How to Serve at a Dinner Party

Which way should you pass the plates? How should you clear the table? Serving at a dinner party isn't exactly as easy as pie. Here are some basic guidelines to help you out in your next dinner party.


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    Place easy, general dishes on the table for guests to help themselves to. Steamed or roasted vegetables, rice, salad, potatoes, and condiments are some of the things you can usually leave in the middle of the table for guests to help themselves to. This isn't strictly necessary, though. If you prefer to keep things simple, you don't have to leave anything more than salt and pepper on the table.
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    Put complicated, delicate and artistic food on the plates in the kitchen. This is known as "plating-up." Don't expect guests to help themselves to food that requires assembly or is difficult to manage. The only way they'll get to see your creativity is if you put it out on the plate for them before you even get to the dinner table. Keep the rim of the plate clear of sauces, spills, anything; it frames the food.
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    Decide on your serving order. Traditionally it was customary to serve women first (eldest to youngest), then the men (same order). You can do this if you want to keep with tradition and the occasion is quite formal. Otherwise, choose one end of the table and move around it in a clockwise fashion, regardless of the genders of your guests.
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    Pass all dishes from the left. Guests and servers should pass dishes from left. The logic behind this is that most people are right-handed and this allows them them to serve themselves from the dish while it is being held by the passer. Nowadays it is less likely that the passer will continue to hold the dish, but will expect you to take it, so if you are left-handed, it won't be a problem. Place the dish down on your side plate to serve from it.
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    Keep the courses rolling. It isn't a good idea to make guests wait too long between courses. They'll get fidgety, anxious and gossipy about what you're doing.
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    Amaze guests with your knowledge. Don't hesitate to tell them some interesting and brief details about the time-old recipe you've used and why the wine complements the meal so well. On the other hand, do not ever go into details about how the flesh portion of the meal was hunted/killed. This is bad taste and makes some guests very queasy. Leave it for discussion around the fireplace with a like-minded friend after dinner.
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    Clear only two plates at a time, from the right. The host or hired help should clear no more than two plates at a time to avoid bumping guests and interfering with their eating. There is nothing more annoying than the server's elbows in your face when you're just about to take the next bite.
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    Clean plates out of sight. The place for scraping off the leftovers is the kitchen, not the dining table. Preferably the noises should not reach the guests but this is unrealistic for most homes. Just do it as quietly as possible and try not to clank or drop the dishes.
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    Remove main course dishes before bringing out dessert. This means all the dishes on the table, the condiments and the side plates. If you haven't already set out the dessert spoons, this is the time to do so.
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    Serve cream, dessert toppings and sugar from the left. Chocolates will have their own method of getting around the table; it has been suspected they have legs...
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    As the cook, or host, always serve yourself last. This is polite and also sensible, since you'll probably be busy anyway with host's duties.
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    Don't be afraid to ask for help. Except for the most formal occasions, it's not unheard of to ask a close friend at the party to help you serve. Don't take advantage of the situation because that guest is there to enjoy himself too but don't hesitate to ask for a quick hand with a simple task that won't risk spills on their clothes.


  • Place the plate on the table in front of the guests with the meat or the main dish at "6 o'clock". This highlights the main dish and is an easily missed touch which makes your meal presentation flawless. It also helps the "expo" process because you know how the guest will view the plate.
  • Coffee can be served with dessert (North American style) or after dessert (European style). The latter allows you to add chocolates, wafers and confectionery as palate cleansers. Although, by this stage, many people will ask for no more!
  • If you don't feel up to juggling the food requirements as well as the wine and you don't have a co-host, ask a guest to take on the role of wine-serving. Those who love wine will be falling over themselves to assist.
  • If you're ever in doubt as to the serving order, the serving should proceed sideways, person by person. A dish, jug or other item should never jump across the table but should be passed completely around. Unfortunately, it just means that the person waiting across the table must wait a little longer.
  • Always have extra dinner plates on hand. There will never be enough for one reason or another (breakage, used by chef for some other purpose, guest wants second helping but first plate already whisked away, etc.). Keep this in mind when shopping for a dinner set.
  • Plan dinner ahead of time to make sure you consider your guests' dietary restrictions. Observant Jews and Muslims have laws governing not only what they can eat, but also what they can eat from and with[1][2]. Vegans and Vegetarians will not eat meat or items associated with the exploitation of animals. Make sure you know what kinds of food your guests avoid ahead of time, and make sure everything you cook for dinner is up to the religious and ethical standards of your guests.
    • If you are unsure about the Kosher, Haram or Vegan statues of something, don’t be afraid to ask in advance, but make sure to ask privately as to not embarrass anyone.
    • If you are unsure about the Haram or Kosher statues of your dinnerware, it might be a good idea to get some fancy disposable dinnerware – this way you will avoid hurting the religious feelings of your guests.


  • Be careful also with hot drinks, teapots and coffee pots and heated sauces.
  • Don't assume every guest drinks alcohol or likes wine. Have alternatives on hand and never make a lighthearted remark or joke about their choice. There are religious, ethical and social reasons as to why people choose not to consume alcohol and if the host is not careful, he/she could end up offending one of their guests, who could end up leaving the party due to the offence caused.
  • Don't give guests hot plates unless it is unavoidable. If you must do so, warn them very clearly that it is hot before you begin passing it next to them. The guest could move without the knowledge and either come into contact with the heat and seriously/mildly burn themselves or push it back onto the server.

Things You'll Need

  • Decent dinner set
  • Decent cutlery set
  • Cloth serviettes/napkins
  • Good wine and nonalcoholic substitutes
  • Corkscrew
  • Serving ladles
  • Serving platters
  • Creamers, jugs
  • Condiments
  • Tablecloth if desired - linen is preferable
  • Candles or other atmosphere enhancers
  • Table decoration
  • Dishwasher

Article Info

Categories: Dining Etiquette | Dinner Parties