Metro-East Living

Here’s how to have a ‘very lovely’ tea party

Lemon, dill, cream cheese and cucumbers combine to make a classic tea sandwich.
Lemon, dill, cream cheese and cucumbers combine to make a classic tea sandwich.
Q. Having been recently married, I want to have a tea when my mother-in-law comes to visit this fall. I want to invite my mother, my two sisters, and two of my aunts and my sister-in-law. My teenage neighbor has agreed to serve because I don’t want to be hopping up and down to serve everyone. I want to make sure I do everything right, so if you would give me a little help with a couple of questions, please:
  1. I’m going to use a white linen tablecloth, but I don’t have eight white linen napkins, so I thought I would use a combination of some white and some pink (napkins) and alternate them because my dishes are pink. Will that be okay?

  2. I want to make two kinds of scones and make them small enough so that I can put eight of each on the serving tray that the server brings to each guest. I know they are finger food, but I should have some kind of small tongs for guests to use to take one from the tray, correct? Or should I have the server serve each guest?

  3. I’m planning on making clotted cream and will have little dishes with strawberry jam as well since one of the scones will be made with frozen strawberries. Do I also need to have the traditional lemon curd? I’ll also need little dishes for lemon slices, so do all these little dishes have to match? I have eight very little dessert bowls to match my china, and I have a couple of different sized little glass dishes. Should I have these little dishes on a serving tray for the server to bring to each guest, or can I have them sitting on the table? If so, how many sets should I have?

  4. Since my mother-in-law should be served first, should I have her sit at the head of the table?

  5. Should I have salt and pepper shakers on the table?

  6. Will four kinds of little sandwiches be enough or should I have five or six kinds?

  7. Do I need to make a decaf tea in addition to the regular tea?

  8. Can I use place cards since I don’t want any commotion when we sit down as to who sits where?

  9. Should my mom sit next to my mother-in-law or should she sit at the head of the other end of the table?

  10. After the server serves each course, I think I should have her refill the tray each time and bring it back to the table in case anyone wants more, correct?

  11. I want to have big strawberries on the tray with the scones. I should remove the stems, correct?

A. What a lovely idea to have an afternoon tea for your new mother-in-law when she comes to visit. It sounds like it is going to be very lovely. Here are my answers to your questions:
  1. Yes, alternating the pink and white napkins is fine. Just make sure they are the same size. You could add a small centerpiece of fresh flowers in white and pink to further accentuate the combination of colors.

  2. Since you have a server, I would have her serve the scones to each guest using a type of small silver tongs. She can serve the strawberries in the same manner.

  3. I do not think you need lemon curd since you will have clotted cream and strawberry jam. Mixing the little china bowls and little glass bowls should fine. I would not recommend the server serve these items. I would have them preset on your table. With eight guests, I would suggest four sets consisting of clotted cream, strawberry jam, and lemon slices in each set. If possible, all three little dishes in each set should match. I would also recommend presetting four cream and sugar sets. Sugar should be sugar lumps with tiny tongs, if possible, or if you do not have the tongs, then very small spoons. Small seafood forks can be used for the lemon slices if lemon forks are not available.

  4. As the hostess, you should sit at the head of the table, and your honored guest (your mother-in-law) should be seated on your right. She should still be served first.

  5. No salt and pepper shakers on a tea table.

  6. I would think a nice variety of four savories would be sufficient.

  7. Unless you know for certain all eight guests will want regular tea, I would have decaf available as well.

  8. Place cards are a very nice touch, and, yes, they preclude any commotion or confusion.

  9. Your mom should sit on your left because she is the next most-honored guest. From that seat, she will be able to carry on a conversation with your mother-in-law and feel more included in the event. Select a very interesting conversationalist to be seated to the right of your mother-in-law.

  10. Yes, after the server serves each course, she should return with two refilled serving trays since there are eight people at the table. Passing just one tray among eight guests would be too disruptive. Each tray should be removed prior to the next course.

  11. Do not remove the stems from the strawberries. They should be held by the stem to take each bite.

Another couple of hints: Make sure the teenage server is appropriately dressed; i.e., a black skirt (length to be at least to the knee) or black plants (not tights) and black flats. A white long-sleeved, button down the front blouse with a collar would be most appropriate. A little white apron would be very nice as well. No excessive jewelry, especially noisy bracelets, and no facial piercings. No strong perfume.

She should be instructed to serve each guest from the left side and refill beverages from the right. It would be very nice to introduce her after everyone is seated, but she should be instructed not to carry on a conversation with guests thereafter. If she needs to ask you a question, she should lean over and whisper her question into your ear without interrupting you while conversing with one of your guests. She should be instructed to periodically check to see if any guest needs a refill of tea or water.

I would suggest using four tea pots. Keep two as a backup. Devise a plan for making sure the tea in each pot stays hot.

Dianne Isbell is a local contributing writer. Send your etiquette questions to Dianne Isbell at Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to