The minute I walked into my cousin’s home in Santa Cruz, California for a weekend stay, she handed me a cloth napkin. “This will be yours for the next few days,” she said. “Remember to put it in this napkin ring and leave it on the table so you can always find it.”

I followed directions as any good cousin would do, and every time we sat down to eat, I'd reuse my napkin. Even if I sipped a glass of water between meals and got a few drops on my cheek, I'd go and dab it with my trusty napkin.

My cousin likes to use cloth napkins for environmental reasons (who doesn't want to get behind that?), but it seemed like something I'd be sure to flub from the start — what if I forgot which one was mine? However, it ended up being easier than I thought.

My weekend of reusing got me thinking about how quick I am to tear off paper towel sheets when I sit down with my own dinner, and how there really are some great benefits to using the cotton variety — perhaps even to help me eat healthier (bear with me). So I went to Heidi McIndoo, author of When to Eat What to get her take.

“I love the idea of using cloth napkins at meal time,” says McIndoo. “Certainly it’s better for the environment, but it also makes a simple meal seem a bit more special--perhaps leading you to eat a bit more slowly, savor the meal, and really enjoy the food in front of you.”

And I agree. In the few months that I’ve been using cloth napkins, I’ve wanted to make nice (healthy!) meals, that measure up. Not to mention, I can use the napkins for a whole week — that’s a lot of paper towels saved!

So here, three of my fave machine-washable napkins. And what I’ve found through my own experiments: Patterns are best because they can hide spillage, and it’s a good idea to have more than one set, so you don’t have to camp out at the washing machine.


Hen House Linens uses a special “color-fast” dye that helps keep their vibrant patterns going strong after you machine-wash ($9 per napkin;


The celebratory pattern on these Marimekko Kippis napkins will make any meal (including Thai takeout) festive ($9 per napkin;


You won’t have to worry if one of the napkins in your set matches--because none of them do in Anthropologie’s Chit and Chat collection ($8 per napkin;