When I do business dining etiquette programs, people inevitably want to know what to do with their napkins: Do they put them in their laps right away; where do they put them if they excuse themselves from the table during the meal; what about at the end of the meal; and what do you do with that gnarly piece of fat you have in your mouth—put it into the napkin?
Let’s start at the beginning. You take your seat at the table. Do you wait for your host to pick up his napkin? No. You should place your napkin in your lap right after you sit down, regardless of what your host does. Some restaurants or banquet facilities like to place napkins in odd places like a glass. They’ll block the view of anyone who is seated. Putting the napkin in your lap gets it out of the way.
At the start of the meal your waiter may ask if you’d prefer a “black napkin.” You’re wearing black pants or a black skirt or dress. Some people worry that a white napkin will leave white lint on those black clothes. So, some restaurants have black napkins available to avoid this possibility. If it’s not offered and you want one, certainly you can ask. But do so discreetly and understand that not all restaurants offer them.
If you need to excuse yourself during the meal, the best thing to do with your napkin is to loosely fold it so no food stains show and place it to the left of your place setting as you get up from the table. I don’t like the alternative of placing it on the seat of your chair because food particles that may be on it could get on the seat and then on your clothes when you sit down. It’s also the place you leave your napkin at the end of the meal. Having one place to put it anytime you leave the table removes having to remember different options depending on what you’re doing. Let’s keep it simple: Anytime you leave the table place the loosely folded napkin to the left of your place setting.
Finally, here’s what not to use your napkin for: A place to put food you’ve removed from your mouth. You would not want that piece of food to fall into your lap the next time you use your napkin. If you have something in your mouth which is simply too gross to put on the edge of your plate, the better alternative is to excuse yourself from the table and go to the restroom where you can dispose of it in a trash can.