How to set a table: get ready for festive feasting with these tips and tricks

Want to learn how to set a table beautifully? Real Homes stylist, Anna Morley, reveals her secrets...

How to set a table
(Image credit: The White Company)

Learning how to set a table for Christmas with attention to detail elevates the ambiance surrounding your home-cooked meal into a banquet. Every occasion can benefit from laying the table with the correct dinnerware and adding final flourishes like centrepieces and candles.

So, Real Homes stylist Anna Morley talks us through the key steps to creating beautiful table settings for any function. Get more decorating ideas, recipes and gift inspiration over on our Christmas hub page.

1. Covering the table: tablecloths, runners and placemats

John Lewis Christmas tableware

(Image credit: John Lewis)

Although not essential, a tablecloth will help protect your dining table. You can get round, square and rectangular options and you will want it to be large enough to overhang the table a bit, but not so much that guests end up accidentally pulling it off – and all of the table's contents with it. If you don't have a table cloth, you could even use a roll of gift wrap or brown paper.

A runner travels the length of the table and can be used as a home for serving bowls, wine bottles and decorations. Placemats are then positioned for each person and larger versions can accommodate the cutlery too.

2. Table setting: the 'proper' way

John Lewis Christmas tableware

(Image credit: John Lewis)

If you have any experience of fine dining, you will know that many people still ascribe to the view that a table must be set a certain way. For formal occasions these rules are usually adhered to, but for dinners at home, it is totally up to you how strict you are with where the salad forks go – if you are using salad forks that is...

There are some basic (oh blimey, the posh neighbours are coming round) guidelines:

  • Use a charger or placemat for each person. This will protect the table from heat and spillages.
  • Cutlery should be placed in order of use – work your way outside in. For most of us, this will mean starter knives and forks on the outside. 
  • Knives should face the placemat with their serrated side.
  • Many place dessert cutlery above the plate, but you might wish to put it to the side, or even keep from the table until dessert is served if space is an issue.
  • Water and wine glasses should go to the upper right-hand side of the plate. Again, you may wish to omit until wine is served to keep the tablescape tidy.
  • For a more casual setting, you can place all of the cutlery on a napkin to the side of the plate. This is another great space-saver.
  • Place names or place settings, add a personal touch (and are great for forcing estranged relatives to sit next to each other).

When it comes to tableware, you can either stack a dinner plate, side plate and bowl in each place, or bring them to the table as they are needed. If you do decide to stack them, make a feature of it, finishing with a sprig of something seasonal, a napkin with a ring that matches your scheme or even a mini cracker for Christmas.

3. The centrepiece

H&M Christmas

(Image credit: H&M)

Adding a centrepiece to your table is the final touch to any celebration. What you choose will depend on how much room you have available and what your decorating style is.

You can buy a variety of floral centrepieces, or add a pretty display of candles that will also create a lovely ambient glow. Arranging the centrepiece and other elements on a tray or wooden trug makes it easy to remove should you need to make room for serving dishes.

4. Additional placemats and coasters

John Lewis Christmas tableware

(Image credit: John Lewis)

With the foundations of your table setting in place, you can now fill any gaps with coasters or mats for serving dishes and glasses. This is a practical touch that will limit spills on the table cloth and allow you to put down hot bowls.

Get more Christmas decorating inspo?

Lindsey Davis
Editor in Chief, Homes Ecommerce

Lindsey is Editor of and Editor in Chief for Home Ecommerce at Future. She is here to give you aspirational, yet attainable ideas for your home and works with her team to help you get the best buys, too. She has written about homes and interiors for the best part of a decade for brands including Homes & Gardens, Ideal Home and Gardeningetc and isn't afraid to take the inspiration she finds at work into her own space – a Victorian terrace which she has been (slowly) remodelling for the last eight years. She is happiest sipping a cup of tea with a cat on her lap (if only she had a cat).