Mother-in-Law Pleaser: How To Lay A Table

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I don’t write this in the belief that most of you aren’t perfectly capable of putting some cutlery on a table prior to a meal; nor do I imagine you to be regularly laying tables for silver-service dinner parties with one squillion very important guests.

However, it’s funny how many people break out in a cold sweat when faced with rows of cutlery and the prospective mother-in-law in town (you just know that her seemingly innocuous request to ‘lay the table please, dear’ is in fact a hugely sneaky manoeuvre, the outcome of which will form the basis of her entire opinion of you.

But fear not, friends. It’s easy – we are not in the fifties any more. Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll be just fine.

Where does the cutlery go?

  • Forks are always placed on the left of each place setting, whilst knives and spoons are placed to the right.
  • Place your cutlery in the order that it is used – and work from the outside in. This means that the cutlery for the first course is placed on the outermost edge, and is cleared away with each course, leaving an intact place setting for the next course. If you are having soup to start, the soup spoon lives to the right of the knives.

(Note: If there is limited space at the table, it is perfectly acceptable to put the pudding spoon and / or fork above the place setting. Place the fork horizontally with the prongs facing the left, and place the spoon above it with the handle facing the left.)

  • For purists, try to line your cutlery up so that the bottom of each item of cutlery is level.
  • Forks should sit with the prongs facing upwards, and the blade of each knife ought to face inwards.
  • If you are given butter knives, these go just on top of the side plate.

What about the china?

  • Side plates (for bread and sometimes salad) sits above and to the left of your place setting.
  •  The rest of the china is usually brought in with each course, but if you are serving yourself at the table, place the plate for the main course in the centre of the place setting.


  • Fold your napkin however you like and place it on the side plate, or in the centre of your place setting.

Resist the urge to fashion it into a swan, trust me.

Now, for the glasses:

  • The water glass should be placed just above and to the right of the place setting.
  • Place your wine glass (or glasses, if you have one for red and one for white) to the right of the water glass. If you are short on space, these can sit in a triangle, as below.
  • Champagne glasses, if to go on the table, should be placed to the right of the wine glasses.

Other scary things:

  • Finger bowls: if you are provided with finger bowls, don’t panic. This just means that there is food being served that will be eaten with fingers, and is simply a way of keeping everyone’s paws clean. Just before the guests arrive, fill them with warm water and put in a small slice of lemon if you have one.
  • Fish knives: if these are being used, they live to the right of the meat knife.

 And that is it! That wasn’t so bad, was it?

Just remember: if someone does have the audacity to comment on a mistake you have made with the table setting, just smile sweetly and remember that in voicing their criticism they are showing a truly horrible lack of manners anyway, so you still win. Awesome.




Filed under Advice

4 responses to “Mother-in-Law Pleaser: How To Lay A Table

  1. Dean

    Very interesting. Thanks!

  2. Kat

    I have massively failed with my table laying – I put the side plate to the left of the cutlery, not up and left.

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