Through EtiKids, I recently taught an etiquette class to a Brownie Troop in Bergen County, NJ, in which the subject of napkins came up. The question had been posed to the girls, “how do you know when to put your napkin on your lap?” The vivacious group of 22 looked pensive for a (brief) moment but quickly figured out the answer. “You wait for someone else to do it!”

That was a great idea, and according to some sources, correct! It is believed that one should wait until the host/hostess unfolds his/her napkin. The situation changes when not at a dinner party: in a restaurant, if the napkin is on the plate, the diner should immediately stick the napkin on the lap. As some restaurants start pouring drinks immediately upon being seated, it is a great way to prevent accidental outfit “water-staining.”

At a less formal dining establishment: as soon as ANY food is served would be an appropriate time to put the napkin on the lap. Since the napkin is often placed underneath the fork, it should be placed on top the lap as soon as the fork is lifted.

When getting up from the table, make sure to put the napkin on the left side of the plate (gently folded). As napkins are to be used for the purpose of wiping food away from one’s mouth, they should not be on the chair, where dirty bottoms are often placed.

Finally, one should not tuck napkins into the top of their shirts (resembling a bib). Using proper table manners (elbows off the table, no licking fingers, asking people to pass, chewing with lips closed) will prevent food from winding up down the front of one's shirt. As bibs are typically used for those who cannot feed themselves, it is inappropriate for a person to tie a napkin around their neck solely for the sake of preserving an outfit (unless eating lobster). When in doubt, don’t wear white. Meaning, don’t go to a restaurant that serves tomato sauce-rich foods, wearing light colors that will get stained.

These simple techniques for appropriate napkin use will help children and grownups alike in the present and future. As etiquette is meant to prevent uncomfortable situations by teaching people how to behave in social situations, teaching children these skills at a young age will ensure that they will have the knowledge of how to behave as adults.

Those Brownies were so excited to know an actual time as to when they should put their napkin on their lap and couldn’t wait to go home and teach their grownups. Watch out parents! The word is spreading…



03/24/2011 20:18

I disagree with your comment on where you should place your napkin. If you have good clothes on and do not want to get sauce or other food on your clothes than I recommend tucking your paper napkin around your neck/shirt collar.

04/02/2011 08:21

Sorry for the delayed response... I know that it would seem that way; however, napkins are not intended to be tucked into shirts/collars. According to "proper" etiquette, the napkin is only used to wipe the mouth- and people should not have to worry about food on laps if they are using the utensils correctly and keeping elbows off the table. I know that it is not always realistic, so I just don't wear white when I have to eat anything with tomato sauce! :)

07/07/2012 11:05

I have three messy boys who frequently get food stains on their shirts. I recently started insisting that they each wear two napkins during meal times. One across the lap and one tucked in their shirt collar. No more food stains as the paper napkin absorbs whatever they have splashed. No more scrubbing spaghetti sauce off their shirts.


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