You’ve spent the entire day cooking the perfect holiday feast. But it’s an hour before your guests arrive and you find yourself standing in front of the table, listening to a little nagging voice in your head.

Does the knife go on the left, fork on the right, or is it the other way around? Is that centerpiece too tall? Should I go ahead and put food on table before guests arrive or do I wait until everyone gets here?

If you can’t answer those questions, don’t feel alone. In today’s eat-on-the-run world, you’re not the only one to flunk holiday etiquette.

“Table manners have become a lost art,” says etiquette expert Jill Slatter. “Think back 15 or 20 years ago, families gathered every evening for a proper meal. But these days we’re all stretched so thin juggling work, school and home, most folks don’t have time to sit down together, so when holidays roll around no one’s sure what to do at a formal meal.”

Slatter is an etiquette coach at the Greensboro, N.C.-based Replacements, Ltd., touted as the world’s largest supplier of old and new china, silver, crystal and collectibles. Gay-owned and consistently named one of the most gay-friendly businesses in the Carolinas, the company is bombarded with questions this time of year from folks looking for a crash course in proper manners and table settings. Based on the most frequently asked questions, Slatter offers this quick holiday etiquette 101 to give you insight that will dazzle your guests.

Set the perfect table

• Forks to the left, knives and spoons to the right. Only set out utensils that will be used for various courses. “If you’re not serving soup or salad, you certainly don’t want an extra spoon or fork in your place setting,” Slatter says. “Not only will those get in the way, the extra utensils may confuse your guests.”
• The bread plate goes on the left of the dinner plate, glasses on the right.
• Wait to pour. Water glasses should be the only glasses filled before your guests arrive. Iced tea, wine and other beverages should be poured once everyone is seated. Wine should be filled halfway, not to the rim.
• Salad and bread should be the only food on the table when your guests arrive.
• Courses are generally served in the following order in the United States: appetizer, soup, salad, main course, dessert.

Are you the hostess with the mostest?

• Remember, the hostess always sits last.
• Unscented candles are a great part of holiday decor, but should only be lit during the evening. “Another thing to keep in mind, flickering candles are more than a distraction, those can cause headaches,” warns Slatter. “That’s why you never want to place burning candles directly in front of your guest and make sure you situate the flame below eye level.”
• Centerpiece too tall? Sure those flowers you spent hours arranging are pretty, but will only get in the way if your guests have to crane their necks to look at each other. Make sure your guests can see over any table adornments.
• Passing isn’t just in football. Always pass food around the table counter clockwise to the right and refrain from serving yourself first. Always pass the salt and pepper as a set, even if you’re only asked for one.

Be a gracious guest

• Avoid the smear. Female guests should blot their lips before sitting down at the table. This will keep you from getting lipstick stains on linen napkins or glassware.
• Wait for the signal. Your host will let you know when it’s okay to begin eating. They may make a prayer or statement or start by passing a dish.
• If you’re not sure which utensil to use with each course, start on the outside and work in toward the plate.
• If you need to excuse yourself temporarily, gently place your napkin in your chair.
• Signify you’re finished with the meal by placing napkin to the left of the dinner plate and your fork and knife side by side diagonally across your plate with the sharp side of the knife blade facing inward and the fork tines down.

“One of the most panicked questions we hear concerns what to do if you accidently break a piece of the host’s dinnerware,” adds Slatter. “You should certainly offer to replace the broken piece especially if it has sentimental value for the host or hostess.”

Slatter says don’t lose hope if your host doesn’t know the name of the pattern or the manufacturer — you can always take advantage of Replacements’ free pattern identification service.

If you’re still in doubt about holiday etiquette 101, a cheat sheet is just a mouse click away. You can find place setting guides outlining the correct layout for all meals at, under the site’s “neat things” tab. With these tips in mind, you’re sure to throw the perfect gathering.