I’ve noticed recently that most people my age seem to use paper towels as napkins. I don’t know if it is one of my more anachronistic personality traits, but I ALWAYS use paper napkins for eating and mostly only use paper towels for Windexing my windows/mirrors or cleaning up cat vomit.
As with most things, my loyalty to paper napkins is because that’s simply what I grew up with. My family ate dinner together, at the dinner table, every single night growing up, even in high school. And that table was always set before the food was put down, with a folded paper napkin, a fork on top and a knife to the side, wine glasses for the adults and milk glasses for the children. The napkins were unfolded and placed on laps and then grace was said (I came up with a secular grace sometime around early high school for when it was my turn), and then everyone began to eat. Somehow, paper towels don’t fit into this narrative as well, they curl instead of fold and don’t want to lie flat.
To this day, I put a paper napkin on my lap when eating, even at my work desk. There’s something about making the effort to use an official napkin that adds a certain ritual element to eating, rather than a “towel” which you might also use to clean your toilet.
There’s the economic factor as well. A Bounty Basic paper towel (for example) is $7 for a pack of 8. That’s 87 cents per roll. And at 40 sheets per roll that’s 2 cents per sheet. By contrast, a 500 napkin pack of Mardi Gras napkins is $6.59 or 1 cent per napkin. Half the price of paper towels! Also, that 8-pack of paper towels only gives you 320 paper towels and an 8 pack of paper towels is considerably more bulky to carry home and store than a 500 pack of napkins.
So the next time you are stocking up on paper goods, consider the humble paper napkin and see if it doesn’t make your mealtimes and wallet feel better. For a more advanced option, try cloth napkins which will REALLY make you feel fancy.
And this is what your napkin looks like after the meal, loosely gathered and placed to the left of your place setting.
This is what your place setting looks like before you start. Napkin is under your fork. (Also, bless my mother for ensuring that I own a set of cloth napkins and placemats!)
Yeah, I know you think you know how to use a napkin, but from my observations, there are some finer points to napkin etiquette that not everyone is aware of.
Different kinds of napkins:
- Lunch napkins- lunch napkins are smaller than dinner napkins. You don’t fold it when putting it in your lap.
- Dinner napkins- are the biggest napkin, and you fold it in half before putting it on your lap.
- Cocktail napkins- are small and are mostly used to put around the bottom of your drink.
How to Use Your Napkin:
- When eating meals, always put your napkin across your lap (I even do this when eating lunch at my desk at work…there is such a thing as taking etiquette too far!).
- You never refold your napkin at the end of the meal, you gather it loosely and place it next to your place setting.
- Napkin rings are used to hold a used napkin for the next meal (and they should be different…or if you are a WASP, monogrammed…so everyone knows which belongs to them), but this should only be done with immediate family. Nowadays, napkin rings are used more for additional decoration.
- Napkins must never be tucked into the collar, except for very small children.
- Generally at formal meals, the napkin matches the color of the tablecloth. At very fancy restaurants, the waiter will sometimes change out the white napkin for a black one if you are wearing dark clothing, to prevent lint spots (this happened to me at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans recently!)
- If you need to leave the table during the meal, loosely gather the napkin and place it next to your plate (try to have the least dirty side facing up). It is generally recommended not to leave the napkin on your chair, as it will dirty the fabric of the chair cushion.