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There is, I think, an art to setting the table so that a pauper’s dinner can feel like a prince’s feast.

My mother did it for every meal, something I took for granted until years later. Sharing a family dinner, according to experts, is good for the spirit, mind and physical health of all family members.

Make Every Meal Special

Set the table

Even if you’re having macaroni and cheese, or a meat-stretching casserole like Farmer’s Chicken, set the tableware properly. Forks, knives, spoons, glasses. We would come home from school at lunch time, with twenty minutes to gulp down our soup and sandwiches, and Mom would have the table completely set for us.

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Matching china is unnecessary

Mix and match thrift store – and/or heirloom pieces that you love.

Don’t stick Grandma’s china, if you’re lucky enough to have it, in the cupboard for special occasions. Make every day a special occasion.

Do, however, keep it out of little hands!

Of course, if what you have is Corelle (my favourite for their light weight and durability), then use that. But use the best you have as often as possible.

Recently, we broke another one of the blue Englishware dishes my mother passed along to me, leaving us with too few to serve the whole family.

I said to my children “I should probably get a new set of dishes.”

My youngest son replied with “Yes, and give Nanny back her dishes before you break them all.”


If you use napkins, make sure they are cloth.
cloth dinner napkins

If each person has their own napkin, it can usually be re-used several times, and they won’t add very much to your laundry. If you’ve ever dined in a restaurant that has cloth napkins, you know the difference that this eco-friendly touch makes. I’ve often seen cloth napkins priced at 4/$1 at the thrift store.


Use a pretty tablecloth or place mats.

This is not always possible if your household consists of small children, but if all family members can be trusted not to pull the lot off the table, it’s a wonderful touch.

Thrift stores often have pretty lace and linen tablecloths, and plenty of people give them away for free.

No boxes, bags or bottles

Do not serve anything in its original container, especially if that container was plastic.

Use a butter dish.

Place sliced bread on a plate.

Scoop some pickles out into a bowl.

Put water and ice in a glass pitcher.

condiment serving dishes

Really, though, isn’t this much prettier than the ketchup container?

Okay, I might draw the line at ketchup and other condiments, maybe. But Mom even took those out and put them in a pretty little condiment dish that she could wash regularly. The one she used was from Tupperware, and you can still find them in thrift stores.

Slow down

If the meal allows it, serve it in courses. Slow down! Most of eat far too quickly. Slow the meal down, eat it in courses, and take time to talk with each other.

Just one meal

Everyone should share the same food (except those who are ill or exclusively breastfeeding!). I like my mother’s rule that she made one meal but there was always plenty of butter and homemade bread. Even with allergies, I do my best to make only one meal. Perhaps only some people will have the bread, while others will have some rice crackers, but the main dish is almost always the same for everyone.



Haul out your candles – and your prettiest candlesticks, if you have any – and eat by candlelight. You’ll be making memories that your children will treasure.

Clear the table

Of course, this means keeping the table clear, which is my personal weakness! Like your bedroom should be a place for sleeping, the dining table should be a place for eating.

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Dress for dinner

The intention behind dressing for dinner was not to look fancy but to show respect and appreciation for the importance of both the meal and the people. (Much like the real reason for church!)

Dressing for dinner can mean changing out of sweaty work clothes, washing face and hands, putting on a clean shirt.

Remember what is important

The most important part of the meal is not on the plates but on the chairs.

Meal times should be courteous, and certain topics of conversation should simply not be allowed at the table. Politics and religion are traditionally taboo as they frequently start arguments, but each family needs to decide what should be off-limits.

Growing up, we were not permitted to discuss the news or argue about anything, but my father would tell us, in gory detail, exactly where dinner’s cut of meat had been on the animal.

I later learned that that was off-limits in most homes.

No electronics

No television.

No cell phones or other electronic devices.

No laptops, for heavens’ sake!

In some families, the ringer is turned off the telephone. My parents did not do that, but I distinctly remember my father saying “If it’s important enough, they’ll call back” when someone was rude enough to phone between 5 and 6.

Rules and rituals

Decide on specific rules and rituals for mealtime.

Growing up, no one ate until our father said grace. We do the same today, plus no one eats until everyone is sitting – including the cook. Another way to begin is with a toast – to the cook, to the food, to the guests – of “bon appétit”.

Invite guests

I know, this is a scary thought when money is tight. There will almost always be someone who has it as hard as – or worse than – you do. If I have a potato and you have a ham bone, we have soup.

What do you do – or try to do – to make mealtimes special?

Just Plain Living

The simplest meal can feel luxurious if a bit of time and attention is taken. Make every meal feel like a prince's feast.

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