People who receive meals on trays are not generally in a position to complain about them.
The position they are usually in is in bed, and the tray is presented either as a great favor, such as breakfast-in-bed for a special day, or as a necessity to someone who is being waited on because of illness.
"Surprise!" the tray-bearer shouts, when one was snuggling in for a lazy morning; or "Look what we have here," when one has been struggling against an unpleasant physical sensation.
But no one wants to spoil a treat or overload someone on whose labors one depends for the comfort of existence. So even the grumpiest person will usually muster an "Oh, how lovely" at a surprise tray, or a lower-key "Oh, good" at an expected one, and postpone the nose-wrinkling until the tray-bearer has left the room.
That is not to suggest that it doesn't matter what one puts before such people. Miss Manners believes that meal trays, as much as table settings, ought to be done properly. Anyway, the person who brings the tray is usually responsible for cleaning up afterward and probably does not want to give the bedclothes an extra washing.
The first rule of meal trays, therefore, is that they ought to balance. Miss Manners is not talking about the basic food groups, but about the human knees. Etiquette may have been forced to recognize the buffet dinner, which is barely this side of the border that separates civilization from chaos, but it does not require any human being to use a knife and fork to attack a plate supported only by his own bedridden lap.
Trays with legs are one solution; hospital tables that swing across beds are another. Otherwise, one imitates hotel room service and brings in a table or uses one already there to set up a cozy dining area next to the bed or elsewhere in the bedroom.
Yes, that counts as breakfast in bed. The practice of forcing mobile people to stay in bed to receive the honor of the meal without benefit of toothbrush or other such refinements is not a kind one.
The proper tray setting begins with a tray cloth. (You do too have one: When it is in the dining room, it calls itself a table mat.) Lest anyone protest that this is an overrefinement on the part of someone who is well known to stay up nights thinking of ways to add to honest people's ironing loads, Miss Manners asks you to consider the advantage of placing absorbent material between the food and the blanket. Similarly, a cloth napkin is less a luxury than a precaution.
There should be -- not exactly a centerpiece but a decoration. A single flower in an extremely short bud vase, or a blossom lying waterless on the tray, to be transferred to a glass or a hairdo, is customary. Nonperishable decorations -- a toy, a figurine, a pretty mineral sample, scaled to tray size -- are also appropriate.
Unlike centerpieces on dinner tables, tray decorations are intended to be removed immediately to sturdier surroundings. The function they serve is to make trays seem to be brought out of an intent to please, not grudging duty.
Real flatware and plates and glasses are a necessity. Miss Manners doesn't even like picnic disposables at picnics, but grass at least absorbs accidents. It is not less work in the long run, Miss Manners assures you, to have the bedridden one attempt to cut meat with a plastic knife or consume soup from a melting spoon.
Nor is this the time, if there is such a time ever, for paper plates. It is a time to use the odd bit of good china that is left over from a broken set. Special tray sets of china, mostly designed for breakfast, with egg cups and matching china covers with little flower-sprig patterns all over them, are adorable, but there are items from a child's good tea set that will do just as well.
The ideal service, obviously not always possible, does not consist of everything simultaneously under covers -- and where, pray, does the diner put those covers? -- but separate courses, brought in separately, so that the food is as fresh as if it were brought to the table.
Company is almost as important as food in most such instances, and serving separate courses enables one to go in and out, while still performing tasks. What does not qualify as proper tray service is to plop suddenly down at the foot of the bed on which the meal is being consumed, and to pick tidbits from the tray.