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How to Use Utensils at a Formal Dinner

Updated on November 18, 2011

Whether you're hosting your first formal dinner or you've been invited to a special event, the placement and use of utensils are often cause for confusion. Avoid embarrassment by learning the proper way to set out and use each of the utensils at your plate.

A Note on Dinner Forks

Your formal dinner is likely to need several forks throughout the main meal. Provide a separate fork for each course. Your guests shouldn't use a fork for their main course that they used to eat salad. This doesn't include special dessert or oyster forks, as these are located separately from dinner forks at the place setting.

Choosing Formal Dinner Utensils

Before you start putting together each place setting, make sure you have all the utensils needed throughout the meal. Write down the full meal, including sit-down appetizers, salads, multiple courses and dinner. If you're providing bread and butter for your guests, write this down, too.

Now that you know what you're serving, you can make a list of all the utensils your guests will use. At a formal dinner, you may need...

  • Dinner forks
  • Soup spoon
  • Oyster fork
  • Dinner knife
  • Steak knife
  • Dessert spoon
  • Dessert knife
  • Butter knife

Only set out utensils that will be used during your dinner.

Setting the Table

The placement of utensils at a formal dinner is just as important as the food you provide. Since you may have guests well-versed in formal dining etiquette, you want to avoid confusion by placing everything in the tried-and-true locations.

  • On the left of the plate, place each of the dinner forks. Place them in order of when they will be used during dinner with the soonest fork on the outside. This is often also in order of size with the smallest on the outside.
  • On the right side of the plate, place any knives used during dinner (not including the butter knife). Keep the main course knife closest to the plate. On the right side of the knives, place the soup spoon. For formal dinners with oysters, keep the oyster fork to the right of the soup spoon.
  • Above the plate, place the dessert utensils. The dessert spoon should be horizontal with the handle pointing to the right side. The dessert fork's handle should point to the left.
  • For bread and butter, rest the butter knife across the bread plate. The bread plate should be placed to the top left of the guest's dinner plates.

Using Utensils as a Guest

Nothing is more nerve-racking then being faced with a place-setting full of a dozen utensils. Which should you use? What are they used for? If you're trying to impress those around you at this formal dinner, using the wrong utensils isn't an option. Fortunately, it's a lot easier than you might think.

  • Evaluate each course. Only use the utensil that you need for that meal. Used utensils are taken away with the plate or bowl at the end of each course.
  • Start on the outside. If you need a fork, use the fork on your left that's farthest from the plate.
  • Only use a butter knife for buttering bread. It's seen as poor etiquette to use it for the rest of your meal. Keep it on your bread plate so you don't forget.
  • Hold your fork in your left hand and knife in your right. Though this may not be how you normally eat, it's best to keep this configuration to follow proper formal dinner etiquette.
  • Keep your utensils on the plate. It's bad taste to put used utensils back on the table. Once they touch food, keep them on the plate.
  • Cross utensils when you're still eating. You may need to take a break but you don't want your food taken away. Cross your utensils on the plate to form an X. The server will know to leave your food.
  • Keep your utensils across the plate at the 11-5 position when you're done. The fork tines or sharp end of your knife should face the 11 o'clock position on the plate with the handle at the 5 o'clock position. This signals to the server that's you're done.
  • Watch those around you. If you're really not sure what to do, discreetly copy those around you with more experience in formal dining etiquette.


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