As you can see, I finally threw out the dead flowers which had been gracing our dining room table. I couldn't take the state of the table any longer, so I knew it was time to change the linens. We eat dinner together as a family every night and nearly every night we eat in the dining room. We use real plates and glasses and cloth napkins. (Although J. jokingly accused me last night of letting us become yahoos [see Gulliver's Travels if you don't know the reference] since I suggested we not get out clean forks for dessert and just have the children lick-off their dinner forks.) Even the four year old gets a cloth napkin, though I will often give him a more indestructible type depending on what we're using.
I believe that making an effort to set a nice table communicates to one's family that the meal they are sitting down to is valuable and important. Not only because someone took the time and effort to prepare the food, but because sharing a meal together and in the process spending time together is important. There are some times when dinner is a hurried affair; when we eat in the kitchen and just throw food on the plates. When this happens it never feels quite right. While our stomachs are full we leave the table feeling as though we lacked something in the meal.
Setting a welcoming table that shows someone took the time to care about it is not the same thing as a fancy, elaborate table. Often our table is set with a cloth, coordinating napkins, and something in the center, often a candle or two. (I rarely use flowers, because, well, you know.) Over the years I have collected things that are fun to use as centerpieces, but I've also been known to rummage through the house to find things that would be fun on the table as well. We do have assigned seats at dinner, which I change around every so often. On the days when we have new seating arrangement I will use place cards so everyone knows where to sit. Some seats are considered "better" than others. (The side with three chairs is more highly valued than the side with four since there is more room.) There is inevitably either moaning or rejoicing from the masses as the new seats are discovered. By having assigned seats, there is no grumbling every night about who is sitting where and it allows us to reuse napkins since everyone is using the same napkin every night. (In the kitchen, where we use cloth napkins as well, everyone has a different napkin ring and the napkins live in a basket -- a trick I picked up from J.'s aunt.)
You also don't have to spend a lot on napkins and cloths; many of mine I picked up at garage and rummage sales. When you find something you like at a decent price, go ahead and buy it, don't worry about length. It has been years since I've had every day tablecloths which are long enough for my table with all the boards in. I use two at a time, either coordinating the colors or matching them. I also have to wash them less frequently. I take the top cloth off, move the bottom cloth to the other side and put a clean cloth over top of the dirty half of the bottom one. (Boy, that's a convoluted sentence. Does it make sense? Sort of the same idea as turning one's sheets in the days when laundry was a lot more work.) I've even used round cloths as one of the layers.
So, set your table and surprise your family. It takes just a small effort and it will help transform your dinner time into something a little more special.