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How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea

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Serving Afternoon Tea doesn’t need to be difficult, or even fancy, unless you want it to be. While we’ve written posts about How to Throw an Afternoon Tea Party, and Easy Make-Ahead Tea Sandwiches, this post is all about the serving of an Easy Afternoon Tea.

How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea | 31Daily.com

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From serving décor ideas to best tea ideas, from arranging the order of your party food to tea party etiquette… and ideas on hosting a “no-frills” tea party. And, we’ve even included tea party shopping ideas at the bottom of the post.

It’s all here.

You’ll find everything you need to know, with expert advice, on hosting your own Afternoon Tea Party.

What You Need to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea

The decor sets the tone for your afternoon tea party. These ideas from the editors at Pottery Barn will add flair and flavor to your party.

1. Food Stands:

If you already have a beloved collection of cake stands, by all means, use it to display your sweets and sandwiches. If you don’t have any stands, or simply don’t have enough, consider making impromptu dessert stands by placing pretty plates on top of overturned glasses, wide candle jars, or soup bowls. Use plates of varying sizes and patterns, and bases of different heights for added visual interest.

2. Tableware:

Pay close attention to your selection of teacups, plates, napkins, and linens. They don’t all have to match, but coordination is key. Combine solids with florals and like-colored stripes for a sweet effect that your guests will love. If you have china, this is a great opportunity to use it. If you know you have a rowdier crew, there’s nothing wrong with using more durable options like pretty melamine or even tea-party-themed paper goods.

3. Centerpieces:

What would a list of afternoon tea party decorations be without mention of centerpieces? Even if you just have one table, adding something pretty to the center gives the room a polished look. Consider using an antique teapot or oversized teacups instead of vases. Fill the vessel with arrangements of your favorite flowers. Think about keeping the arrangements low, so that people sitting across the table can see each other.

How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea | 31Daily.com

Which Tea to Serve

Depending on the season, you might want to consider offering a mix of hot and iced teas. Or, if you’re going with a theme like Southern sweet tea, you could stick with iced tea served in elegant glasses. Also, consider having a few pitchers of ice water handy for anyone who’s extra thirsty.

Serve a variety of teas. Here are some ideas.

Black teas: Bold flavored black teas are always expected for an Afternoon Tea. Examples include Earl Grey, the sharp and robust flavor of Assam, or the classic afternoon tea, Darjeeling. If you’re serving a breakfast or brunch tea, Irish Breakfast is a beautiful tea to serve.

Green teas: Lightly flavor green tea is a nice addition to the tea table. Gunpowder green tea is particularly well suited to pairing with savory sandwiches, while mint green tea pairs nicely with sweets.

Herbal teas: Lavender teas are particularly popular for afternoon tea. Serve just lavender, or a blend with another herb, like spearmint or chamomile. See 9 Healthy Herbal Teas for more ideas.

You Might Like: How to Brew a Perfect Spot of Tea

Easy Afternoon Tea Recipes

In our post, “How to Host an Easy Afternoon Tea Party,” we’ve written in depth about tea party recipes. Be sure to check out that post. In summary, serving a variety of savory bites and sweet treats is always appreciated.

Tea sandwiches:

Tea sandwiches, also known as finger sandwiches, are delicate, small, crustless sandwiches that are no bigger than two to three bites. Traditional afternoon tea recipes include cucumber tea sandwiches, made with white bread, butter, cream cheese, and cucumber. Crustless pumpernickel or grainy bread is perfect for making salmon tea sandwiches with thinly sliced smoked salmon and cream cheese. Another popular addition includes egg salad, chicken salad or tuna salad topped with watercress and flavorful spices.

Be sure to check out our post on Easy Make Ahead Tea Sandwiches.


Scones are easy to whip up the day of your afternoon tea party. Much like dense biscuits, when they’re plain and simple, these pastries are typically served alongside clotted cream and jam, or homemade preserves.

You will want to see our post: Perfect Afternoon Tea Scones Recipes that are Sweet and Savory.


Teacakes, shortbreads, cookies, and patisserie like mini éclairs, cream puffs, and petit fours are a sweet ending to your elegant meal.

How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea | 31Daily.com

How to Arrange Tea Party Food

The making of a beautiful tea table can be arranged using a typical and traditional approach, or, you can do something all on your own.

If you’re using the traditional 3-tier tray, laden with goodies, most teas use a specific order for the food. Here are two of the way most commonly used:

Traditional 3-Layer Tiers:

Top Tier: sweets

Middle Tier: scones, breads, pastries

Bottom Tier: savory bites and tea sandwiches

Mix it Up: If you want to do something all on your own, forego the rules and scatter single-tiered stands around the table, allowing guests to choose their courses as they please.

Traditional British Tea Courses:

Traditional British teas often follow this pattern:

First Course: sandwiches and savories

Second Course: scones and seasonal bread

Third Course: sweets

How to Host a No-Frills British Afternoon Tea

If you think tea parties must be fussy and fancy, Washington Post writer Becky Crystal has a different idea. In fact, she recently shared an easy 5-Point Plan to host a no-frills British Afternoon Tea.

1. Scones are a must: serve with strawberry jam and clotted cream

2. Include a mix of pastries: start with a showstopper cake (like a traditional checkerboard cake) and add brownies, fruit jam tarts, airy meringues, or macaroons

3. Offer “real” tea and properly brew it: English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Lady Grey, PG Tips for starters. Related: How to Brew a Perfect Spot of Tea

4. Make it ahead: as much as possible, make everything in advance. Bake goodies like brownies, cupcakes, layer cakes ahead, and assemble finger and tea sandwiches ahead. Scones are best baked the day of.

5. Go for a nice presentation: Frills aren’t required unless you love them. Using a mix of teacups and plates lends a popular vintage-chic look. But, she says, “If you want to introduce a traditional element into your setup, spring for a traditional three-tiered caddy you can use to display the food

Traditional Afternoon Tea Etiquette

I have shelves of etiquette books lining my bookcases, dating from the early 1800s. It’s just a thing with me. An era of charm and beauty I hope we never completely lose.

Twinings Tea U.K. has put together the following list that they say is, “all about making the experience perfect for you and your guests – so in our mind replacing the firm handshake with a hug is no taboo broken.”

Always greet your guests or host with a firm handshake.

Once sat, place your handbag or clutch on your lap, or for more convenience place it behind you resting against the chair – this will also stop you from slouching.

When the host announces it’s time to begin your afternoon tea, take your napkin, unfold it and place it on your lap. However, if you must leave the table for any reason fold it neatly and place it on your chair. Never leave it on the table; you will ruin the beauty of the place settings and features that you or the host has spent hours preparing.

If you take sugar in your tea then this must be placed into the cup first.

For those of you drinking Earl Grey the traditional way, place a thin slice of lemon into the cup first. You can place sugar and lemon together in the cup but not the milk.

Milk is added to the tea after you have added your tea, sugar, and/or lemon (this is a preference though). “To put milk in your tea before sugar is to cross the path of love, perhaps never to marry.”1 This is a tea superstition from the French – they also recommend you put the milk in last.

When you’re stirring your tea make sure your spoon doesn’t touch the sides of the cup and when you’ve finished place it behind the cup on the saucer – never leave the spoon in the cup.

Now you must hold your cup in the correct way, never grasp your cup with both hands, you must always use the delicate handle provided. There are many debates about the ‘pinky finger’ and how it should sit when drinking tea. Some may say you must stick your little finger out, however; many etiquette experts frown upon extending the pinky finger while drinking and deem it a sign of pretentiousness. We say it’s your choice if you want to stick your pinky out then go for it!

The correct order to eat the traditional afternoon tea is to eat the sandwiches and savories first, then move on to the scones and ending on the sweets.

There are many traditions and superstitions about the way you should eat your scones, the Cornish believe you should cut the scone in half and then cover it in jam then add clotted cream. The Devonshire folk believe you should cut the scone in half, cover it in clotted cream first then add a teaspoon of jam. These are the traditions they have set in place, there is no right or wrong. Try both and see what you prefer.

Traditional Tea Tier Ideas

A 3-Tier Server makes afternoon tea special. We’ve written a post about our Favorite 3-Tier Server, but here are some more ideas. 

How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea | 31Daily.com
How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea | 31Daily.com
photo credit: www.victoriamag.com
How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea | 31Daily.com
photo credit: www.victoriamag.com
How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea | 31Daily.com
How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea | 31Daily.com
photo credit: www.teatimemagazine.com

Tea Table Setting Ideas

How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea | 31Daily.com
How to Serve an Easy Afternoon Tea | 31Daily.com
photo credit: www.victoriamag.com

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  1. Love all your recipes and information. The tea that is often photographed with the slice of lemon floating is that Earl Grey? I am looking for a tea drunk without milk or sugar, just a slice of lemon.

    1. Thank you, Sue for your kind comment! Most often, the tea you see with lemon slices is Earl Grey because it compliments its floral notes. But lemon slices are also served with Chamomile and other herbal teas along with green and black. In fact, I’ve read that citrus boosts antioxidant intakes when paired with green tea.

  2. Thank you for making my life easy . I am planning an afternoon tea party for Christmas and I found all the information I need in your article .

    1. You just made my day! Thank you for letting me know, Lilia. I hope you have a wonderful tea and Christmas celebration!!

  3. You page is absolutely delightful! I am going to plan a tea before Christmas this year. This has given me lots of ideas. Just figuring out which recipes I want to make is enough to keep me quite busy. Thank you so much for doing the planning for me.

    1. Thank you so much, Susan, for your kind words. I absolutely adore afternoon tea. I’m so glad you found useful ideas and inspirations! For tea lovers — or at least for me — there isn’t anything quite as wonderful as a Christmas tea! We’re posting some new ideas next week for a holiday tea so hopefully, there will be more ideas for you there! Have a wonderful day — and thanks for getting in touch!

  4. Afternoon Tea being a British Aristocratic pursuit, calls for tea brewed from loose black tea leaves to be served as tea rather than any other type of tea. Of these Ceylon Tea and Darjeeling Tea of Orange pekoe quality is to be given first place. White teas such as silver tip and gold tip may also be served.
    The tiered tray is arranged with sconce on the top tier as they were traditionally kept warm with a cloche. Sandwiches in the middle and the sweets in the bottom tier. No cupcakes are served.
    Use your three fingers and thumb to hold the tea cup with your hand while holding the saucer in your other hand.

  5. THANK YOU for one of the best and most beautiful tea party pages I have seen! Your tips are good and the photos are gorgeous! So inspiring and lovely. It’s like a little vacation just to look at them! Thank you, thank you!

    RE: Warm Scones and Tier Placement:

    A room temperature scone is better than no scone, but my goodness are they delightful when served warm with cold devonshire cream and jam. Highly recommend!

    The middle tier for scones is my preferred spot because the ratios fit and it leaves the tiny top tier for the mini desserts. They’re like a crowning glory for the table.

    I’ve never had issues with scones heating the tray above or below. If anything, keeping their heat from dissipating into the air is the challenge. (I’ve considered a bread basket with a lovely napkin to solve this, but the cuteness factor of the tiers always wins out. : – )

    Q: Has anyone come up with a sure-fire and cute solution for keeping scones warm without requiring the hostess to get up from the table?

    RE: Hotel Tea Alternatives?

    I have planned multiple vacations around touring tea spots (Victoria, Canada was a favorite), but have been burned so many times by hotel teas that I now avoid them. (They often seem like a tourist trap, with high price tags, poor service, sterile presentation, and mediocre food.)

    Can anyone recommend a truly exceptional classic tea *parlor* in the US or UK? I love the cuteness factor of pretty mismatched china and thoughtful presentation, and food that is chef quality, not just full of fat and sugar. (Personal current favorite in the U.S. is Lovejoy’s in San Francisco!)

    1. You are welcome! I’m so thrilled to hear from a kindred soul. I, like you, feel like I’m on vacation just “touring” tea houses. Victoria is also a favorite of mine. And, it’s easy access for me as it’s just across the pond from Seattle.

      And scones? Whole heartedly agree. Warm from the oven scones are amazing but difficult to maintain when serving.

      Thank you for the tea house recommendation in San Francisco. I’m adding it to my “wish list!”

      1. How lovely to get a reply to my comment, Stephanie! Thank you again for the lovely article!

        It’s so lucky that you live in Seattle with all the great dining and proximity to Canada! The Fairmont Olympic in Seattle was a wonderful exception to my bad experiences with hotel teas. Their dining room is so beautiful, and the honey from their rooftop apiary was delicious!

        For the warm scone conundrum, an idea I haven’t tried yet is wrapping the scones in a pretty napkin and putting them in a ceramic bowl over a teapot warmer instead of a basket. Teapot warmers have revolutionized my tea drinking experience, so it seems like it might work!

        Many thanks again, and good wishes for your happy tea adventures!

        1. Seattle is a beautiful place and I do love our proximity to Victoria. In two hours, we can hop on a ferry and have tea in a world of chintz and teacups! And enjoy beautiful gardens too.

          I’m so thrilled you’ve experienced The Fairmont. It is one of my favorite hotel tea places. The Georgian Room itself holds special memories as that is where my husband proposed — a few years ago. I love their tea service.

          Another special hotel tea service was The Heathman Hotel in Portland, Oregon. They made their own scones, served warm, and were utterly delicious. I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to get that recipe for a couple of years. Sadly, they closed their tea service, although I think they serve tea in another one of their restaurants.

          I also am a fan of teapot warmers. It’s a brilliant idea and one I want to try too!

          Thanks again for your kind words. Have a wonderful evening!

    2. Wisteria Tea Room
      Fort Myers, FL
      located in a 100 year old bungalow home. It is lovely, homey and has an extensive menu, monthly specials and two small gift shops on property. Parking available.

      1. Hi Mary! Thank you for sharing that tea room tip! The Wisteria Tea Room is now on my list the next time I make it to Fort Myers! It sounds wonderful!

        For anyone else who would like to visit, here is a link to their website: Wisteria Tea Room

  6. They must be doing it wrong at the high end hotels where I have been served tea. Personally I would not want my scones warm as I have never had one.

  7. Scones were and are served warm. The scones go on the top of the serving tier so as not to heat the sweets. Check your history and proper service.

    1. Jan you may want to check out a book on manners – Emily Post is a wonderful one! I’m sure you didn’t mean to sound as condescending and petty as you came across.

      1. Please enjoy your Emily Post publication. I have a signed first edition. I am sorry that basic facts are an offerent to you and that you are so sensative. Brief and to the point is not petty. It is your choice to take it in such a manor. No harm intended.

  8. I love the pale green flower wall paper in the tea room, do u know the wallpaper
    Book it is out of it where I can purchase it!

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