What is Involved in a Seven Course Dinner?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A seven course dinner is a formal dinner with seven food courses, usually broken up by palate cleansers. It may take four to six hours to completely finish such a dinner, and even longer for those with more courses, such as a 21 course dinner. During the course of the dinner, diners are offered small plates of a wide variety of dishes which complement each other gastronomically. It is typical for those attending to be served by household or restaurant staff.

Salad is believed to aid in digestion.
Salad is believed to aid in digestion.

Typically, when a fancy dinner such as a seven course dinner is served in a private home, it begins with an aperitif, a cocktail hour in a lounge where guests sip light drinks and consume small appetizers. When everyone is seated, the dinner begins with an appetizer course. There may be several appetizer courses, including hot and cold appetizers, usually followed by a neutral palate cleanser to prepare the tongue for the next course.

A palate cleanser is served in between courses.
A palate cleanser is served in between courses.

At some dinners, the salad course is served after the meal, because this is believed to aid the digestion. In other situations, the salad course will be at the beginning, with the appetizers and the soup. Typically, guests at a seven course dinner will be offered a choice of thick or clear soup with the soup course, before a break is taken to consume sorbet or a similar palate cleanser.

Cognac is often served as a digestif at the end of a multi-course dinner.
Cognac is often served as a digestif at the end of a multi-course dinner.

There are sometimes several main courses in a formal dinner. Fish is usually served on its own, before the meat courses, and guests may be offered poultry, beef, or lamb as a main meat course. Some dinners also serve one or more separate vegetable courses, which can act as palate cleansers themselves, to relieve the weightiness of the flesh courses. In general, the food gets heavier as the dinner progresses.

Formal attire may be required for a formal dinner.
Formal attire may be required for a formal dinner.

No formal dinner would be complete without dessert, which is usually preceded by a palate cleanser such as lemon ice. Dessert choices at a seven course dinner might include a cheese plate, a fruit plate, crème brulee, or a cake course. Desserts are often quite elaborately arranged, and can be decorated with edible flowers, chocolate sculptures, and other edible ornamental accents to draw the eye of the guests. After dessert, strong liquors such as brandy and fortified dessert wines will be offered, to signal to guests that the meal is over.

Typically, the servings of food at a seven course dinner are very small. The idea is to get the guests to taste a wide assortment of dishes, not to stuff or overwhelm them with food. The small portions are arranged on small plates, and silverware is usually brought out with each course so that the table will not be cluttered when guests first sit down to dinner. Wine is also offered, and it is usually carefully chosen to complement the foods being served.

At a formal dinner, the servers bring out the proper silverware along with each course.
At a formal dinner, the servers bring out the proper silverware along with each course.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


"Cleansers destroy each course transition completely..."

With all due to respect, you're wrong. Not all cleansers need to "chill" the tongue. A good cleanser will help transition the meal.

I also think it's traditionally French. So don't go and throw the palate cleanser off the menu; it can be a delight!


With all due respect, "palate cleansers" between courses is total bunk and is a bit of American snobbishness.

I have had the fortunate opportunity to partake of wonderful 5 to 9 course formal dinners in Europe and South America, and I must say, never and I mean *never* have there ever been these palate cleansers of sorbets or fruits between courses. It is unique to the United States and was at its height in popularity in the 1980's and 90's, during which time numerous culinary schools and young new graduates were springing up all over the place.

A formal multi-course dinner does not need palate cleansers because a knowledgeable chef will make sure that the ingredients in each course compliments and introduces the following course. The salad, along with soft cheeses at times, served after the main dish, helps make the transition from "savory" to sweet courses with dessert. Cleansers destroy each course transition completely, not to mention to chill and sweeten the tongue, thus altering the taste and aromas of the wines.

Please don't be fooled by foo foo crap like palate cleansers. It's all a gimmick and a waste! You want to "cleanse" your palate between courses, go ahead, but that's what your glass of water is there for. Use that if you need to.


We are trying an eight course dinner this evening. There will be eight diners in total, with each bringing a course and a wine to pair (except the sorbet course). It will be an informal setting, and we hope it will be a fun way to experience different foods and maybe as important how to pair the wine with the course (that was actually the task for us all to do and to share the rationale for the exact wine paring).


If you like to cook, there is nothing like making a five, six or seven course dinner, provided you have the china, silver and crystal to do it. At least three wines are required, but I never go beyond that. We do it if we are entertaining special friends or house guests, primarily to show off. But no one has ever complained.

The key thing, and the thing that takes at least a week's planning and about 12 hours prep/cooking time, is making everything from scratch. Using a mix or buying something already made at the store -- OK, not flour or cream or cheese -- defeats the whole idea. The eye-popper is always the sorbet, which is the easiest thing in the world to make, and everybody is always flabbergasted.

Try it for four people, then work your way up to six and eight. It takes some coordination to pull it off.

Also, be prepared to get a very gracious thank you, but no reciprocal invitation. Very few people can do it, and won't try, so enjoy the looks, gasps, and thanks!


I cannot imagine a seven course dinner, let alone a 21 course dinner. I tend to eat quickly, so dinners that are for a specific amount of time usually make me nervous or uncomfortable. I prefer simple dinner recipes in simple situations.


I love the idea of a seven course meal, but most of my dinners at Christmas have always been about five courses.

Even charity dinners that I have attended have only been about five courses. What I especially love is the dessert. I ordered a Baked Alaska once on a cruise ship and watching the presentation of the dessert was also as enriching as eating it.

I also know that many dinner boat or murder mystery dinner theaters also serve multiple courses to enhance the entertainment.

The portions are generally small and just enough to allow you to taste the food but not savor it. There are a few sleuths mystery dinner theaters in

Fort Myers and Orlando Florida.

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