Do You Know Which Fork to Use?

Photo Courtesy of Dining Etiquette Seminar
Photo Courtesy of Dining Etiquette Seminar

History of use of Silverware

There is actually a historical hierarchy that applies to silverware or flatware, the two names used in the western world. Cutlery refers to any hand implement used in preparing, serving, and particularly eating food. Now that we have our vocabulary straight we will move on to the history of flatware. The spoon has the lowest rank as it is the oldest means of eating, other than fingers.

The knife is the most respected piece flatware which was used for centuries to spear and eat food. Then the fork came along form Constantinople to Italy in the 12th century and from Italy to France in the 16th century. The English were a lot slower to adapt to the fork and universal use didn’t happen until the world was into the nineteenth century. The fork became the instrument of choice in the western world.

The hierarchy goes into reverse at this time as history can be very strange. Many specialized utensils were made in Victorian era; however, the upper crust rejected many of them. Therefore, you had the rather peculiar situation happen. If you had whole fish on a plate you did not use your knife to fillet it, nor did you use the newly invented fish knife that had a little notch at the tip for lifting the flesh from the bone; instead two forks for each plate of fish were used to remove the flesh from opposite directions trying to uncover the bones. Obviously common sense didn’t reign.

Proper Place Setting

Photo Courtesy of Dining Etiquette Seminar
Photo Courtesy of Dining Etiquette Seminar
Photo Courtesy of Clipart
Photo Courtesy of Clipart

Typical Family Dinner

Of course, now most of sit down for an informal with our families and just use the knife, fork and spoon, unless a soup spoon or maybe an ice teaspoon is called for. All cookware and cooking utensils stay in the kitchen. Maybe we’ll throw in a salad fork but we seem to get along just fine. At a formal dinner at least eight pieces of silverware are used. Are you sure you know which utensil to use for which course?

How to Set a Place Setting


Oneida Mooncrest 45-Piece Flatware Set, Service for 8
Oneida Mooncrest 45-Piece Flatware Set, Service for 8

45-piece flatware set with service for 8; 8 each: salad/dessert fork, place fork, place knife, place spoon, and teaspoon. Also includes a serving spoon, pierced serving spoon, meat fork, butter knife, and sugar spoon. Made of 18/0 stainless steel, the pieces are dishwasher safe,


Setting the Formal Table

I thought it might be nice to offer a little refresher course on how to set the table for a formal dinner party as most of us don’t have formal dinner parties frequently. If the procedure is done correctly, it can be a bit over whelming. Basically there are two rules bounded by tradition; cutlery is laid out in order of food presentation, so guests shouldn't have to guess which fork or spoon is appropriate to the course before them and most diners are right-handed. The first thing done is to place the table linen in place if you are using one, rather than place mats or just charger plates. Plan your color scheme ahead of time.

The easiest formal dining rule to remember depending on dinner menu choices are forks line up of the left unless they are tiny fish forks which line up with the spoons. Knives and spoons are placed on the right. Knives are always placed with the blade side in for children safety. There is a logic to the formal setting of the silverware is laid out it the order of the food presentation. Holding your menu, which includes everything you are serving, in your hand while setting the table is helpful.

Opinions seem to vary on the most efficient way to complete the task. Some say lay out your basic five pieces of silverware first (knife, fork, salad fork, place spoon and teaspoon.) Others instruct starting from the outside right with soup spoon then when the right is complete move to the far left with your forks. Fish or shrimp cocktail is place at your far right, although I found some site showing this fork on the left or just above the plates. A dessert teaspoon or fork can also be placed at the top of the plates but also can be brought in just before dessert is served. The napkin always is on the far left with the edges facing outward.

Rules of Etiquette for a Beginner

In Summary

After spending all this time on silverware, then you would have to arrange your charger plate, dinner plate, bread plate if bread will be served, and then a butter plate is used above the forks. This will also require a butter knife laid across the plate at a slightly diagonal from left to right. Of course, beverages are another item requiring a water goblet and one or two wine glasses. If coffee will be served the coffee cup and sauces will be at the right of the setting.

While some of this sounds like a task that is too much trouble, it is adhered to in many circles. You can have a nice formal setting at home with less silverware but still the adequate utensils for the menu. Don't just wait until holiday gatherings to use your sterling. We had a small formal dinner recently and it is nice when you have all of your pretties dishes and silver on the table with a nice centerpiece of flowers. Remember, a well laid table says "welcome" to both family members and guests. Entertaining has no limits and few boundaries so you might as well have some fun while entertaining.

© 2010 Pamela Oglesby

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Comments 53 comments

sheila b. profile image

sheila b. 6 years ago

Silly me - the few times I've been in doubt I've just asked.

ecoggins profile image

ecoggins 6 years ago from Corona, California

What about the individual salt and pepper shakers? Each year for thanksgiving we go to my mother's and we get the opportunity to practice the use of all the different types of forks in a formal arrangement. It does look pretty when the table is set with all its china and cutlery. I lived in Cambodia for six years and they primarily use a gigantic spoon or a chinese spoon and chop sticks. The most important part of all meals everywhere is the food. Very informative hub.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Sheila, That would be the clever thing to do. The article was to focus on the history of silverware and setting a formal table. I couldn't think of a really good title. Thanks for stopping by.

ecoggins, My mother had an antique collection of little crystal salt holders also. You are right about the food being the most important thing and I'm not surprised about Cambodia using the spoon. Thanks so much for your comments.

partisan patriot 6 years ago


Thanks for the info; now I'm ready the next time I get invited to a White House State Dinner.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Patriot, I am afraid you would come armed and they wouldn't let you in. Thanks for your comment.

KFlippin profile image

KFlippin 6 years ago from Amazon

This was good, you know as much as some people think it really doesn't matter much anymore, it does. I remember when I had my first major job interviews and had to do 'dinner' with them on follow ups, being terrified I'd do something wrong. Back then you couldn't google what fork to use when or which direction to scoop your soup!

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

KF, Thanks for sharing your experience. Table manners are probably a whole other topic if you look around restaurants and watch people eat.

RevLady profile image

RevLady 6 years ago from Lantana, Florida

Interesting concept. In my home, one fork and spoon and knife was used for everything. But then, we were not into etiquette, but rather "survival." (smile).

Love the hub though.

Forever His,

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Rev Lady, My life was the same as yours. Thanks for your comment and God Bless.

Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

Something I read that the knives be placed on the left so that the mostly right-handed men would not use them as a weapon,Lol;)

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Mentalist, That may be true. Thanks for your comment.

FitnezzJim profile image

FitnezzJim 6 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

After reading through this I was left with the impression that maybe I should stop using my fingers.

Good write up and videos.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Jim, Fingers do work some of the time. Thanks for your comments.

breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 6 years ago

I have to say I appreciate this hub. I would venture to say that most people don't have a clue about the proper way to set a table.

carolina muscle profile image

carolina muscle 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

Ok.. this is where I admit to being a big slob... I always push the other forks to the side!! LOL

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

POP, I think you are right. Thanks for your comment.

Chris, I think that is pretty common. Formal dinners are not something that happen for most of us very often. Thanks for the comment.

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV


I just survived a 48 hour power outage and I wasn't too worried about proper place settings it was survival.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Tom, I hate power outages. It must have been difficult in this heat, not to mention all the other things we depend on with electricity. Survival is the key. Thanks for stopping by.

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Duchess OBlunt 6 years ago

I am a country bumpkin at heart, so I find these types of hubs educational :)

Imagine the English not taking to the fork right off the bat!

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Duchess, I thought that was odd about England also. Educational was the idea for the hub as I didn't know some of those things either and really got the idea for the hub when I happened on an article about the history of utensils. Thanks so much for your comment.

GPAGE profile image

GPAGE 6 years ago from California

Pamela...a fantastic and informative hub! I feel that this is always good to review! ha

One never knows what they will forget! ha Also, some can learn from this too.....Presented really well too.....Hope you are having a nice day! Best, G

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

GPAGE, I am glad you enjoyed the hub and i appreciate your gracious comments.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

Your Southerness is showing!! My mom made sure I learned this at an early age. lol. Thumbs up!

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Habee, I'm not surprised your mother taught this to you. Thanks for your comments.

K9keystrokes profile image

K9keystrokes 6 years ago from Northern, California

This is a very cool hub Pam. It has been a while since I have done any formal dining or entertaining so the refresher course is super! Etiquette has always been one of those things us 'common' folk dance around. This hub helps us realze just how simple it all can be. You presented the subject very well and quite clearly! Thanks for the read!

PaulaK profile image

PaulaK 6 years ago from Austin. Texas

Growing up in the military, I learned all about etiquette and formal entertaining. I often set the table for those dinners. Later, I worked in the Officer's club where there were lots of ladies events and well set tables. I love your hub, the detail and research that went into it. Good job Pamela!

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

K9, I am one of those common folks also so it was a nice review. I appreciate your comments.

PaulaK, Thank you so much for your kind comments. You could have probably written the hub easily with all your experience.

akirchner profile image

akirchner 6 years ago from Central Oregon

Great info and sometimes it is a bit confusing! I did not grow up in a 'formal' environment thankfully although a few times, it has come back to haunt me. I probably should bookmark this just in case I have to 'go formal' and need quick info before I go!

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Audry, Thanks so much for your comments.

Support Med. profile image

Support Med. 6 years ago from Michigan

A table that is properly set is beautiful. This hub will be remembered should I ever decide to do so. In the meantime, as Rev. Lady said, fork, spoon, knife and we're good to go (even that can be 'pretty,' just not 'proper.') Bon-appetit! Voted/rated.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Support Med, I think it is nice to know how even if you only do some little part of it because you said it is nice to have an attractive table. Thanks for your comments.

G L Strout profile image

G L Strout 6 years ago from Ohio, USA

I think my family has laughed at me for years because I like to set the table properly for large dinners. I get teased about what difference it makes but, for me, it makes the meal more enjoyable. Thanks for a nice article.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

G L Strout, I is nice to hear from a man that enjoys an attractive table. I appreciate your comments.

vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

I love a formal table setting but have not had an occasion to use it in years. Then, I forgot how. So, thank you for bringing it all back to me. Interesting history which I enjoyed reading. Thanks Pam. Great hub.

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Thank you for your very informative hub which is always good to know.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Vocalcoach, I hadn't used one in years either so I'm glad you enjoyed the review. Thank you for your comments.

Hello, Thanks so much for your comments.

Springboard profile image

Springboard 6 years ago from Wisconsin

I always say, the best fork to use is one that jabs my food and gets it to my mouth. I'm CERTAIN my wife would disagree, as would this article. :)

girly_girl09 profile image

girly_girl09 6 years ago from United States

Very nice hub. :)

It seems that this is sadly a lost art. According to my mother, it used to be fairly common for parents to send their children to etiquette school and that is rarely done anymore. I am in my twenties and I only know a few other girls who took etiquette classes growing up, and that is probably because their mothers heard mine talking about it.

Proper dining etiquette is pertinent for success in many different occupations. I once heard a colleague say that he didn't hire a potential recruit because he took him out to lunch and the guy appeared to be a slob.

Proper dining etiquette can make a great impression and the lack thereof can make a terrible one.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Springboard, Thank you for stopping by and for your comment.

girly-girl, Thank you for your lovely comment. I agree that proper etiquette can make a huge impression on others.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

I think this should be taught in school! Lots of kids these days aren't learning manners at home. Sorry for posting twice. lol

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Habee, I agree and it wouldn't even take that much time from their school. Thanks.

tim-tim profile image

tim-tim 6 years ago from Normal, Illinois

Great informative hub!!! Thanks for sharing your knowledge,Pamela.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

tim-tim, Thanks so much for your comment.

bayoulady profile image

bayoulady 6 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

Pamela, I'm bookmarking this, as I forget what goes where, and it might come in handy.I went to a friend's home for a Sunday dinner I guess you'd call it. Her husband and she had just moved back from Morroco, where he was a diplomat(or ambassador???? it's been years ago).

Now I'm thinking fried chicken,mashed potatoes,dinner rolls.......and the 4 pieces of silverware rolled up in a pretty bow-tied linen napkin. That's how I show off a bit. But NOOoooooo, it was formally set, with even a finger bowl for me to swish my finger tips in.( I didn't have a clue what it was or what to use when!) I watched the ten year old and did what he did! We should bring back the daysof using a formal place setting say like once a month....just for the fun of it! Like a little girl's tea party!


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

bayoulady, I think that is a good suggestion. I seldom every end up in a formal setting but I thought it was good to review how to set up the table. Once a month would keep us in practice. Thanks for your comments.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

Nice idea for a hub. If in doubt always use the utensils starting with the ones on the outside working ones way in for each successive course. It is fun to dine formally at least once in a while.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Peggy, That is the best rule to remember but I wanted to also do a hub to refer to if you forget how to set up a formal table. Thanks for your comment.

nancy_30 profile image

nancy_30 6 years ago from Georgia

Great hub. I took Home Economics in highschool. My teacher made sure we all new how to set a table. But that was many years ago so thank you for refreshing my mind.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States Author

Nancy, I'm not so sure children learn today unless their parents teach them. Thanks for your comment.

Lady_E profile image

Lady_E 4 years ago from London, UK

Oh... this was useful to read. Sometimes, I go to big events and there is so much cutlery in front of me and..... there are a choice of 3 to 4 glasses to drink from... I think to myself: "oh my, which is which?" lol

Great Hub. A pity we can't bookmark anymore.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 4 years ago from United States Author

Lady E, If we don't go to those types of events very often it is hard to remember which glass or fork to use. I'm glad this hub was helpful to you and I appreciate your comments.

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human Player 4 years ago

Just signed up and stopped by to relate to you that the real problem for most people is WHICH utensil to use and WHEN. Next some of the very simple things are overlooked in the 5 of this type video I have watched and none explain to the unacquainted the simpler things.

Such as~ neglect to tell viewers in which direction the sharp edge of the knife should face. Further a simple rule of thumb would be - When eating start with the utensil that is furthest from the plate and work inward.

??Why are there different size wine glasses for instance.

??What is the proper procedure for use of the butter knife and the difference when there is only one common butter knife.

??Butter your roll in your hand or on the plate?

??Cut you steak into many pieces right off the bat or only cut one bite - stop and eat it.

??Cut the bite and switch the fork to the correct hand.

And a plethora of simpler questions…

I know some of these were about etiquette ~ none the less ~ if you were not brought up in a refined household you have no idea about the simpler things.

good luck

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 4 years ago from United States Author

human player, It sounds like you should write a hub about this topic since you are so willing to share your knowledge.

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