napkin etiquette

Napkin Etiquette 6 Rules: How To Place & Use Table Napkins Best​

Who is this micro-class for

* Waiters and restaurant staff

* Restaurant guests

* House-party hosts and guests

What you’ll learn

* How to set, use, and rest table napkins


* Less than 8 minutes to complete

* 1 video and 1 transcript

* Policy files (bottom of this page)

About this micro-class

Napkin etiquette is the set of rules to properly set, use, and rest table napkins.

1. Presenting the best napkins for each occasion

Check the napkins' hygiene and condition

Ensure that the napkins you provide for your guests are clean, neatly folded, and in good condition. Do not present napkins with stains or visible wear and tear.

Choose the appropriate napkins for the occasion

Cloth napkins are a more formal choice for hosting dinners. On formal occasions, napkins should be cotton or linen, and perfectly clean.

Disposable paper napkins can be suitable only for informal and casual occasions.

The styles of the tablecloth and napkins should match. White is always a good choice on formal occasions. Colors or themes could work too but it is best to avoid excess. For themed or special occasions, you can select napkins that match the color scheme or theme of the event.

Fold table napkins in a simple way

There are three traditional ways to fold table napkins:

  • In square or rectangular shape.
  • In triangular shape.
  • Rolled.

If you present the table napkins rolled, you can use napkin rings to keep them firm.

2. Placing the napkins according to the local table etiquette

Place a napkin on each place setting or to its right. The etiquette may be different based on the region.

In North American etiquette, the napkin is usually placed on the left side of the place setting. 

In European etiquette, it is most appropriate to place the napkins on the right.

3. Unfolding the napkin at the beginning of a meal

Wait for the hosts and guests before unfolding your napkin

When you sit down at the table, before you drink or eat anything, you should unfold your napkin and place it on your lap. 

Wait until everyone is seated before unfolding your napkin. If you are dining at someone’s home or at a formal event, follow the lead of the host or hostess.

Unfold the napkin gently

Handle your napkin gently. Do not shake it open or snap it. Instead, unfold your napkin below the level of the table without ample gestures. Make your motion almost unnoticeable to the other guests. 

If a napkin ring is present, remove your napkin and place the ring on the top-left side of your place setting.

Place the napkin on your lap

The napkin should cover your lap, the area between your knees, and the upper section of your thighs. It should not go over your knees or reach the line of your belt.

If the napkin is small, unfold it completely and cover the lap fully. If the napkin is large, unfold it halfway or partially so that it does not extend over your lap.

Do not tuck your napkin into your collar, or between the buttons of your shirt, or into your belt. Tucking the napkin into the collar could be allowed on some informal occasions such as in a seafood restaurant. Moreover, children, seniors, or guests with impaired mobility are allowed to tuck the napkin into the collar.

4. Using napkins appropriately during a meal

Use your napkin frequently but keep it clean

Use your napkin frequently during the meal to dry or pat your lips. Do not wipe your lips vigorously. Always pat your lips before drinking, to avoid leaving a mark on the glass.

At the same time, keep your napkin as clean as possible. Try to keep your lips clean, dry, and not greasy. Bring the food directly into your mouth and avoid contact with the outer lips.

Do not use your napkin for anything else, such as a handkerchief. Avoid contact between your napkin and your nose or other parts of your face.

Use your napkin in the case of food spills

If you accidentally spill something on yourself or the table, use your napkin to dab or blot the stain. Do not make a big fuss about it.

In a restaurant, it is perfectly appropriate to ask for a clean napkin. When you are at someone’s home, it is best to wait for the host to offer a replacement.

5. Folding your napkin when leaving the table

How to place the napkin when leaving the table for a break

Keep the napkin on your lap as long as you sit at the table. If coffee and drinks are served at the table after the meal, do not remove the napkin from your lap.

When leaving the table temporarily during the meal, fold the napkin and place it on the table to your right or on the seat of your chair. Fold the napkin loosely, keeping any soiled area hidden.

How to place the napkin at the end of a meal

At the end of the meal, fold the napkin and place it on the table to your right or at the center of your place setting. Fold the napkin loosely, keeping any soiled area hidden.

6. Napkin etiquette for an ideal guest experience

Be attentive to your guests' needs

If a guest drops their napkin or requires a replacement for any reason, be attentive and offer a fresh one promptly. Do this discreetly to avoid drawing attention to the situation.

When it is time to clear the table, pay attention to guests who may still be using their napkins. Wait for everyone to finish or signal that they are done before removing their napkins.

When a guest leaves the table, the restaurant staff should discreetly refold or adjust the guest’s napkin, leaving it in the same place to signal that the seat is still occupied.

Provide alternatives when appropriate

If you are serving foods that may be messy, such as finger foods or shellfish, consider providing finger bowls or moist towelettes alongside the napkins to help guests clean their hands.

Napkin etiquette mistakes to avoid

As a guest, avoid any behavior that may upset your host or the other guests:

  • Unfolding your napkin before other guests took their seats.
  • Tucking the napkin into your collar.
  • Excessively soiling your napkin. 
  • Wiping your lips too vigorously.

As a host, avoid mistakes that can affect your guests’ dining experience, such as:

  • Presenting unclean or worn-out napkins.
  • Not offering to replace a napkin when needed.

Additional resources & links