Napkins at the Dinner Table

How To Use Your Napkin When Dining

Neatly folded napkins on elegant table with wine glasses

The Spruce / Sarah Crowley

Do you ever wonder what to do with your napkin during a dinner party or at a fine restaurant? Should you put it in your lap, and if so, when? What if it slides off your lap?

Then what do you do with it after you're finished eating? Do you put it on your plate, beside the plate, or over the back of your chair? These are typical questions many people have about the proper way to use a napkin.

A napkin is one of those things at a table setting that people take for granted. However, it still seems to confuse folks. Proper dining etiquette and table manners includes knowing how to use your napkin.

When dining, using your napkin properly is an important part of the experience. Not only is it handy for blotting spills and patting your mouth, but it is also essential when you need to clean your hands. Here are some etiquette tips for using your napkin while eating.

Using Your Napkin at a Restaurant

  • Pick up your napkin as soon as you are seated. Once you have been seated at the restaurant, the next thing you should do is remove your napkin from its place. Without making a fuss, unfold it and put it on your lap. This is where you should keep it until you need it. Take the time to unfold rather than shake the napkin open before placing it on your lap. In some restaurants the wait person may provide this service for you, but that is becoming less common. However, even if they do, if you prefer, it is perfectly okay to do this yourself instead of waiting for the waiter to place it for you.
  • Keep the napkin in your lap. The napkin should remain on your lap until either it is needed or the meal ends. You should never use your napkin to clean your silverware or to wipe your face. If you need to blow your nose, excuse yourself from the table and dining area and use your handkerchief or a tissue. This is not an appropriate use of the dinner napkin.
  • Place the napkin to the side when you get up during the meal. If you need to excuse yourself from the table, you should use one hand to pick it up and then loosely fold the napkin, placing it to the left or right of your plate. There is no need to refold your napkin, but try not to crumple it or make it into a ball. Never leave the napkin on the chair or allow it to drop on the floor.
  • Use your napkin to show when you are finished. At the end of the meal, leave the napkin semi-folded at the left side of the place setting or on the plate. Either of these moves will signal to the wait staff that you have completed that course, and they may remove the dishes.

Using Your Napkin at a Private Dinner Party

When attending a private dinner party, your etiquette goal is to prevent calling attention to yourself. Be aware of everyone around you, especially the host or hostess.

  • Let the host take the lead. The formal dinner party meal officially begins once the host or hostess unfolds his or her napkin. This is a signal to all of the guests to follow suit; unfold your napkin and place it on your lap. You may leave it folded lengthwise if it is a large dinner napkin.
  • Keep the napkin in your lap. As at a restaurant, the napkin should remain on the lap until you need to be excused for some purpose or the meal ends.
  • Watch your host or hostess closely during the meal. He or she will generally signal the end of the meal by placing his or her napkin on the table. Once the meal is over, you too should end your meal and signal you have done so by placing your napkin neatly on the table to the left of your dinner plate. Remember there is no need to attempt to refold the napkin as it is considered soiled and will need to be laundered.

What Not to Do

Just as important as knowing how to use your napkin is knowing what you shouldn't do with it. Here are some tips:

  • Don't use your napkin as a prop to explain something during a discussion.
  • Don't tuck your napkin into your shirt. If you are eating lobster or other messy food, you may ask for a special bib for this purpose.
  • Don't blow your nose into your napkin.
  • Don't toss your napkin onto a plate with food on it.

Whether you are dining in a fancy restaurant or at a friend's house, you should try to be courteous and neat as you eat, using your napkin as necessary. Be as inconspicuous as possible when putting your napkin in your lap at the start of the meal and then back on the table when it is over. The key to proper napkin use is to avoid making it the focus of people's attention.