eating. Each setting should be placed around 2.5cm from the edge of the table.
  • Align each piece of cutlery with the rim of the largest plate in the setting, or where you anticipate it will rest if not yet in place.
  • The last piece of cutlery needs to be about 2.5cm from the largest plate’s side, so as to avoid being hidden.
  • Knives should be placed with blades facing the main plate.
  • Bread and butter plates sit to the left of the setting, above the charger, with the butter knife resting horizontally across it.
  • Cutlery is laid on the table in the order in which it will be used, working from the outside in. So the fork for the first course is placed farthest to the left, and so on. Any spoons needed before dessert, such as soup spoons, should be placed to the right of the knives. The dessert fork and spoon are placed horizontally above the plate, the latter above the former.

Formal dinner settings

Formal place settings usually include a mat-type bottom plate called a ‘charger’, which you do not eat from. This is where you position each person’s napkin. Plates for each course may be brought in sequentially and put in front of the guest, or they can be placed on top of one another on the charger when the table is laid.

Crisply laundered and pressed napkins should be placed on the charger along with name cards indicating where each person should sit. If you use rings, these should be removed once everyone has spread their napkins on their laps.

It is likely that you will be using a full canteen of cutlery, which involves:

  • Salad fork,
  • Dinner fork,
  • Dinner knife,
  • Soup spoon,
  • Teaspoon,
  • Butter knife,
  • Fish fork,
  • Fish knife,
  • Dessert fork, and
  • Dessert spoon.

Be aware that with European-style meals, if you are following that style of entertainment, the salad course comes after the main dish and before dessert. The butter plate and knife should be removed at the end of the salad course.

The stemware should form a triangle, with the water goblet sitting above the dinner knife, the white wine glass slightly to its right, and the red wine glass above them all.

Casual dinner settings

Casual table settings are ideal for less formal gatherings with 3-4 courses. Cutlery should be adjusted accordingly. Dessert utensils are often, though not always, brought in with the final course.

A charger or placemat may indicate each person’s seat, however plates are usually brought in with each course. In terms of glasses, a goblet for water and one stemware glass for wine will probably be sufficient, unless you plan to serve a variety of different wines. Just place the glasses next to each other, approximately 2.5cm above the largest knife.

The addition of a cloth napkin will add elegance to the setting, but a high-quality paper serviette is also acceptable. It should be placed at the centre of the place setting, to the left of the last fork.

Buffet dinner settings

Buffet style meals are ideal for those occasions where the aim is for guests to mingle as much as possible. They also offer flexibility when, for example, some people are travelling from far away and may be late, or when a host has to contend with a range of dietary requirements and decides it’s easier and safer for guests to make their own food selection.

Logicality is the key to successful buffet planning. Food, plates, and eating utensils need to be set out so that people can access them easily and serve themselves relatively quickly so as to cut down on queuing.

Several stacks of plates should be placed at the beginning of the buffet area, along with the cutlery and napkins. Smaller plates and bowls should be on offer at the dessert section.

It’s a good idea to group hot dishes and cold dishes together. If possible, place desserts on a separate table nearby. This is practical from both a catering and serving perspective. Try to create as much room as possible for people to move along or around the serving areas. Don’t be afraid to duplicate staple dishes that everyone will want, such as bowls of salad and baskets of bread. A few select items placed on elevated pedestals will also add variety and help people see what food is on offer.

Bear in mind that your guests will have their hands full while making their way along the buffet, so put sauces and mayonnaise in easy to serve open bowls with spoons rather than requiring people to unscrew bottles.

If you’re in doubt about how your table may look when laid out, why not sketch it on paper and do a quick ‘trial run’ in advance? This way there’ll be no last minute panic and you can relax, be a great host, and really enjoy your event.

How to Set a Formal, Casual, and Buffet Table

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