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Basic Dining Etiquette: The Proper Way to Use a Napkin

L Sarhan is a former server and worked in restaurants for over 15 years.

Do you know the correct way to use a napkin?

Do you know the correct way to use a napkin?

A Basic Guide to Napkin Etiquette

Whether you are dining at your local fast food place or have been invited to dinner with the Queen of England, certain dining etiquette should be in practice. Even though some dining etiquette may vary depending on the setting, basic napkin etiquette should generally stay the same regardless of the venue.

The word napkin derives from the Old French word nappe from around the early 15th century meaning cloth, and the Middle English word kin, meaning small. That being said, napkins are supposed to be made from cloth.

So whether in a formal or casual dining experience, you should always use napkins made from cloth. However, some situations, such as casual dining restaurants or cookouts with friends, only offer paper napkins. In the event that this should occur, simply use the same basic napkin etiquette, even with paper napkins.

Read on to find answers to all your burning napkin questions, including whether you should use napkin rings and where you should place your napkin if you need to leave the table during the meal.

Napkin Size

The size of the napkin will depend upon what type of dining setting you are attending. For formal multi-course meals, a large cloth napkin, between 22" to 26", should be used. For simple, casual dinners, a cloth napkin between 18" and 20" is suggested.

When it comes to breakfast or afternoon tea, only a 10" to 12" cloth napkin is used. If you are invited to a luncheon, normally the napkin size will be around 14" to 16" inches.

Choosing the Right Napkin

There are some basic guidelines when it comes to choosing the right napkin to use with your place setting.

Formal Dining

  • White, off-white, cream, shades of ivory, or shades of ecru
  • Smooth, solid colors
  • Must match the texture of the formal dining cloth
  • No elaborate patterns or embroidery
  • Host/hostess may replace your napkin with a dark-colored one if you are wearing darker colors.

Casual Dining

  • Lighter colors may be used
  • Contrasting colors may be used
  • Patterns may be used
  • Embroidery on the napkins are permissible with casual dining
  • Napkins with textures may be used

When to Place the Napkin in Your Lap

It is customary, especially in a formal setting, to follow the lead of your host or hostess. Do not grab your napkin off the table and place it in your lap until your host or hostess does. This applies to even casual dinners, a private home, or perhaps a dinner party invitation at a restaurant.

However, there are exceptions to the rule. If there is no specific host or hostess, such as casual dining out or a business luncheon, you may place your napkin in your lap immediately after sitting down. Although, in a buffet-style setting, you will wait until you have your food, and then you may begin by placing your napkin in your lap before you start eating.

If you have a place card placed on top of the napkin or plate, you should first remove the place card and gently set it on the table above your dessert cutlery, which is located above the plate setting. Then proceed to opening the napkin to place on your lap.

Napkin rings

Napkin rings

Napkin Rings

The use of napkin rings is somewhat of a debate. Originally, they were first used in the early 19th century in France, long before the invention of the washing machine. Soon, the concept spread along most of Europe and on to the Americas.

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The purpose of the napkin ring was to signify whose napkin was whose between weekly washings, so as to display better hygiene practices. That's right; they would reuse the same napkin several times before washing. The napkin ring was personalized and used after each use to signify who the napkin belonged to so that person would use the same napkin again and again until wash day.

The trend began to evolve by the 1840s, however, as napkin rings were considered great gifts for weddings and christenings. Then, with the invention of the hand-powered rotary washing machine in 1858 and the electric washing machine in 1908, in the mid-20th century, the role of napkin rings began to change. In American middle-class societies, the napkin ring tradition evolved to become a decorative piece for both casual and formal dining.

Due to the historical significance of napkin rings, they should not be used in formal dining settings. However, if you think they give an added flair of personality to your table setting, consider using them only for casual dining or informal occasions.

Removing the Napkin Ring

Okay, so your host or hostess has chosen to use a napkin ring, now what? If properly placed, the napkin held by a napkin ring should look as if it is facing you, the guest. Gently slide the napkin ring toward you, pulling the napkin up. Then softly place the napkin ring to the left side above your place setting and begin unfolding to place the napkin in your lap like you normally would.

Unfolding the Napkin

Whether your napkin is neatly placed to the left of your place setting or artfully set on your plate setting, you should maintain elegance by subtly unfolding your napkin and placing it on your lap. In fact, there are some rules to consider when it is time to unfold your napkin.

Never shake or snap open your napkin. If you have a large napkin, often served at formal dining scenarios, gently open the napkin halfway.

Now here is where it gets tricky. Some people believe that the fold should face the body and the corners toward the table. Others believe that the fold of the napkin should be facing toward the table, thus placing the open corners facing you.

The reasoning behind this is so that you can use the inside of the outer fold to blot your mouth with as necessary. If the fold of the napkin is facing you, when you go to blot your lips and return the napkin to your lap, food particles, food residue, or your lipstick run the risk of transferring to your clothing, leaving unsightly stains.

Also, it is considered ill-mannered to show the other guest in your dining party your dirty napkin. So if you prefer the fold to face you, remember to still follow the etiquette of blotting your lips as just described.

Keep in mind that unfolding the napkin should be done below the table, out of sight, and not above the level of the table for everyone to see. Also, if the napkin is folded into a triangle, unfold the napkin completely and refold it into a rectangle. This will allow the napkin to completely cover your lap, protecting your clothing from any crumbs or accidental dripping weather from food or drink.

For dining settings with smaller napkins, such as breakfast, brunch, luncheons, or afternoon tea, you can unfold your napkin fully as you place it in your lap.

Using the Napkin

  • Blotting: When it comes to using the napkin, it is proper etiquette to blot your mouth and not to use the napkin to wipe your lips. You should also blot your lips before taking a sip from your glass. It is unsightly to have food particles or residue on the rim of your glass.
  • Finger foods: If finger foods are served, be sure to discreetly use the napkin in your lap to gently wipe your fingers before reaching for your glass. Again, food particles and food residue on your glass are not acceptable when it comes to dining etiquette.

Napkin Placement and the Silent Service Code

Napkin placement speaks volumes without ever saying a word. Where you place your napkin will give your server or host/hostess silence cues as to your intentions. This could be simply a need to use the restroom or signal that you are finished with your meal.

Temporarily Leaving the Table

If at all possible, do not leave during the meal. Wait until the meal is finished. If for some reason you must leave your seat, however, be sure to verbally and politely excuse yourself. Then place your napkin on the seat of your chair. This signals to the server that you are not finished with your meal and you plan to return to your seat to finish eating.

You may see some people neatly place their napkin on the armrest of the chair if it has one. This is not something that should be done. Some people also place their napkins on the back of their chairs. Again, this is not correct either.

The other guests do not need to stare at your possibly soiled napkin in your absence. Once again, the correct method is to place the napkin in the seat of your chair until you return so that the server will know not to take your plate or bowl.

End of the Meal

In a formal dining setting, you will leave the napkin neatly in your lap, even after you finished your meal, until your host or hostess places his or her napkin in the finished position on the table.

At such point, watch your host or hostess. If he or she places the napkin to the left of the place setting, then do the same. If the host or hostess places his or her napkin across his or her plate, again, do the same.

For casual dining, especially at restaurants, it is customary to place the napkin to the left of the place setting. To do this, simply take your index finger in the center of the fold, slightly folding the clean side of the napkin, hiding any soiled parts. This will signify to your server that you are finished with your meal, and he or she may remove your dish.

Napkin Don'ts

  • Never tuck your napkin in your shirt, between buttons, or your waist.
  • Never "wipe" your mouth. Only blot your lips.
  • Do NOT use your napkin to wipe any part of your face.
  • Do NOT blow your nose in your napkin, nor at all while sitting at the table.
  • Never dip your napkin in your water glass.
  • Never dip your napkin in the water of your finger bowl. Finger bowls may be provided between courses or after being served finger foods. Simply dip fingers in the water, one hand at a time, and dry your fingers on your napkin.
  • Do NOT spit out food into your cloth napkin. If the food doesn't agree with your pallet or tastes bad to you, simply be an adult and finish chewing, then swallow. If it is a piece of gristle or a foreign object, discretely use your fork or spoon to remove the object as dry as possible and place it to the side of your plate, not your bread plate.
  • Do NOT use your napkin to shine or polish the eating utensils.
  • Do NOT use your napkin to dust away crumbs, whether on your chair or anywhere else.

© 2015 Linda Sarhan


Linda Sarhan (author) from Lexington KY USA on April 01, 2015:

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I just wish more people understood. :D

RTalloni on April 01, 2015:

There are several reasons that this is a post to smile about. Thanks for putting this "everyone's guide to using napkins" together. It's beautiful. :)

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