The Informal Place Setting

by Jessica Bunker

Thanksgiving is a holiday that celebrates food and plenty and it is not generally a formal affair.  Commonly one celebrates this holiday with family or close friends and the atmosphere is one of warmth and comfort rather than the fancy and formal affairs common in celebrations later in the holiday season.  For this reason I use an informal place setting for Thanksgiving.

The informal place setting can be as simple as a single plate and glass with the necessary flatware for the meal or as complex as required for four or even five courses.  In our home, with our large family gatherings, Thanksgiving dinner is served buffet style or family style and without soup, so we use a basic place setting consisting of a dinner plate and a bread & butter plate; one fork, knife and spoon; and a water goblet; with dessert flatware laid after the main course is cleared to save on space.  The image above is that of a 3 course place setting, the most common and versatile.  You may adjust it and scale it up or down as needed without difficulty, using a soup bowl in place of the salad plate when serving soup as the first course, for instance.

Some general rules of thumb when laying this informal place setting:

  1. The dinner or service plate and flatware should be placed 1 – 2 inches from the edge of the table.  I prefer to err closer to 1 inch so food has a shorter distance to travel and guests don’t feel the need to lean forward.
  2. Flatware is set in the order it is to be used (outside to inside), with forks on the left, knives on the right and spoons to the right of the knives.  A good trick for this is to think alphabetically, left to right: F (ork) – K (nife) – S (poon).
  3. Bread & butter plates, when used, are placed to the left of the place setting, just above and slightly to the left of the forks.
  4. Glasses are placed to the right of the place setting, with the water glass directly above the dinner knife point and in line with the bread & butter plate when included.  Other glasses are placed to the right and slightly below the water glass in order of use (i.e. , from left to right: water goblet, red wine glass, white wine glass).
  5. If you set out dessert flatware with the rest of the place setting, it is placed above the dinner or service plate, fork closest to the plate with the tines facing right and spoon above the fork with the bowl to the left.
  6. An alphabetical trick works for these three items as well, left to right: B (read & Butter) – D (essert) – W (ater/Wine).
  7. When serving coffee or tea with dessert, the cup and saucer are placed to the right and slightly above the dessert setting, with the cup handle facing down to the right at a 45 degree angle and the spoon to the right of the saucer.

Tips for the dinner guest:

  1. Use your plates/bowls in order, starting with the one on top; and flatware in order, starting at the outside.
  2. Your Bread & Butter plate is the one to your left, your glasses to the right – think of them alphabetically: B (read & Butter) – G (lasses).
  3. If there is flatware placed above your dinner/service plate, it is for the dessert course.  When this course is served, pull the fork and/or spoon down into the proper position on either side of the dessert plate/bowl/cup, with the fork to the left and spoon to the right, just as they were in the original setting.

The informal place setting can be used for any occasion, from everyday meals to special occasions such as Thanksgiving dinner, one course family dinners to 5 course gastronomic adventures.  Try it dressed up or dressed down next Thursday, it will work perfectly however you celebrate Thanksgiving.

Jessica Bunker


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