Affordable, reusable linen napkins do a better job of keeping your hands clean, your table beautiful, and your cleanup quick.

By Jonah Reider
October 15, 2019
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In Supper Club, Jonah Reider taps into the joys of do-it-yourself hospitality, sharing his tips and tools for becoming a more creative, improvisational, and confident host. Dine with Jonah at his supper club Pith or follow along his culinary adventures on Instagram.

Sarah Crowder

You don’t need to be a great cook to be a great host; many of the things that make a meal lovely have little to do with the food itself. Personally, I’m a sucker for nice music, a solid set of silverware, and lively conversation—for special occasions, maybe a flickering candle or two. But whether I’m polishing off leftovers alone or serving a big dinner to plenty of guests, I’ve found that nice linen napkins elevate meals with very minimal effort. 

Fancy napkins make your food taste fancy

There’s a broad body of research showing that environmental factors like music, lighting, and table setting impact our perception of taste. A recent study found that while about half of us always use paper napkins at home, practically everybody thinks that food tastes better when it’s eaten with cloth napkins.

When I host guests, they're always impressed by the linen napkins simply curled up at each place setting on my table. To unfold a napkin is an unfussy but elegant gesture to begin a meal. And while eating, I’ve found that cloth does a better job of keeping your hands clean, your table beautiful, and your cleanup quick.

But if you’re unconvinced by the placebo effect napkins have on the overall quality of a meal, I’d still recommend the upgrade: my beloved cloth napkins are sustainable, economical, and endlessly reusable.

Nice napkins save money (and the environment)

Stop using precious cabinet space to hoard crumpled take-out napkins! Paper napkins are cheap, but I can easily destroy three or four of them in a single meal. Plus, once they’ve soaked up sauces and drippings, they’re nearly impossible to recycle.

Cloth napkins are a small investment that will last many years. At less than $10 apiece, the ones I use every day have already saved me a substantial amount of money. 

Pick linen in a few colors

Linen, derived from flax, is far more sustainable and durable than polyester or cotton. I think it’s more beautiful, too.

My simple, square napkins are cut from stone-washed linen and add a luxurious but understated touch to the table. They can withstand repeated use without fraying, and when I don’t have time to iron, their wrinkles are actually quite charming.

Tip: I like these from Crate and Barrel ($7.95) and these from Williams Sonoma ($24.99).

I like using warm cream or beige napkins, but for messier meals, I also have a darker charcoal colored napkins that hide stains quite well. Whatever you pick, I’d recommend avoiding linens with embroidery (easy to fray) or intricate patterns (you’ll regret them).

Fold them simply

Watching napkin folding videos online is a perfectly acceptable waste of time, but avoid the impulse to craft an origami flower out of your own nice napkins. I simply fold mine in thirds to hide seams and edges.

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Then I set them either to the left of the plate, underneath flatware, or I roll them into circular napkin holders.

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Besides making your table look luxe, the act of unfolding cloth napkins at the beginning of a meal feels ceremonious and convivial. 

Toss them in the hamper and reuse happily

After a dinner party or a few solo meals, I toss used linens in my laundry hamper and wash them with my clothing at the end of the week. Stains come out easily, and with time, the fabric actually gets softer.

Ironing is worth the effort if you’re looking to return your linens to their super smooth, restaurant-quality origins. But when I don’t have time (or for daily use), rumpled linen has a lovely casual look that still adds elegance to any dining experience.

However you use them, though, I guarantee that investing in a nice set of linen napkins will make you just a bit more confident and calm about hosting impressive meals — and isn’t that the real joy of cooking?

Buy the set of elegant, minimal linen napkins that I use every day on Zara Home for $17.

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