Depending on circumstances, there are four ways to set a table for a meal. Place settings will naturally change depending upon the formality of the occasion. Levels of formality are good because they can distinguish certain day or events or mark out specific people for honor. Increasing the formality of a meal should not mean creating a staid and stuffy environment. Far from it, formal occasions should have a festive air and should be moments to be remembered, weddings, anniversaries, coming of age events (going to college or the military) or even wakes.
Some families like to dine at least informally or semi-formally on a weekly or even daily basis. Yet, the most common dining experience is casual. In this the place settings are brief and practical. Only the utensils necessary to the food being served are provided at table. Often family members are encouraged to procure their own utensils.
The informal setting has a degree of regularity to it and provides diners with the comfort of knowing what to expect. In this setting the plate is the center and other utensils radiate from it. Closest to the plate on the right is a butter knife, with the serated edge facing the plate and immediately to its right is a soup spoon. Curiously, the spoon is provided in spite of the fact that it is often unecessary for any of the dishes served. To the left of the plate are first the salad fork and then the standard fork. Above the point of the knife is the wine glass and to its left rests the water glass or goblet. The napkin is usually place on the plate, folded under the forks or even placed to the left of the forks. It is interesting to note that most Americans eat with their forks in their right hands so they have to reach across their plates to obtain their fork. However, in Europe the fork, where customs for setting the table originated, the fork is normally held in the left hand and the knife in the right.
Formal settings are merely an elaboration on the informal setting. They involve a service plate to accomodate salad. This plate is placed on top of the dinner plate and removed after the course comprising the salad. A separate plate for bread is also provided and possibly an additional glass should a more than one wine be served. Another feature of formal dining that may be either treacherous or enhancing to the evening, is the name card, designating the seating arrangements for the table. The name card should have a prominent position just above the dinner plate.
Less formal, but often far more convenient and expedient than the informal setting is the buffet form of serving. In this, the food is neither placed on the table nor served by wait staff. Instead, the food, and often the plates and utensils are provided at a table or counter and the diners are left to choose their own utensils, food and beverages. This manner of serving guests is often used when large numbers are to be present at a meal, especially if the event is to be informal. If your guests will not be eating from tables try not to serve dishes requiring the use of both hands such as slabs of meat. This can be the foundation for many spills and other minor disasters.
In choosing centerpieces, candles and other ornaments, stay away from decorations that will come between guests. People will find it uncomfortable craning their necks to see each other around huge bouquets or melting swans.