Once these three basic elements are in place, then it's time to accessorize with plates, glassware, silver, centerpieces, napkins and more. But just like putting together an outfit, there is such a thing as too much.
Here are my top 10 decor-taining tips to keep your table in check:
1. Set your table one to two nights early. This also means getting out all of the serving pieces you need. I like to put sticky notes on each platter and bowl so I know what goes where.
2. Have an extra folding table and some folding chairs on hand in case your guest list grows. I ordered the Folding Party Table ($159) and tablecloth (I like the simple burlap one because it goes with everything and works for every season: $90) and the Louis Folding Chairs ($99 each) from Ballard Designs (ballarddesigns.com). They are comfortable and stylish — it's hard to believe they are folding chairs.
3. Take the time to arrange your seating plan beforehand to avoid confusion or awkward seating arrangements.
4. Keep your centerpiece low enough so that when you sit at the table you can see the person across from you. Centerpieces don't have to be million-dollar bouquets. Keep them inexpensive, simple and long-lasting. Ideas: Fill a bowl or glass compote with clementines (available at this time of year at just about any grocery store). Not only will the citrus fruit last more than a week, but they also can become part of the meal. Group several similar-colored vases and vessels in different shapes and sizes to make a sculptural centerpiece. Cut any single variety of flowers or leaves and mass them together in a vase. My preference is to stick to one variety and color of flower and always buy three times more than you think you need. Two of my favorites: carnations and magnolia leaves.