Once you've confirmed the number of guests and finalized the courses they'll be served, take the time to plan the table setting. Several days before the meal, inventory the plates, flatware, glassware and serving pieces you'll need. Then, whether you'll be serving the meal family-style or from a buffet table, arrange the empty platters and bowls on the table to make sure everything will fit. And be sure to allow space for wine bottles, carafes or an ice bucket. If you've invited more guests than usual or added side dishes to your customary menu, this may be the time to add to your collection of tableware or replace older pieces.
Feel free to assign seats in advance, giving thought to which arrangements will spark the most enjoyable conversation. Seating can be designated with place cards on the plates or in special holders. Setting a sprig of fragrant rosemary, the traditional token of love and remembrance, on each napkin is also a wonderful gesture of welcome.
The cloths that protect a tabletop can create a harmonious background for everything on it. If you plan to use place mats with trivets and a runner, give the tabletop a good polishing. Having the tablecloth and napkins laundered and pressed well in advance will allow you to concentrate on cooking the meal and decorating the table.
Once the table is ladened with beautiful food and dinnerware, you may wonder if there's a need (or space enough) for decorations. Flowers and candles always make lovely centerpieces, so long as they allow for eye contact among your guests.
As a space-saving alternative, Peri Wolfman, coauthor of Great Settings, suggests substituting pillar candles for tall tapers and displaying colorful seasonal produce instead of flowers. The pillar candles can be placed in saucers down the center of a long table, interspersed with tawny pears, persimmons, pomegranates or tiny gourds from a farmers' market. And whatever decorations you choose, be sure to include objects of varying sizes for greater visual interest.