Picture-perfect table setting ideas

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Ideas for making picture-perfect table settings that are within the reach of any party host.

It’s your holiday party and you want everything perfect. That means agonizing over the menu (or the caterer!), finding the right wines and, for that extra flair, choosing the perfect table setting. The problem is that finding the right centerpiece, candles, napkins and placemats can feel less important when compared to everything that has to happen for a party. However, if you find the right table setting, it will add a bit of extra magic to your get-together and make it that much more special.

If you’re ready to give a picture-perfect table setting a try, here are some ideas to get you started. Use these ideas however you like, though keep in mind that parties are stressful enough, and play to your strengths. If you’re not crafty, don’t try to make these settings yourself. If you are, then feel free to create these ideas on your own. The most important thing is to use the ideas you like so that your party is as amazing as you want it to be.

Halloween parties

Halloween parties are some of the easiest holiday parties with a theme. The colors of Halloween are fairly standard (orange and black) and thematically you have a fair number of options to choose from (jack-o’-lanterns, ghosts, spiders, cobwebs, etc.). If anything, the biggest danger of a Halloween party is overdoing it. Yes, witches and skeletons and creepy eyeballs are fun -- they are not, however, pleasant to look at while eating and should stay away from your table.

Centerpiece ideas: Jack-o’-lanterns (preferably from real pumpkins with candles in them), tasteful "spooky" settings like tombstones, a large cauldron with individually wrapped pre-meal snacks, Gothic-looking goblets, clear glass bowls filled with black and orange beads or jellybeans, with candles in them

Setting ideas: Keep the orange and black theme going: black placemats, orange plates and black napkins, with jack-o’-lantern or ghost napkin rings. Use real silver, though, and avoid silverware that has Halloween ends unless you are going for a purposefully casual vibe.

Finishing touches: If you assign places, put everyone’s name on a tombstone at their place (or give the guys tombstones and the girls witches hats), give out little party favors of candy at the end or give everyone who comes to the party Zorro-like eye masks to make it a "costume" party.

Thanksgiving parties

Thanksgiving parties are, in many ways, the exact opposite of Halloween parties in terms of their potential pitfalls. With Halloween parties, there’s a tendency to do too many spiders and goblins and creepy effects. Thanksgiving is a far more sedate holiday that dresses itself up in browns and dark oranges. Really, the challenge with Thanksgiving is how you breathe life into your party without moving away from the themes of family togetherness and appreciation.

Centerpiece ideas: Sometimes having a nice, perfectly cooked turkey is the best centerpiece anyone can ask for. That said, harvest themes work well at Thanksgiving. Use nature’s colors to build a cornucopia of greens, oranges, whites and reds. Place that cornucopia in the middle of the table in a wicker basket and surround it with scentless candles that match the cornucopia.

Setting ideas: The setting is the one time you should use dark colors to your advantage. Set a brown or black plate on a harvest-colored placemat and use a neutral-color napkin. The darker shade of the plate will contrast well with the food, making it more appealing to the eye. Use the good silver and nice glasses if you can. If you are serving appetizers or finger foods before the party, feel free to bring out the turkey plates, silly napkins and plastic cups. That way you can have your fun and your traditional touches, too.

Finishing touches: Avoid dressing your house in browns for Thanksgiving. Instead, think ofAmerica’s heritage and decorate in touches from yesteryear: straw and hay (or reasonable, less messy facsimiles thereof), harvest implements and produce, etc. In fact, the nice thing about Thanksgiving decorating is that often any pumpkins you didn’t use at Halloween can be decorations on Turkey Day. Oh, and there’s no better Thanksgiving party favor than leftovers, so buy some plasticware and let your friends take food home.

Christmas parties

Of all the traditionally "family" holidays, Christmas and the Fourth of July are the two with the fewest rules. In fact, Christmas is supposed to be a time of cheer and laughter and its bright red, green and white colors lend themselves to that. Even better, in this day and age, anything that you might be into (from Mickey Mouse to NASCAR to Star Trek) has a Christmas form. With this holiday, have fun with the decorations and really express yourself.

Centerpiece ideas: Like Halloween, individually wrapped "gifts" of candy or nuts in a festive bowl make a great centerpiece. Green and red candles are also nice if you are going for a more formal look. Other ideas include wrapping a few empty boxes with festive wrapping paper or trying a nature-inspired setting with pine cones and branches.

Setting ideas: It’s your party -- you can pretty much do what you want. Again, whatever your hobby is, indulge it! It’s Christmas and if you love something, go with it. If you want something more formal, green and red are the traditional colors of the season. Be aware that green plates are hard to make attractive, however, so try to find some red plates and set them on elegant, satiny green placemats; match red or green napkins with them. Pine cones and chubby Santas can be napkin rings for formal and informal parties, respectively.

Finishing touches: Lights are the standby and they work just fine, but as odd as it sounds, if done right, tinsel can look really nice. A few elegant streams can add a little ambiance to a party. On the other hand, too much can look really 1970s and not in a kitschy, vintage way. Leaving wrapped "present" boxes around the house (they can be empty) can add a nice touch -- but can also disappoint children, so consider who is on your guest list. Popcorn streamers, an old-fashioned favorite, add a nice, homey touch if that's your goal.

Finally -- again -- don’t stress about it. Go with what you love and decorate with that. Now that you have some ideas, it’s time to decorate. Good luck and happy holidays!