Pretty Table Settings | Tips for Setting a Real-life Table

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The most difficult question I’ve ever received from a reader landed in my in-box a few weeks ago.  Was it a complex technical issue? Tracking down the history behind a piece of Hanau silver? Figuring out exactly what something was meant to be used for…a wig rake!  Nope…the question that stumped me was “How do you set such pretty tables in your photos? Could you send me some hints or tips for pretty table settings?”

pretty table settings

I like to let my guests know what they will be served. That way they can say no if it’s something they don’t want!  Cloth napkins are my other big fixation.  Paper ones photograph well but just can’t compare in real life.

First, I’m flattered that my reader thinks so; the aesthetics of table setting don’t come easily to me. Some of those photos take a long time to figure out…but I’m focused on making them photogenic versus real-life pretty.

As I scour magazines and Pinterest looking for ideas, I’ve learned a photogenic table isn’t always good in real life.  Take those tall, lush centerpieces that look so amazing in photos.  In the real world your guests would be tempted to use their knife as a machete to make enough room for their wine glasses and to see the person across the table.  Nor would there room to put anything else on the table…such as food platters!

Pretty table settings take into account the comfort and needs of the guest…not just the desires of the table setter.

Tips for pretty table settings

Real-life pretty table settings rely on three main elements. The first is the ‘look’, second is considering your guests comfort, third is your attitude!

If you are a formal person, then get out a plain white cloth, use your matching glass suites, wedding china, and all of Grandma’s silver.  It really is hard to go wrong with a ‘classic’ table. If strictly formal is not your thing, then use elements that do please you.

Here are my top tips for a pretty table settings:

1. Let it reflect your personality. Don’t be afraid to mix and match.  I almost never use a ‘set’ of silver; instead I prefer to mix different types.  Often times I don’t have enough matching forks or knives for everyone at the table so I alternate who gets what.  No one…and I mean no one…has ever said anything about it.  I’d be willing to bet they haven’t even noticed!  The mix and match applies to glassware, plates, and table linen too.

2. Make sure everything is sparkling clean!  No fingerprints on the glasses or dishes.  The silver should be clean too; however, polishing is optional. 😉 Remember clean and polished are two separate things.

3. Leave room for your guests to maneuver.  Pretty table settings are worthless when you don’t have enough elbow room for glasses and cutting your food.

4. Don’t make the flowers (or whatever you use for the decoration) too high/large/extravagant.  Test out your arrangement by sitting down.  Can you see across the table or do the flowers impair your line of sight? Stay away from highly scented flowers too.  Allergy attacks are no fun.

5. The same rule applies to candles.  No one wants to feel too close to them and in danger of first degree burns.  Also, candles and candelabra need to be subjected to the line-of-sight test.

6. Use cloth napkins.  Whether or not you use a tablecloth is optional…depending on the occasion.  However, cloth napkins are a must.  The pretty printed paper ones photo fabulously, but they don’t pass the ‘in-person’ test.

7. Let guests know what they are eating.  I like to put labels by dishes if it’s a buffet, or provide a little menu card for seated dinners.  That way guests can gracefully avoid food-related pitfalls.

8. Don’t hold yourself to the standard of pretty table settings you see in magazines, etc, etc.  You probably don’t have an endless selection of silver/crystal/china/linen to select from.  Neither do you have a professional stylist to actually design the table.  And remember photogenic tables are not necessarily great places to actually sit down and eat a meal.

9. Confidence is the key to pretty table settings.  If something hasn’t gone quite as planned…don’t announce it!  Honestly, no one will ever figure out the hydrangea wilted and had to be replaced with lettuce leaves…or you forgot to add the mushrooms to the salad. Yes, I’ve done all of that (and worse) but no one has ever noticed!

10. The very best tables are ones where your hostess and/or host are having a great time.  Your attitude sets the tone; the simplest of tables is magically transformed when the company sparkles.

pretty table settings - menu card detail

These simple menu cards/napkin bands add a splash of color to the table — because the fuchsia napkins weren’t enough! They also let the guests know what’s coming — and have reminded me on more than one occasion to get something out of the fridge!


The menu card/napkin band I used in the photo is totally straightforward. I opened up my word processing program and set my paper to print landscape (horizontally).  Then I typed in my menu using one of the fabulous handwriting fonts I keep falling in love with and printed it onto a pretty piece of paper and cut it into strips.

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8 thoughts on “Pretty Table Settings | Tips for Setting a Real-life Table

  1. UniqueNiqueNo Gravatar

    Lovely so glad someone else feels that mix and match work wonderfully and that cloth napkins are a must :D. As to flowers I use glass ones as sneezes are most unattractive. Happy dinners to you

  2. TriciaNo Gravatar

    Love the menu idea! It adds great color, as well as a “special” factor. We’ve always used cloth napkins for everyday meals, and it’s fun to see my now-grown offspring are carrying on the tradition in their own homes.

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