How to Plan a Tablescape for Your Party or Gathering

Book: The Gift of GatheringEditor’s note: This excerpt is adapted from “The Gift of Gathering: Beautiful Tablescapes to Welcome & Celebrate Your Friends and Family” by Bre Doucette, published by Harvest House Publishers. Reprinted with permission.

Your table is your foundation. Whether it’s a picnic table, a card table in an apple orchard, a breakfast bar or a farmhouse table like mine, it’s the blank canvas that is ready for your creative touches to make every gathering unique. No two gatherings are ever the same; however, we use basic elements to prepare tables for guests to feast on.

The fun begins the minute you start planning. So let’s go to that happy place.


Start with the information found on a typical event invitation. This is your research stage of planning. Figure out who you are inviting, followed by the where, when and why you’re gathering. Is it a “just because” get-together or a celebration of a holiday, birthday, life event, etc.? This info helps you brainstorm and become excited about the plans.

Let me back up a second. I should first let you know that I’m a habitual procrastinator. I learned the hard way that planning is my friend and not some mean taskmaster. Planning will be your friend too.

When the stress kicks in, and we’re fretting over a missing plate or hollering orders to our family, we can refocus on why we’re doing this and who we’re doing this for. It’s not about us. Sure, we’re incorporating pieces we love, but ultimately we’re creating a welcoming space for them.

The Gift of GatheringWhen we make it about something it’s not, we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves and turn into an unhappy, harried host who no one feels welcomed by. I’ve been that person. And then I learned to give myself plenty of time to get ready and prepare for my gathering.

I’ll never forget the very first time I was ready before our guests arrived. I kept checking the front window to see if anyone was approaching and then running back to my table to see if I had forgotten anything. Finally, my husband told me to sit and wait for our company to come.

After a few minutes, I let out a deep sigh of relief and said, “So this is what being ready on time feels like?” We laughed because we both had comedic images in our minds of the days when I would run around the house, desperately rounding up items for the place settings, wiping smudges off plates with a towel, tidying up (aka shoving miscellaneous items into drawers) or any number of actions I could have done hours or days before.

I hadn’t appreciated the joyful benefits of planning until that day. I was a convert the moment I opened the door to the first guest and welcomed them with a sense of peace and a mind focused only on them. Not focused on last-minute details or on a false notion of perfection.

Once you know the who, where, when and why, you can start imagining and planning the look and feel for your occasion. The three creative aspects of the planning puzzle are mood, inspiration and color.

Simple Planning Timeline

Three days before:

  • Plan out your meal.
  • Do any deep cleaning that needs to be done.
  • Purchase any pieces you might be wishing to incorporate on your table, such as new table linens or stemware.

Two days before:

  • Pull out the items you intend to use on your table. Plates, silverware, candlesticks, other tablescape elements. This is particularly important for any items you don’t use daily.

One day before:

  • For a formal or more elaborate gathering, if you can, set the table in advance. By not waiting until the day of the gathering, you will have more time to focus on the food and any last-minute cleaning.
  • Prepare any food that can be made the day before.

Day of:

  • Get any food prep out of the way first thing in the morning. That way when you begin to cook, you’re not losing time dicing vegetables or slicing cheese.
  • Do one more surface cleaning to catch anything that may have shown up after the earlier deep cleaning.

Two hours before:

  • Make sure you’re ready! There’s nothing like being caught still in your sweats.
  • Begin cooking. I try to time foods so they are done about 20 minutes after guests have arrived. This gives me time to catch up with guests and pour drinks.

Twenty minutes before:

  • Light candles and turn on some music. There’s nothing like creating an atmosphere that contributes to the overall feel of getting together.
  • Relax. Say a prayer. Think about the gift of gathering.

Setting the Mood

We can set the mood we want by how we set the table. Every basic element has a purpose, and every special touch adds to the ambiance and overall experience as well. A word or two might be enough to get your idea wheels turning.

Don’t overthink this. Just ask yourself how you want the gathering to feel. What mood would you love to evoke in your guests?

The Gift of GatheringSome of the many choices include:

  • Light
  • Casual
  • Lively
  • Serene
  • Joyful
  • Childlike
  • Happy
  • Cozy
  • Low-key
  • Intimate
  • Reflective
  • Romantic
  • Grown-up
  • Formal
  • Fun
  • Whimsical
  • Laid-back
  • Celebratory
  • Festive
  • Elegant
  • Playful

I use the term “mood” a bit loosely. It’s the vibe your table will inspire. All I know is that asking myself about the mood I want to create often leads me to the best ideas.


When I’m creating a tablescape, I have some truths I’m working with. The decor will be up for only a brief time, and my canvas is only as big as the boundaries of the table, giving me a certain amount of space to let my creative mind run wild.

These aren’t limitations; they become our invitations to play within those time and space parameters. You really can’t make mistakes, and a tablescape isn’t forever. It’s the offering of a moment, an experience for the people we love.

My ideas start blooming at this point because I know who is coming and why we’re gathering. I know the mood I’m going for. Now I identify my inspiration for the particular tablescape so I stay on track.

It can be easy to either get carried away with too many additions or get stuck on exactly what to add. Sticking to a theme and an inspired concept will help. Making a list of some key elements you want to incorporate is a great way to remember the look and feel you are going for.

Maybe you’re inspired by an era, like the art deco of the ’20s or a home style like country cottage. Inspiration for a gathering might come from a trip you took to Italy or a dinner you had at a chic restaurant.

Did an online or magazine photo of a table setting stick with you? Or maybe the view from your porch is all the inspiration you need? I love movies, so I will often have a clear freeze-frame image and mood of a scene I want to personalize in my tablescape’s style, presentation and colors. Sources of inspiration are endless. We’re so lucky.

Choosing the Color Palette

Motivated by the mood and inspiration, I then begin to dream in color. Often, I am taking cues and borrowing hues from nature because every season of the year presents its own shades of beauty.

Wouldn’t you say that taking design and decor suggestions from God’s creation is a very good plan? And a very good reason why you and I might be compelled to send out those invites and celebrate the show creation is putting on.

It simplifies planning so much to choose colors to suit the mood you’re going for and the spirit of the season. For example, in spring, I’m going for light and cool tones. If it’s fall, I want warm, rich colors.

My best advice is to choose and stick with three colors for a pleasing and cohesive table decor. This could include one color in three different shades or three different colors repeated throughout the table.

A practical example is when I use fresh flowers. I like to have the main flowers coordinate with other colors on the table, whether it’s in the dishes or napkins I use. The thread of only three colors keeps things from looking too busy and will help you decide which plates, glasses and other elements to use.

Décor Essentials

Here are my absolute favorite go-to items. On their own, this decor dozen can be all you need. However, they are also easy to add to or mix with other tablescape treasures. With these on hand, you will create lovely tables for years to come.

  • White plates
  • Gray plates
  • Antique silverware
  • Linen napkins
  • Mercury glass votives
  • Vintage glasses
  • Cake stands
  • Woven chargers
  • Oatmeal linen tablecloth
  • Candlesticks
  • Wood cutting boards
  • Twine or ribbon (to tie around napkins)

About The Author

Bre Doucette grew up loving to decorate homes. Her own is an 1846 farmhouse in New England that she shares with her youth-group sweetheart, her two kids, one dog and 12 chickens. Bre welcomes others into her home through her blog, Rooms for Rent. Her book, “The Gift of Gathering: Beautiful Tablescapes to Welcome & Celebrate Your Friends and Family,” offers casual to elegant gathering ideas for your table, along with tablescape techniques.