How to Serve a Five-Course Meal

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Friends enjoying five-course dinner meal outside
Friends enjoying five-course dinner meal outside (Image: Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Serving a five-course meal successfully is a matter of timing. Astonishing your guests with a brilliantly laid table and one delectable offering after another comes down to what you serve in a given order and at a certain moment. Mastering the art of serving the five-course meal allows you to apply this "template" when serving any cuisine at any time of the year. Traditionally associated with formal dining, you can dress down any five-course meal with a rustic menu.

A Course in Simplicity

Soup, salad, an appetizer, an entree and dessert comprise a five-course meal. Five-course meals typically begin with light fare and grow progressively bolder in flavor and complexity. Aim to serve your guests courses that contain contrasting textures, temperatures, colors and flavors, such as a cold orzo appetizer, a bean soup with grated sharp cheese, game and seasoned vegetables, followed by salad and vinaigrette. Each course gets its own wine choice, but you don't have to serve a wine or champagne with dessert.

Timely and Discreet

Ensuring courses arrive at the table well-cooked and appetizing is challenging but doable. Every situation is different, and you'll have to tweak your scheduling according to your menu. Generally, steer clear of precision-timed foods for first courses, which means no souffles. Set out garnishes and plates for your second course before guests arrive. Begin baking, cooking or reheating the second course while you serve and eat the first course. Also, if your third course is an appetizer, reheat it now and dress it just before bringing it to the table. If you're reheating meat or serving tenderloin for a fourth course entree, get it started after serving the second course, and start cooking any entree side dishes, such as potatoes or rice. After the third course, begin reheating any pies or hot fruit desserts, or remove ice cream from your freezer for pie a la mode.

Honored Guests First

For very formal five-course meals, seat the lady of honor to the right of the host and the man of honor to the right of the hostess. Serve the honored guest first. Then commence serving the lady of honor, and move counterclockwise. In the absence of an honored guest, serve the most important female guest first.

The Best-Laid Plans

A basic rule for arranging plates and stemware is solids on your left and liquids on your right. "BMW," or "bread, meat and water," from left to right is another guideline. The entree plate takes center place, and the bread plate occupies the 11:00 position in relation to the entree plate. For flatware, it's forks to the left and knives and spoons to the right of the plate. The choice and placement of specific utensils indicates the planned courses. Earlier courses correspond to utensils placed farthest away from the plate. The diner then works her way from the outside in, toward the plate. Lay a small butter knife atop the bread plate if you're serving bread and butter. You may also lay an optional dessert fork or spoon above the dinner plate, fork pointing right and spoon pointing left.

Cin Cin: Stemware

For any multi-course meal place setting, all glasses go to the right of the dinner plate, roughly at 1:00 to 2:00. No rules exist as to how precisely to arrange the stemware, but your wine or champagne pairing determines the kind of stemware to use. Most people can distinguish a champagne flute from a wine glass, but not everyone knows a white from a red wine glass or a red from a sherry glass. If you're serving these wines and more in the same meal, place the stemware for earlier courses closest to the diner and stagger the remaining stemware counterclockwise. By clearing stemware between courses, you'll help guests deduce which glass to use next.

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