When it comes to stocking our kitchens with dishes and flatware, most of us are doing things a little bit differently than our parents and grandparents might have back in their day. The practice of registering for a formal china pattern is practically extinct at this point—and we can’t say we’re sad about it. But we have to admit: We could use some guidance on the must-have dining and entertaining pieces every adult should own.
As etiquette expert Karen Cleveland reminds us, wedding registries—once the main source of a family’s dishes—have evolved with time: “Traditionally, the bride would build her registry with her mother and possible mother-in-law, [but] her spouse wouldn’t likely be involved,” she says. “The days of agonizing over a pattern of fine china are over, replaced by registries that are refreshingly practical.”
Plus, as Cleveland notes, “Not only do many couples already live together before they marry [and] need less, there’s also a movement towards filling our homes with items that we can use every day.” In other words, owning dishware that you only bring out during the holidays is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
But what, exactly, should we have instead? And how do you decide which items are a must and which are a must-be-nice? We turned to experts in etiquette, tablescapes, and more to figure out what the modern dining set should look like.
Meet the Expert
- Karen Cleveland is an etiquette expert and co-author of The New Wedding Book.
- Tanya Willock and Temidra Willock-Morsch are tablescape experts and owners of the Hamptons-based shop Hidden Gem.
- Libs Lewis is the owner of UK-based design store Domestic Science.
- Chef Sara Hauman appeared on Top Chef: Portland.
- David Kong is the founder of hand-blown glassware company Glasvin.
How to Pick Dishware and Flatware
Always Opt for Durability
When it comes to shopping for dishes, Cleveland suggests opting for “really lovely, albeit sturdy, dishware that can be used every day, but also dolled up for dinner parties and special occasions—like stoneware.”
“These items are durable and are dishwasher safe, but look really chic,” she says. “Neutral colors, like white or French gray, paired with oversized serving pieces look timeless and high-end.”
Tanya Willock and Temidra Willock-Morsch of Hidden Gem agree: “We like to go simple for our everyday pieces: dinner plate, salad plate, and a nice bowl for soups [or] cereal. For us, it’s best to have little to no design on our pieces, keeping them white—or a mixture of neutrals and colors makes them easy to add to a more formal setting as needed.”
Consider Mixing and Matching Carefully
If you prefer more of a mix-and-match aesthetic, Libs Lewis of Domestic Science says that there are a few things to consider. “The golden rule is to go with things that you will enjoy using. You’ve got to love them,” she says. “I like things that don’t necessarily match, but go for plates that are roughly the same size. Another tip: Go for plates and bowls with similar levels so they stack easily. Vintage cutlery is great but may not be dishwasher-proof, so that’s something to bear in mind.”
Other vintage finds might not do well in the dishwasher, either, Lewis warns us: “It’s practical for everyday plates, bowls, and flatware to be bought new. Vintage serving dishes, jugs, and glasses are all things that will really stand out and uplift a table setting, so mixing these with new items works well.”
If you’re OK with handwashing most items, then Lewis says the world is practically your oyster when it comes to sourcing your vintage kitchenware. “Start small and pick things up on your travels, don’t try and do it all at once,” she tells us. “If you see something that really makes your heart sing: Buy it!”
Calculate How Many Place Settings to Get
When shopping for your settings, don’t just consider what you’ll use on a daily basis—consider how many settings you’ll need when hosting your extended family and friends.
“When it comes to numbers for tableware, it’s personal to the individual,” say Willock and Willock-Morsch. “For us, we have 12-16 settings because we have a large family and love entertaining.”
But don’t just consider how many people you’re likely to have—consider how often you might have them over. “It is important to think of how much you entertain, and of your average guest count,” adds the Hidden Gem sisters. “If you are a four-person household and regularly host the holidays for 8-12 guests, we would suggest a 12-piece set, if storage allows. In contrast, a 2-person household might only need 8 additional settings."
"If you’re anything like us and love to mix and match, we combine our everyday dishes with our more fun/entertaining pieces to accommodate many guests,” they say.
Make a Replacement Plan
It’s an unfortunate fact that someway, somehow, something in your kitchen will break. Rather than panic, take this key tip from Chef Sara Hauman: “If matching plates, bowls, or flatware are important to you, consider the replaceability of each of these items before buying, as well as the ability to purchase single items as opposed to a set.”
Hauman’s top suggestion is to stick to simple white plates. “[They] will make your food pop more visually, and will give you more flexibility in mixing and matching different styles,” Hauman says. “Stay away from sets, and embrace the aesthetic of mismatched tableware basics.”
Willock and Willock-Morsch apply the same rule when shopping for flatware: “We look for the basics; we don’t like to get fancy with additional flatware pieces, and we don’t want to get too crazy with the designs. For us, simple is best, it makes it easier to blend in with any tablescape, and if the flatware gets lost or damaged, it’ll be easier to replace. Look for flatware that can be bought as individual pieces or single sets; replacing them is much more cost-effective and easy.”
Skip the Name Brands
If you want to do a mix-and-match set of all-white plates, Hauman has another bit of wisdom: “Try your local restaurant supply store to stock up your kitchen with essentials. These [pieces] are made to be used frequently and are often made of higher quality.”
Just know that if you’re planning to go this route for your dishware, you might need to buy in bulk—a pro or a con depending on how many settings you feel you need. “[If] you are buying dishes, glasses, and flatware, [these] generally come by the dozen,” Hauman says. “[But] anything from measuring cups and spoons to large cambro containers for food storage, as well as sponges, steel wool, and saute pans and sauce pots can be purchased at most restaurant supply stores.”
Remember That Size Matters
In-store, giant charger plates might look like a great idea, but it’s best to heed Hauman’s advice: “Consider the size of your dining table when purchasing basic dinnerware items. Oftentimes, large plates make it impossible to share a family-style meal comfortably.”
If you are going to take up space, then Hauman suggests focusing instead on your serving platters: Serving family-style is easier on the host and garners a big reaction when brought to the table.
Collect Must-Have Kitchen Tools
While most people know their basic must-haves for cooking, baking, and meal-prep, Hauman also gave us her must-have list of cooking accessories most people might not consider:
- Digital scale
- Offset spatulas
- Bowl and bench scrapers
- A good pair of chopsticks.
“Deli containers make my life way easier at home with meal prep,” adds Hauman. “I usually go for pints at my house and you can generally get a sleeve of fifty lids and fifty bottoms for about $10 at a restaurant supply store like cash&carry. These are also a great alternative to Tupperware containers. [They’re] incredibly stackable, lightweight, and can handle the dishwasher. [They’re also] microwaveable, recyclable, and a great way to send leftovers home with your guests.”
Barware Is Key, Too
David Kong of Glasvin says that when it comes to stocking your barware, there’s more than just stemware to consider. Don’t forget the elegant accent pieces, too!
“[A] decanter makes a sleek yet practical addition to any modern kitchen and barware set,” says Kong. “Perfect for a casual night in or a full-scale event, [a] decanter will aerate your wine to perfection and release the full potential of every bottle.”
Along with a decanter, selecting your wine glasses can be overwhelming. But Kong tells us that you don’t just have to narrow your search down by size or shape—you can also select based on the type of glass. “Hand-blown stemware is ultra-light and ultra-thin, creating an experience that brings you closer to your wine—literally,” says Kong. “And it doesn’t have to break the bank. I’d encourage anyone in the market for stemware to strongly consider buying hand-blown glasses as an elegant yet functional alternative to machine-made glass. You won’t be sorry.”
Kong is also here to settle a key debate once and for all: Are champagne flutes or coupes better? “Flutes are best because of their slender shape, which promotes the joyful circulation of bubbles inside the glass,” says Kong. “The coupe, while more nostalgic in its silhouette, has a wider bowl which encourages the bubbles to dissipate more quickly.”
Pull Colors in With Linen and Accent Pieces
A table full of white plates might not excite you, so Willock and Willock-Morsch advise pulling in color through other elements.
“Since we love entertaining, we like to go all out,” they say. “We’ll always have a table runner on our everyday table set up—an excellent casual alternative to a full tablecloth. Other pieces we suggest are candleholders and candles, salt and pepper shakers, and a serving centerpiece which could be anything from a large platter to a fruit bowl.”
“This is a good makeup for an everyday table,” advise the sisters. “With these table essentials, it’s easy to go from every day to a more formal or entertaining setting. Just add a tablecloth underneath the table runner to create more dimension. The platter or fruit bowl can easily be used for your main serving dish. Add some linen napkins and placemats and you’re ready for your next dinner party.”