Growing up, I didn’t set the table that often for dinner. As the oldest of six, I was usually assigned the task of washing dishes; setting the table went to a younger sibling or two. Even so, I remember my mother instructing me that the fork went on the left and the knife and spoon went on the right. It was like that every night when we sat down for dinner as a family.
I also remember being instructed to put the napkin down first – to the left of the plate – and put the fork over top of it. Although we didn’t usually use a salad fork, it would look something like this:
The incorrectly set tables of my childhood looked like this.
In other words, I grew up thinking setting the table like this was the proper way to do it. It isn’t. When following proper etiquette, the forks don’t go on top of the napkin. (If we were eating outside, I could see where the forks would be holding the napkin in place to keep it from blowing away. But we were indoors.)
Where is the napkin supposed to go?
If you have enough room between place settings, the napkin should go to the left of the fork(s). If you don’t have room, the napkin should be placed on the plate or charger. It should never go in the water glass or tea cup, no matter how pretty it makes the table setting look.
Why doesn’t the napkin belong under the fork(s)?
The meal begins by placing the napkin on your lap. (Even paper napkins should go on your lap!) This is done when you sit down at the table, or when the host puts the napkin on his/her lap if you are at a hosted meal. It’s much easier to do this if there’s nothing on top of the napkin.
Imagine you are at a very formal, multi-course dinner and there is a salad fork, a dinner fork, and a fish fork on top of your napkin. You scoop them up to put your napkin on your lap and now have a handful of forks. If you have a photographic memory, putting them down in the right order might not be hard, but for the rest of us, it might be a challenge. Most of the time, you could put the salad fork to the left of the dinner fork. But if the meal is being served European style – with the salad after the main dish – this wouldn’t be correct. And you may think taking a picture with your cell phone before you remove the forks is clever – but it’s a major faux pas as cell phones should not be seen during a formal dinner!
I still only rarely set the table these days, as assigning the chore to one of my children is a privelege of motherhood. (The circle of life…) I do know how to do it properly, though, which comes in handy when I’m handed a bundle of silverware in a napkin at a restaurant and must set my own place. (Having the table set for me is one of the reasons I like dining at more upscale restaurants!)