Table manners

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So you’ve figured out what food you’ll be serving at your dinner party, and have even made a batch of edible goodies for your loved ones. Now to think of another essential element of your upcoming Christmas party. She presents to you another dear friend Sophia Sheikh, who’s come to the rescue with some much needed advice on how to pretty up your dinner table. I call her the queen of decor because she’s got such a good eye for all things beautiful, and she’s always the hostess with the mostest! Grab a cup of coffee and read on…

The festive season in my house tends to be year round. If it’s not Christmas, it’s Thanksgiving. If it’s not that, it’s Eid, and failing that, I rope myself into several self-imposed themed dinners and general excuses to have people over. I think I’m able to entertain so much because quite frankly, I’m pretty bad when it comes to cooking so I stay well away from the main meal itself.

Fortunately for me, and all those who find themselves sat around our table, my husband is a fantastic cook. He’s like ‘MacGyver’ in the kitchen; you can give him three items and he’ll make a gourmet meal out of it. And although I’m extremely grateful to have delicious food on demand, what I care most about are the aesthetics of meal time. Call it vanity or call it perfection – hours spent over a hot stove with painstaking attention to detail requires an equally fitting platform… that’s where I come in. THE TABLE.

table setting

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My first attempt at trying to set up a semi-decent spread stemmed from my first try at hosting Thanksgiving in the U.S. There’s no messing around there when it comes to themes and accessories. The shops are full of everything autumn – appropriately orange, brown and yellow in November, and gold, red and white in December. How hard can it be? I thought to myself, I’ll replicate something I see online or in a store, make a few variations and I’m done! Boy was I wrong – on two counts. Firstly, the cost of trying to replicate Martha Stewart’s festive front cover will likely set you back a month’s rent. Secondly, the beautiful tables we find for inspiration are not always the most practical. Sometimes it seems like the space for food has been forgotten, which of course is a big #DinnerFail (unless you have a team of footmen and butlers on the ready to walk around with platters). If you’re like me, then you also want to change up the look and feel of your table for each dinner, and don’t want to have to break the bank doing it. So with several years of hosting dinner parties, teas, showers and brunches, I’ve mastered the trick in making a table look great without having to buy half a department store in the process.

Start with the table. If you’re having a sit down meal, make sure there’s enough space for everyone. That means the plates, cutlery, drink ware and of course, the food. If it’s a buffet spread, then that gives you more room to play with.


table setting pinecones

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If you’ve got a nice finishing on your table (like rustic wood), then a table cloth is not compulsory.  Wooden finishes actually work with most themes and colours and add character. If on the other hand you’re going for a very specific look or you want to cover up the table, which is the case if you’ve had to borrow (or rent) tables for bigger crowds, then go with something neutral. You don’t want the table cloth to be overwhelming. Neutral colours also get more use and it means you’re not having to buy a new one each time you want to change your theme.

Most settings you find usually have both, a runner and table mats. There are no fixed rules and you don’t have to force both on to your table. If you have to pick one, I would go with a runner because it’s actually more visible. It’s also a great way to add in a pop of colour. They’re also cheaper than table cloths, so having a couple on hand will give you flexibility for future décor. Table mats are nice, especially for wider tables where all the fabric isn’t overlapping and screaming for attention. Just keep in mind that they will be covered with your plates so don’t depend on them to bring out your theme.

Napkins are a big YES. Using fabric napkins will add a touch of formality and put you into the expert hostess category. Paper versions are great for barbecues but not for a festive meal. We’re grown ups now and that means real napkins. You can match these with your other linen, or contrast them if you want to introduce another colour. Some stores offer cheap and cheerful roles of disposable fabric ones, but they aren’t usually the best material, given they aren’t meant to last beyond a single meal. When you’ve got a bigger gathering, you can always mix and match your napkins, provided the end result doesn’t look like a children’s picnic spread.

Centre pieces:

Table setting

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It’s not necessary to have one very noticeable display at the centre of the table, you can have several smaller pieces spread around. The pressure on creating one focal point on the table would often be the biggest time consumer for me, and after many purchases, returns and exchanges, I’ve found most things we already have, can work. Whether it’s a bowl, a platter, a vase or some candles, they will all do the trick. Using something seasonal and natural is often very economical and also adds festivity. If you’re using fresh flowers, most florists will sell you single stems for 5-10 AED depending on what you opt for, which means you’re not having to fork out for a huge bunch. If you’re a bit of an arts and crafts fiend, you can also use bits and pieces you find in the garden and spray paint them, such as branches and twigs or keep them natural and mix them in. Just keep in mind, your centre piece should not leave your guests having to tilt their head to speak to the person in front of them, so keep them low in height. Candles are great for creating ambience, especially if they are scented. Keeping your holders and vases neutral means you can get a varied look by just changing out the flowers and candles.


table setting

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No one (or at least no one I know) has dozens of identical plates, so don’t stress about not having the exact same one for every guest. The key is to have your plates coordinated, but it’s O.K. if they’re not the same. At this point, you’ll need to touch base with the chef, or go over your menu and think about what you need to set at the table. For example, if you’re not serving bread then you don’t need a bread plate or butter knife. If you’re serving soup as a starter then you need a bowl. Just keep things to a minimum and don’t clutter the table. The same goes for cutlery. If you are limited for space, fold them into your napkin. There are some great YouTube videos with simple demos on how to do this, but again, only use what is relevant to your meal. I tend to keep plates and glass ware more on the classic side, which works with almost every type of meal, but for seasonal touches you can use glasses that have a tad bit of silver or gold. Be careful not to go overboard with the holiday patterns, those will become limiting especially if at a later date you decide to host a summer soiree and your glasses are covered in snowflakes.


  • For those of us in Dubai, there are a lot of tailors and fabric stores. Just ensure you’ve got the right dimensions, and then once you’ve found a fabric that works, it’s really just a case of having it hemmed.
  • Keep your candle holders and vases neutral so that they can be reused, leaving the flowers and candles themselves to bring out the colour and theme.
  • Try and re-use things you already have. Trust me, you’ll find at least a few things that will look amazing as a centre piece, even if right now they only hold keys and coins.
  • Seasonal foliage can be a great way to enhance a festive theme, like pine cones or twigs.
  • Don’t clutter your table and don’t obsess over making every item match perfectly. As long as everything is complementary in colour and texture, you’ll be fine.

About Sophia Sheikh:


Obsessed with my surroundings and always on the lookout for unique objects, the Gypsy curse that I seem to have, has certainly worked well for this. I’ve moved many times, travelled a lot and love browsing stores, websites, and markets, searching for those things that stand out, make a statement and definitely start a conversation. I don’t like clutter, I adore simplicity yet still like bright, bold colours that make a splash. Bit of a mix really, some might say ‘MissMatched’.

Author: Nancy

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