What We Mean When We Say "Meat 'n' Three"

If you don't know what a meat 'n' three is, you're missing out.

Johnny's in Birmingham
Photo: Melina Hammer

If you're from the South, you're probably pretty familiar with the meat 'n' three. Many of us joined the throng of churchgoers making their way down the buffet line at the local restaurant during the Sunday lunch rush, filling our trays with the best comfort foods, second only to our grandmothers'.

For those who weren't fortunate enough to be raised around this Southern staple, a meat 'n' three is a cafeteria-style restaurant that serves a rotating or seasonal menu of meats and vegetables, which often changes daily. The premise is fairly simple: Take a tray and load up.

Meat 'n' three conduct is pretty easy to follow, even for newcomers:

1. Choose your meat.

It's your first choice on the line and often the hardest. You can almost always find some sort of chicken on the menu—fried, grilled, or baked. Other options usually include country fried steak, pot roast, beef, pork chop, pot roast, or country ham.

2. Pick your fixin's.

You've got the "meat," now you need the "three" (though you are certainly not limited to three!). The sides are what make the plate great, and at a meat 'n' three, there's always a wide variety of vegetables to choose from: potatoes of all kinds, corn, green or lima beans. But don't feel like you have to load up on veggies! Many restaurants have other side items like gelatin desserts and macaroni or spaghetti. You'll also probably get the choice between a roll, cornbread, or biscuit.

On a nutritional note, Meat 'n' Threes are a great place to put together a well-balanced and nutritious meal. When selecting your '3', Carolyn O'Neil, a registered dietitian nutritionist, suggests choosing one starchy vegetable (such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, or rice), and two veggies, like green beans, collards, or sliced tomatoes.

3. Take a seat and dig in.

Once your plate is full and you've got your sweet tea in hand, find a seat and enjoy some of the finest home cooking you'll ever have away from home.

Meat 'n' threes may not be a particularly formal affair, but it's one of the best ways to experience the best of Southern food culture. There will probably be a line, but it's definitely worth the wait.

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