Not every occasion calls for an elaborate setup.

While certain holidays and events call for your best china and heirloom silver, most entertaining requires a more informal setup. "The days of putting out Grandma's finest china and sitting in the dining room that is truly only used for Thanksgiving and Christmas are long gone," says California-based event planner Kiersten Rooney of LB Event Planning. "Modern-day dinner parties are all about making guests feel comfortable and at home. Whether it's hosting neighbors and friends or inviting my loved ones for dinner, I tend to keep things more causal so the conversation—and good wine—flows naturally."

At smaller, more relaxed dinner celebrations, the right table setting makes your event more authentic while also helping your guests feel more at ease. Here, everything you need to know about setting an informal table, from how to arrange dinnerware to linen selection and more.

Start with the basics.

An informal setting should include the obvious—plates, glasses, silverware, and napkins—but a few thoughtful choices can bring a casual, but still refined vibe to the tabletop. "I typically will set each place setting with a dinner plate, fork and knife, wine glass, and water cup—not goblet," says Rooney. "China and real silver are a bit too stuffy for my taste and make people feel like they need to be on their best behavior. If everything else feels homey and someone sits down to a formal charger and place setting, they may become uncomfortable if they are not familiar or prepared for the change in tone."

Cloth napkins are fancier than paper, but opting for an unfussy, natural fabric sets a relaxed mood—especially alongside a simpler collection of plates and flatware. "To spruce up the setting, I will cut an herb from my garden to adorn my linen napkins," says Rooney.

Go (slightly) bigger with small groups.

"With a more intimate group, I like to doll things up a little bit more than if we were in a larger setting," says Rooney. "I like to use linen napkins and real crystal glassware. That's a must for me almost always—we care a lot about glassware because we love good wine."

Don't over-crowd the table when hosting larger groups.

Throwing a larger (but still casual!) party? Minimize your prep work and create a more spacious tablescape by eliminating formal elements like multiple plates and pre-set glassware. "Because I usually do family-style for an informal meal. I skip the charger and salad plates and let people pile everything onto their own plate," says Rooney. You can take the same approach with glassware, she says: Encourage guests to bring their before-dinner cocktail to the table instead of setting out wine glasses, and offer a stack of water cups and a pitcher instead of a glass at every place.

Don't overlook the mix-and-mingle model.

At larger events, where guests mingle instead of all sitting down together, an informal setting doesn't have to mean cheap paper plates and value-pack napkins. "Every year, my husband and I host a White Elephant at our tiny cottage for upwards of 25 people," says Rooney. "I love to make it feel extra special by ordering customized cocktail napkins and splurging with real glassware, but with that many guests, it's unrealistic to have a place setting for each person."

Instead, she uses bamboo plates—"They are more durable than paper and nicer-looking than plastic," she says—paired with metallic plastic utensils that look almost real. "Because I am a fan of details but also understand the importance of logistics," she says, "I typically will roll up the plasticware in a napkin and add a festive tie with colored twine—cute and easy to grab!"


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