Q: Aesthetics are not my strength. I’ve never been able to pinpoint what makes for a pretty table. I’d like to be able to execute a simple, beautiful, table setting suitable for weeknight dinners with my family. I want the table setting to express my love for them and to cultivate the sacredness of sharing a meal together, but I don’t know how to create this. What is the secret to making a table look beautiful? ~ Claire
I love this question because it gets at the heart of what we all want: to belong. I can tell that you know and understand the power that preparing a place for someone else holds, and I want to encourage you in that endeavor…even for weeknight dinners at home.
To me, the most beautiful aspect of a set table is the visual representation of thoughtful intention and preparation. Paper plates or fine china, the outcome is the same. Isn’t this freeing? To know we can express love with our best dishes or disposable tableware takes the focus and fuss off of the items and back to the intention behind hospitality.
When I see a set table, my heart swells because I know you expected me, you went to a bit of trouble, and you prepared a place especially for me. This sets the scene (literally) for me to enter into the space, connect and be present with you and others, to create a memory, to enjoy whatever unfolds, and to allow space for change. This is the emotional aspect of what it means to set a table.
Now for the practical aspects.
Setting a table can be as much or as little as you want it to be. If you love all the bells and whistles, go for it. But sometimes, it is nice to have a strategy for setting the table that doesn’t require much effort. In my home, I set the table “all-out” for birthdays, and maybe a couple of holiday meals. However, the rest of the time, we use our basic white plates, disposable napkins, and everyday flatware.
Use what you have in a thoughtful way, and it will suffice.
At the bare minimum, regardless of what items you choose to use, set a plate, silverware, and a napkin at every place and make sure everything is straight. This goes a long way towards establishing beauty while still being practical. Even paper plates, plastic forks, and folded paper towels will hit the mark.
Next, add something practical to the center of the table. Depending on the meal or situation, this could be a pitcher of water, extra salad dressing, or the garlic bread. It’s nice if the item is on a tray, but it is not required.
Finally, finish with something beautiful, if you can. A small water glass with a stem of greenery from your yard. A pumpkin during the fall. A jar full of jingle bells during the holiday. A votive candle, lit. Turn on some music. Turn off the television. Dim the lights. Small gestures can create a sense of occasion and communicate the sacredness of sitting together at the table.
The art of setting a table has little to do with the items you use and more to do with how you use what you have. I hope these tips give you the tools you need to execute your beautiful vision!