Hosting a fall dinner party? We got some autumn entertaining tips from an expert and scoured the web for our favorite fall dinnerware and table linens—so you can pull off a festive fall get-together without stressing out about it. And yes, there are ideas about what food to serve too.
A delicious meal is the most important aspect for obvious reasons (well, besides the company and camaraderie), but a beautiful, seasonally decorated dinner table sets the vibe for the evening—and a few thoughtful touches can make whatever you’re serving seem even more special.
So invite a few friends or family members over some fall night, and surprise them with your gorgeous table. But don’t go too crazy here. Hold off shelling out your dough on some Waterford crystal (by all means, put it on your Christmas list if you’re feeling lucky). Coordinate a few key pieces to keep it autumnal and extend that attention to the food as well, and you’ll have an evening to remember.
“Entertaining should be fun—for the host and the guests,” says Jenny Steffens Hobick on her blog, jennysteffens.com. She’s a home entertaining and lifestyle expert and owner of The Everyday Occasions Shop. Elaborate, expensive decor and fancy food aren’t necessarily guarantees of a better time for all, she says.
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If you’re running around the kitchen and too busy to spend time with your guests, it can feel awkward for them. Guests can feel pressured to alleviate your stress. And if your table is too fussy, it can be intimidating, not inviting. A great party is whatever is easy for both the host and guests.
“I always recommend to entertain in a style that is well-suited to your personality,” Hobick says. “Don’t try to be a June Cleaver if you are clearly a Lucille Ball. Go with what feels good to you. If that is burgers on the grill or a make-it-yourself pizza party, perfect!”
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To start, choose one table component you absolutely love: a centerpiece idea, your new dishes, or a great piece of table linen. Showcase that part, and let the rest of your table support it. Decide which element of your table setting is going to be the bold, colorful, focal point so that you know to keep the rest of it in solid, neutral, muted tones, setting the background for that attention-getting focal point.
Full-on tablecloths seem too formal and stuffy these days, but place mats can be kitschy. Find a happy medium with a table runner.
If you plan to incorporate other colorful elements, you can improvise your own runner with some neutral burlap, brown kraft paper, or a drapery panel folded in half, as Hobick suggests.
Or buy something like this understated pinstripe linen table runner. It will go with anything. Ditto this wheat-and-white ombre woven table runner that almost has a metallic effect yet still counts as a neutral.
If your table runner is going to be your bold statement of the table, you could opt for one like this embroidered runner with autumnal colors, something with a more geometric pattern, leaf-inspired stripes, or even a solid swatch of bright red or orange felt to keep it simple but vibrant.
Also, invest in a set of cloth napkins in a neutral, pattern, or bold solid color. These 100 percent linen napkins come in several gorgeous shades, including fall’s burnt orange, deep crimson, and mellow gold, and they’re super soft.
The cloth napkins you choose don’t have to be expensive, yet they’ll really class up the joint.
This should possibly be rule No. 1. In the way that location, location, location matters in real estate, in home entertaining, that repeatable rule would be lighting, lighting, lighting. As in mood lighting. Flattering lighting. Super bright, cool-toned, sterile light, especially from fluorescent bulbs, is just so clinical and institutional. You want to make guests feel all warm and cozy, not awkward and self-conscious.
Twinkly lights are always nice if you can wrap them around some twigs in your centerpiece or pile them in clear glass jars.
But candles. That’s where it’s at. Do low-lying, wide tea candles, or tall, skinny candles so they don’t block people from seeing each other across the table.
And LED candles are totally fine, as you can get realistic flickering light from them these days—without having to deal with smoke, smells, open flames, or dripping wax.
If you want to show your autumn spirit in other ways on the table and go with a modern candle holder, geometric designs look great, such as these gold polyhedron candle holders, which can be used for any season. You can also add a couple lanterns in addition to shorter vessels for more visual interest.
If you want to stay more fully on fall theme, turn some mini pumpkins or gourds into candle holders:
Or buy metal candle holders in the same shapes.
You may not use these pieces every day, but you’ll definitely want them when you’re entertaining. You can always ladle out the food for each plate straight from the pot on the stovetop or the dish in the oven, but sometimes that doesn’t cut it.
But you’ll likely need some other pieces too. Like when you’re serving salad, a nice wooden bowl is not only useful but extra attractive. These kinds of bowls typically require hand-washing, so do pay attention to care instructions (and pick something dishwasher safe if you don’t like dishpan hands).
You’ll love having a nice serving platter showpiece, one that reads “special occasion” but that you can use year-round, like this handmade piece on Etsy. It’s gorgeous but not flashy, and you can coordinate it with almost any color scheme.
If you’re looking for new plates and bowls, consider embracing wabi sabi and pick a set with charmingly irregular edges.
Autumn is when you start craving soup, stews, and chili again (goodbye, gazpacho!), so you’ll need some good bowls, one for each guest at the table. These ceramic bowls in muted earth tones are perfect for autumn, but if you prefer less color, this set of white bowls plays with interesting textures. Or go for a classy set of small marble bowls with double handles if you approve of sipping soup.
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Include something alive in the middle of your table: Seasonal plants, flowers, produce, herbs, or even twigs. For fall, it could be autumn leaves, gourds of various sizes and colors, or glasses full of whole nutmeg and cinnamon sticks with candles in the middle of each one, unified by a stretch of branches.
Related Reading: Creative Ways to Decorate with Pumpkins for Fall
You can arrange elements on a low platter, or make or buy something like this fall-themed burlap-Mason-jar set, and place some seasonal flowers or herbs in each jar. Just keep them on the lower side so your guests can all see each other across the table.
The food doesn’t need to be fussy—here’s a sample menu that you can tweak to please nearly everyone:
A plainer pumpkin soup is great, and butternut squash is also beautiful, but for something a little out of the ordinary, try this vegetarian recipe from “The Staub Cookbook.” Miso adds umami depth to a smooth blend of pumpkin, sweet potato, and vegetable stock, and the sweet-salty brittle is a great crunchy contrast. If you have a pumpkin cocotte, this is the perfect time to bring it to the table. If you don’t, the soup still tastes amazing. Get the Miso Pumpkin Soup recipe.
For a meaty main course, pork tenderloin is elegant yet easy and cooks quickly too. It also pairs perfectly with autumn pears and figs. Make two or more tenderloins for a larger group and increase the amount of fruit and spices accordingly. Serve with simple garlic mashed potatoes or creamy mashed cauliflower, and roasted Brussels sprouts. Get our Easy Roasted Pork Tenderloin recipe.
This creamy gratin is a nice change from the usual potatoes, and it works as a side dish for the pork (or for roast chicken or even steak), or can serve as a vegetarian main course. The tender layers of celery root and butternut squash are capped with a crisp breadcrumb and walnut topping flavored with fresh thyme. Need to make it vegan? Swap in coconut or cashew cream and vegan butter. Need to make it gluten-free? Use crushed Rice Chex instead of the panko. Get our Celery Root and Squash Gratin with Walnut Streusel recipe.
Fall salads can be hearty and filling and even rather moody (all those dark cranberries, chewy grains, and bitter greens)—or just as crisp and refreshing as any summer salad, which is what you want if the rest of your courses are fairly rich. This simple butter lettuce salad with toasted pumpkin seeds and a roasted garlic-apple juice vinaigrette is a perfect example of the form that still nods to this autumn season. It cleanses the palate between bites of pork and/or gratin, and lifts up all the other flavors. Get our Butter Lettuce and Pumpkin Seed Salad recipe.
Fall desserts run the gamut from light, spiced poached pears to dark chocolate and caramel confections, but since apples are in season, why not pick one of those? Our easy apple crisp is classic, comforting, and totally delicious with its cinnamon oatmeal streusel topping. You must top it off with either fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. It’s incomplete without it. Feel free to add a little vanilla to the sugar, cinnamon, and apple mixture before baking too. Get our Oatmeal Apple Crisp recipe.
Check out some more of our favorite fall eats for other ideas:
And take a look at our favorite new entertaining cookbooks for fall for even more inspiration.
This story was written by Amy Sowder on September 18, 2016 and updated by Jen Wheeler on October 4, 2019.