How to Change a Formal Dining Room to a Relaxed Eating Area


A formal dining room may be the least used room in your home. Fine for gathering family and friends for a holiday feast, it probably sits empty much of the time. Formal dining rooms often feel stuffy, making them uninviting for casual family meals. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. With a few changes, your family will enjoy catching up in a more informal setting.


  • Tables and chairs, buffets and hutches in highly polished woods such as mahogany and cherry are popular in formal dining rooms. The table holds court in the center of the room, while the other pieces line the walls, their shelves weighted down with displays of china and crystal. Often dressed with linen or lace tablecloths, the table is not the ideal spot to serve a family dinner that might include spills from foods and beverages that stain.

    Switching out the existing furniture for more casual pieces with easy-to-clean surfaces and finishes that can stand up to daily use is one way to go, but if your budget won’t stretch that far, you still have options.

    Put away the formal tablecloth for one that goes from washer to dryer to table without ironing. One in red checks gives the room a country feel, while a floral design creates a shabby-chic or English cottage mood. Play down the chairs’ formal vibe by changing out the seat coverings with simple fabrics such as ticking stripes or plaids. Choose a color that complements the table linens. Put away the formal china and crystal and display more informal items. Baskets, crocks and wooden boxes can also act as storage. Creating a library when you repurpose a hutch or china cabinet as a bookcase adds warmth to the room.

Walls and WIndows

  • Formal dining room walls are often painted in dark hues and may have architectural features such as wainscoting and crown molding finished in dark stains. Removing paneling and molding may not be cost-effective, but paint is. Choose colors that encourage an informal, inviting mood. Shades of white allow the room’s other elements to stand out. Pastel hues are restful, while neutral shades such as beige and gray complement any decor style. Banish formal window treatments in favor of floaty sheers or simple Roman or matchstick shades.


  • Chandeliers are the order of the day in a formal dining room and may add an eclectic touch to more casual space, but if mixing styles is not your thing, consider alternatives. Switch out the chandelier in favor of a more casual fixture. A lamp with a metal shade that looks like it came from a factory adds an industrial feel, while pendant lights fashioned from mason jars give the room a primitive vibe. Overhead lighting is not your only option. Situating floor lamps near the table illuminates it and the immediate area, and table lamps placed on a sideboard create ambient light.


  • A formal dining room is often anchored with Oriental area rugs not conducive to a casual family dining spot. Often quite costly, this type of rug should be professionally cleaned, making it a poor choice in an informal area where food and drink may be spilled, pets are probably welcome and shoes track in dirt. Replace it with a more casual, easy-care area rug. Natural fibers such as cotton and sisal give the space a laid-back feel. Or leave the floor bare for a more streamlined look.

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