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Depends on the culture. In this answer I will focus on modern French, modern European, and one of a number of American "passes". How and when food is served in which order is as much a function of the season as it is the chef's idea of what to serve when and the diner's decision how to have it presented. I once cooked for a group of 60 who insisted on having the cheese course before the main course, not usually done but we're in the hospitality not the "white knuckle tradition" business.
Most five-course meals open with the amuse bouche (or amuse gueule, depending on whom you ask) a dish that can be eaten in one bite and should ideally excite and prepare the palate for the dinner to come. The amuse is one of the hardest dishes in the progression as it should set the course and bring the theme to the diner in an unmistakable yet playful way. The amuse is normally not counted as a course.
Following the amuse is the soup course. Soups are luckily rather easy since they do generally not have many a-la-minute components. A good soup dish expands upon the amuse and brings a new layer into the composition. Since most amuse (by far not all) are served cold, the soup also prepares the diner for the hot courses to come.
A good soup preparation uses components of the following dishes (it makes less sense to serve a fish based soup if none of the other courses is seafood, though there are exceptions).
After the soup comes the entree (not to be confused with the American use of the word as the main course, an entree is the appetizer/starter if the hot dishes, an "entrance" into the meal).
The entree is usually not made with red meat (though, again, there are exceptions) and features proteins, starches, vegetables, and a sauce. It's a small course, or a number of small courses on one plate to start the dinner.
The succeeding course either features a salad or a cold preparation in which the proportions of starch to protein to vegetables is skewed towards the veggies and away from the protein.
The main course is traditionally a protein course.
Following it there's a cheese course (to close the stomach, as the French say)
Rounding everything up is the dessert (from French "deservir - to clean the table") course.
Alsatian meals are usually six-course with a bread and cold cut course thrown in between the amuse and soup or between soup and entree.
Parisian meals drop an hors d'euvre before the entree and a releve after it, which is a light dish (seafood, for example, or pork or chicken, sometimes a tartare or similar) and move the cheese behind the dessert.
Lyon serves six courses but does traditionally not serve an entree course, substituting a releve and the hors d'euvre instead.
Northern European meals skip the entree course.
Italian meals are seven (lucky number and all) courses: 1: hors d'euvre, 2: sul tavolo (on the table), 3: antipasti, 4: pasta, cleanser (not counted), 5: main course, 6: cheese, 7: dessert.More questions on Quora: