Why Should I Pre-Set My Guest Tables?

With the world being sensitive to the risk of exposure to germs, serving a meal can feel like walking a tight rope. What are the boundaries? Are people going to feel comfortable eating? How much will each person want to eat? How do I set my table? And the biggest question to consider – How do I keep my dishes “free of germs”?

While I can’t answer all of those questions for you (because some of them are really up to you), I can help you with the last one – the answer: PRE-SET your tables! It may not completely limit the dishes “exposure” to elements in the air. But then again, your guests are breathing the same air that is surrounding the plates, so if that was really a problem, they wouldn’t be there.

If you are doing a plated meal for your event, its pretty easy to know how to manage china, flatware and glassware. Generally speaking, you set the flatware/cutlery, and glassware at each seat. If you have a charger plate, this is generally the best opportunity to showcase it and set it as the pre-set plate. When your guests have been seated, the meal is served and brought out on dinner plates. The number of people that has touched the plate at this point is a max of three. 1) the person who plated the meal, 2) the person who served the guest their plate, and 3) the guest eating from the plate.

With buffet there is more of a choice on how to serve. You can pre-set you table, or you can stack plates and utensils at the start of the buffet line. Here is how a couple of those scenarios might work.


You enter the reception of a friend’s wedding. Your first objective is to find a seat at a table with people you know, or feel comfortable spending the meal portion of the night with. You drop your coat, bag or personal belonging on your chair, and head to the bar. After some time passes the DJ announces that the dinner buffet will open in 15 minutes.

Option 1: Not pre-set and china

The tables have chairs around them but no utensils, glassware or plates. Guests line up at the buffet, grab a plate. Each guest only touches the top plate that they take because they can easily find the edge and know they are only grabbing one. They pick their silverware that they think they will need out of the large containers that everyone before and after grabbed out of. While this option maybe saved some time for set up of the reception hall, all of your guests have just touched all the silverware, and have shared their germs with each other.

Option 2: Not pre-set and plastic

The tables have chairs around them but no utensils, glassware or plates. Guests line up at the buffet, grab a plate. Each guest touches 3-4 plates as they try to separate them to just take one. They then reach into the containers holding the plastic utensils and proceed to touch the one they took and the 6 others around them. This option also saved time on the set up side, and while there is nothing wrong with disposable options, it can sometimes be difficult to separate plates and grab utensils because there is less weight to the product and they stick together more easily.

Option 3: Pre-set and china or plastic

Each table has a plate, cutlery, and glassware placed at each seat. The set up was done by one person who was wearing gloves while placing the items. Each guest returns to the table where they set their stuff down, picks up the plate in front of their chair, and files in line for the buffet. When they return to the table with their full plate, they can begin eating with the silverware that is already at their place. If they decide they want to sit somewhere else after getting their food, they can simply find and place setting without a plate a sit down and start eating. It is not very likely that the person that took that plate from the new seat touch the flatware, as they didn’t need it yet. At this point you have minimized you non-gloved exposure to 1 person. That person is the one eating the food on the plate.

While it might take more time to preset your guest tables, there are services out there that offer it. Many day of coordinators off to help set your tables for you. Some caterers will offer it as an add-on service too. It never hurts to have some family help too, and supply them with gloves to make sure there are less contaminates touching the items. Whether you are a germ freak or not, you can’t ignore the heightened awareness that surrounds the topic of hygiene and cleanliness. Regardless of if your event is 10 people or 300 people, it never hurts to take the extra step to ensure all your guests stay healthy. And just because you might not have a problem reaching into the jar to grab a fork does not mean that someone else out there will choose to not eat because there are no “clean” forks. (Or if you’re me, you take your communal jar fork to the bathroom and wash it with soap and water before you use it).

Pre-set tables also make for some great photographs. Whether you have hired a photographer, or just want to snap a few photos of your home party, a table set with all the pieces makes for some awesome detail shots!

Photo: Biddle Photography

In a world where we want to have community and celebration, you may have to make some concessions to make sure the majority of your guests comfortable. Because if they don’t come, it won’t be much of a party without them. No matter what is going on in the world, it may be challenging, but it will always be in your best interest to think through all your options, and to be kind!