You eat with your eyes first. That includes not only the food as it's being served, but also the plates and table, too. There’s certainly nothing wrong with serving food on your everyday-kind-of-worn-out-maybe-a-little-chipped cups and plates. Still, adding a few decorative touches to your table can create a festive environment and add to the enjoyment of the food.
Of course, the fear involved in creating even basic table settings is the amount of work and cost that can go into it. Television divas spend countless hours and dollars creating fanciful (often one-use) table settings, but most people don’t have the time or the money to create something that fancy. The good news is that memorable table settings can be had without a lot of cost. Here’s how.
The good utensils
In your house, you undoubtedly have a set of utensils for everyday use -- and they probably look it. They may even show signs of being used for non-culinary purposes (it’s amazing how many butter knives turn into screwdrivers).
That’s why you need a set of entertaining utensils. If you want to do this as cheaply as possible, go for an elegant but not overworked set of silver utensils that can go with any table. As you have time or need, you can collect other kinds, but silver pretty much finds its home with anything, so you only need to buy them once.
Plates and bowls
In a perfect entertaining world, you’d have one set of plates and bowls for every holiday, another for fancy parties and one more for casual parties. Most people are lucky if they have a set of dishes for parties and some quirky green-and-red plastic Christmas plates.
If you're shopping for party plates, try to buy white or black, and preferably black. Those two basics will mix and match with just about anything if you plan ahead. Also, try to find plates that are roughly square. These will stand out without being so wild they don’t match with anything.
If you plan on serving wine at your party, you'll need a set of white wine glasses, a set of red wine glasses and a set of champagne flutes. These can be found at reasonable prices at Wal-Mart or Target. Try to find glasses with stems that are as plain as possible, because you can fancy them up with ribbon and other crafts to suit the colors of the table -- saving you the cost of buying several sets.
Have a set of party glasses if you can. They should be clear, tall 12-ounce glasses, which can go with any table setting.
Placemats are where you can really start to add color to your table. They are inexpensive, so you can have one set per holiday and/or party occasion. Buy extra, though -- placemats have a way of getting ruined. The good news is that if can sew, they are easy to make.
Napkins and napkin rings
If you can find them inexpensively, buy cloth napkins in colors complementary to your placemats. If you can’t, there’s a trick: You can buy one set of cloth napkins (because they're a little more refined) and place them out of sight on people’s seats. Then buy paper napkins to put on your table before the food is served. That way you have the benefit of the paper napkins’ color before you eat, but guests will still have the fancier cloth napkin when it comes time to clean up.
Napkin rings are a nice-to-have accessory, but they can be very expensive. If you want to do without, fold your napkin in a restaurant-style triangle. If you do want them (and you're using cloth napkins), make sure the rings match the napkins.
Candles are a very inexpensive "wow" element that can double as a centerpiece. Buy a candle that matches the placemats, but don’t just plop it on the table. Find a shallow glass bowl and fill it with marbles, small pebbles, small pieces of sea glass or other small objects (even beans can work, under the right circumstances) that match the candle. Then nestle the candle in the grounding material. It’s simple, but it shouts elegance (or fun, depending on the candle and the filling).
Finding party items
If you're starting from scratch, shopping for a table setting might feel daunting. Have no fear! If this is your first party, don’t worry about it. Have a casual theme and serve everything on paper plates.
However, as you start to throw more parties, start looking for bargains in your table settings. Silverware, plates and bowls always go on sale, but not necessarily when it makes sense, so pay attention to advertisements. Also, the best time to stock up on seasonal holiday plates and bowls is right after the holiday is over, so spend some money this year and save next time.
Last, don’t be afraid to borrow table settings. That way you can set an elegant table and no one will be the wiser.