5 Dining Room “Rules” to Break, According to Entertaining Experts

published Nov 15, 2023
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Credit: Sylvie Li

Although this may make Emily Post shudder in terror, yes, it’s true: There are rules you can toss out the window when hosting a gathering in your dining room. Although many commonly held dining room truths are still hanging on, experts say there are actually several “norms” that are not worth the effort or stress.  

“Etiquette rules come from a long history of tradition and customs. They also provide some structure and order, and I can understand why that can be especially helpful for setting expectations and guidelines. There is also an element of courtesy when it comes to etiquette rules in the dining room, such as thanking the host or offering a toast,” says content creator and dinner party expert Mya Gelber. “However, as society modernizes and becomes more culturally fluid, etiquette rules should adapt and grow with social norms.” 

While good manners are still on the table, there are some etiquette norms you can choose to forgo at your next gathering. Here are five “rules” to consider breaking. 

Seating Couples Next to One Another

Emily Coyne, founder and principal planner at Emily Coyne Events, says there’s no need to always seat couples next to one another, which tends to be an old standard at dinner parties. She believes it’s perfectly acceptable to place couples across from one another, or, in a group that knows each other well and is naturally conversational, even place them slightly separated from one another. “The idea with mixing up seating is to promote great conversations,” she explains. 

There is a caveat, though. Coyne says, “Keep your specific guests in mind if assigning seating, as you may be aware of a couple that much prefers to sit together or perhaps doesn’t know anyone else at the gathering. You don’t want to pull these couples apart if it’s going to make them uncomfortable.”  

Buying New Stuff

Maria Colalancia, founder of The Aperitivo Society, a food-focused community that hosts dinners around New England, says that whenever she is hosting, she prefers to rely on items she already has instead of going out and buying new things. 

“Not only is this more sustainable and cost effective, but it also sparks creativity and is certain to wow your guests,” she Colalancia says. For example, when she hosts, she loves to layer linens or textiles in place of a tablecloth. 

She also thinks that mismatched dishes can create an eye-pleasing look, and unexpected items from around your home can stand in as unique centerpieces or table decor. “I love using fruits, vegetables, and herbs in place of or in addition to traditional flowers in a vase,” she says. “Expand your thinking beyond what you would typically put on a dining table and pull in some things you wouldn’t traditionally see.”

Coordinating Everything

Within that same spirit, Gelber says that coordinating dinner plates, salad plates, and bowls are a thing of the past — especially if you’re hosting a large gathering where it might be costly to acquire matching tableware. 

“I’d much rather opt for mismatched tableware, which adds to the vibrancy and uniqueness of the tablescape,” she says. But if you are hoping to achieve a smidge of cohesiveness, Gelber suggests, “Thrifting old plates is an inexpensive way to acquire a large set of dinnerware, and it looks so adorable when on the table.”  

Serving Fancy Food

Contrary to popular belief, Coyne says that you don’t have to cook or hire a caterer in order to throw a party. “If cooking is not your forte, and a full-service caterer is not in the budget, you can still host a fantastic party,” she says. 

Coyne recommends saving yourself time and stress by pre-ordering food from a restaurant or your grocery deli and serving it in your own dishes. “A great way to dress this up is with a pretty garnish,” she adds. “A few sprigs of fresh herbs, slices of citrus, freshly grated cheese, or sprinkled pomegranate seeds will instantly elevate your presentation and make your dishes look homemade.”

Needing a Formal Dining Table

Colalancia says that one of the most common questions she’s asked is, “I live in a small apartment — can I still host?” The answer is an unequivocal yes, you do have space to host, and no, you don’t need a formal dining table that seats eight or 12. 

“You can get creative with whatever furniture you do have to create a dining space,” she says. “For example, I recently hosted a dinner where we used coffee tables and end tables all lined up against a row of sofas, benches, and stools. Traditional? Absolutely not. Uniform? Barely. But it was comfortable, unique, and with a tablecloth and some candles, you’d never know the difference. It’s all about creating spaces with intention, a little bit of love, and attention to detail — that’s really what is going to impress your guests.”