Dishes. They’re one of the household items you use most, but probably think about the least. Most of us started our adult lives with a mismatched set of dishes handed down to us by a relative, or we bought a few pieces at a time, as we needed them. But at some point, you will want plates that match and enough of them to accommodate a dinner party.
How do you decide what to buy? Here are some things to consider so you can match your dishes to your life.
How much space do you have?
If you have a small kitchen, you’re not going to have storage space for enough dishes to serve a fancy dinner for 12. You probably won’t have room for a dozen dinner guests, either. Estimate your storage space and buy no more dishware than you need. TIP: Be sure to measure the size of the plates, too. Some are so large they won’t fit in a standard cabinet.
How many sets do you need?
If you have the space, two sets of dishes is ideal. Get a casual, affordable set made of sturdy material for everyday use, and a second set that’s fancier and pricier for special occasions.
How tough are you on your dishes?
Dishes run the gamut from sturdy, chip-and break-resistant material like melamine to bone china that’s thin and delicate. There are five basic types of materials for dishware:
1. Stoneware is a ceramic that’s durable and affordable enough to stand up to everyday use. It’s covered in a thicker glaze for a glossy finish, and it can be put in the microwave or dishwasher. Its only drawback is a tendency to crack with sudden temperature changes, so stick with low temperatures when using it in a microwave.
2. Bone china is a ceramic with cow-bone ash mixed into its clay before firing. The higher the bone-ash percentage, the better the china and the more you’ll pay for it. Better does not mean stronger, though. You’re paying for the gorgeous creamy color produced by the bone ash, not a sturdier dish. Bone china is fragile and needs to be washed and dried by hand. Some patterns include gold leaf and cannot be put in the microwave. Bone china is not for daily use. It’s that second set of dishes you only bring out for special occasions.
3. Porcelain looks similar to bone china but it’s stronger and more affordable. It is fired at a higher temperature, giving it a durable finish with a glassy quality. It comes in a variety of thicknesses, ranging from thin and delicate-looking to thick and hefty like the dishes used in many restaurants. It’s microwave- and dishwasher-safe.
4. Earthenware looks like handmade pottery. It has “crazing” in its glaze that creates a textured, artisan look. It’s affordable and can stand up to microwaves, dishwashers and daily use. Its drawbacks are it’s easier to scratch or chip than other materials, and like stoneware, it can crack with sudden temperature changes. Earthenware will last longer if you turn off the heated dry cycle on your dishwasher and let it dry naturally.
5. Plastics and tempered glass include melamine, a tough and nearly indestructible plastic, and several types of glass sold under brand names like Corelle® (made of a tempered glass laminated into layers) and Fire-King® (made of a durable glass similar to Pyrex®). All are chip-and break-resistant, affordable and dishwasher-and microwave-safe. They’re good for everyday use. Some people use these dishes as a third set for extremely casual dining, like supper on the patio, or as a set kids can use.
How many pieces do you need?
Even if you only have two or three people in your household, buy enough for a larger gathering. If you have a small kitchen with limited storage, buy enough dishware to serve six. If you have a larger kitchen with plenty of storage space, buy enough to serve 12.
As for what pieces to buy, a basic setting would include a dinner plate, a salad plate, a bowl, and a cup and saucer. If a cup and saucer is too formal for you, go with a mug. You’ll need one setting per person. There are two ways to buy dishes: as a set, which comes with a set number of 4-or 5-piece settings, or from open stock, where you pick pieces individually and assemble our own set of dishes. It’s usually cheaper to buy a set of dishes than to buy them separately but you may not need all of the pieces that come in a set.
If you want to go beyond the basics, add serving platters and bowls, a sugar bowl, butter dish, pitcher or teapot. Those are usually sold as open stock. Another benefit of open stock: You can mix and match colors and patterns into a casual set with pieces that are easy to replace. If you break a piece or three in a mixed set, you’ll have no trouble replacing them. You won’t have to buy the exact pattern or color, which can be tough if the dishes are out of stock or no longer being made.