If the answer is no, we won’t be telling Mama.

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A newlywed friend recently confessed to me that she and her husband often eat dinners off wooden trays on their sofa. "It feels too formal to sit at the table with just two of us," she'd told me. I've been to her mother's house for special occasions, so I know my friend is well-equipped with the knowledge and know-how to properly set a table when the opportunity arises. Even so, I couldn't help but wonder: In an age of drive-thru meals and TV dinners, have people forgotten how to properly set a table?

Thanksgiving Table Setting with Topiary Centerpieces and Pear Place Cards
Credit: Robbie Caponetto; Design: Mariée Ami; Styling: Kathleen Varner

Because of my dad's commute and our rotation of after-school activities, sitting down for dinner together wasn't typically feasible, so my parents settled for family breakfast instead—table set and all. Yes, we may have been bleary-eyed with bedhead, but my sisters and I still knew the correct, albeit casual, way to set the table: napkin to left of plate, fork on napkin, knife (facing in) to right of plate, spoon on the outside of the knife, milk glass at one o'clock beside the plate. It's the kind of habit that sticks with you, even when you're serving up takeout-for-one on clearance Spode.  

Naturally, things get a little more complicated as you move from family breakfast to a seated dinner. A more formal table setting might require that the napkin be placed in a napkin ring and situated either to the left of the forks or directly on the dinner plate, and wine glasses appear in place of those for milk. Then, there's the matter of cake forks and dessert spoons and bread plates; each of those has its proper place too. In situations like this, when you're bringing in utensils that you may not use on the daily, there's no shame in consulting an expert, be it your grandmother or Emily Post or, heaven forbid, Google. And if that still doesn't help, bless your heart: You may need to call in the big guns and order a placemat that does the thinking for you ($9; amazon.com).

Tot Talk Table Setting & Etiquette Educational Placemat
Credit: Amazon

When it comes to a properly set table, the end always justifies the means.