The world is in chaos. The least you can do is learn how to set a dang table

No need to go overboard.
No need to go overboard.
Image: AP/ Evan Vucci
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A properly set table is something many of us have forgotten how to do, if Instagram is to be believed. I’m not talking four forks and three knives and an oyster spoon. It’s not about impressing the queen. It’s just about putting the necessary utensils, crockery, glassware, and napkins in the places that make the most sense. Luckily there’s a simple, civilized method that has for centuries helped dinner guests navigate the meal.

It took my four-year-old a couple days to master, because it turns out it is really easy. Here are the basic things you need to know, along with some cautionary Instagrams of how chaos can run rampant at the formal dinner table.

The fork

It goes to the left of your plate. Anything else is chaos, as this image illustrates:

The knife

It goes to the immediate right of your plate, with its blade facing the plate.

The reasoning here is that you pick up your fork with your left hand, and your knife with your right hand to cut up your food. Then, you set your knife down on the plate (not on the table, because gross), put your fork in your right hand, and eat, joyfully embracing the utensil harmony you have just brought about.

I do not know what left-handers are supposed to do in this situation, but, being one myself, I can tell you what I do: I pick up my fork with my left hand, cut with my right, put the knife down, and eat with my left, in which my fork already resides.

Good habits start early, and I worry about dinnertime chaos this youngster is being set up for:

The spoon

It goes directly to the right of the knife, and because you’ve faced the blade of the knife the correct way, it fits right in there.

As you do not need to cut with your spoon, the logic is that it’s right there for your right hand to grab and dip into soup or whatever you need it for. If your meal doesn’t have a soup course, you can just leave it there for dessert. Very proper people will tell you to have a dessert spoon across the top of the place setting, but don’t sweat it. We’re just here to set a regular dang table.

Just, no:

The napkin

The napkin goes to the left of the fork with its open corner pointed towards the bottom right. Anything else is chaos, although I’ll give you a pass if you want to do some sort of rolled up napkin on the plate business. If anything, that encourages people to put their napkin on their lap as soon as they sit down.

The corner situation is so that the guest can grab the open corner with their right hand and bring it down directly onto their lap. (Also it just looks way better when they’re all facing the same way.)

Do not indulge in this type of hanging napkin tongue chaos:

The glass

The glass, be it water or wine (there’s an order to how those go, but we’re sticking with the basics), goes at the tip of the knife.

This is especially useful when you’re trying to figure out whose dang glass is whose. Oh, that one’s mine, because here it is right over my knife where my right hand can grab it and take it eagerly to my thirsty mouth.

There’s so much chaos here I can hardly look directly at it:

The plate

We all know where the dinner plate goes, but I’m making an argument for it not to be topped by a stack of decorative but otherwise useless junk.

Resist the urge to give your guests assignments, such as untying their flatware, finding a place to dispose of the plant material it was tied with, and then having to write down in front of everyone what they’re grateful for. (Perhaps that they get to leave your house in a couple of hours?)

In the photo above, for example: Her utensils are in the right-ish place, but as you can see they’ve all fled from the placemat to escape the tower of chaos piled upon each place setting. Pity your guest’s feeling of near-panic as he or she tries to figure out what to do with this autumn explosion. Fold it into a napkin and secretly deposit it in a trash can? Eat the gourd? Play a round of extra-plate frisbee? Creativity is for the centerpiece, where you are welcome to go as nuts as your Instagram followers will let you.

Extra credit: The bread plate

It goes to the top left of the fork.

This is to accommodate your cup of tea or coffee, which would logically go over with the other beverages on the right.

More extra credit: The salad fork

It goes to the left of the fork, but the right of the bread plate.

Things go from outside in, in the order you’ll use them, because that just makes sense. You’re getting to the core of your dinner as you go. If you need a dessert fork, just set those out later, after the dinner plates are cleared. You’ve done enough for one day.

I’ll leave you to contemplate this place setting. It’s extravagant, yes, but oh the harmony!