19 Tips From Southern Grandmothers That Make Hosting Easier

Bring some Southern hospitality to your home, no matter how much space you have.

elderly women sitting around a table with tea and pastries
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With experience comes wisdom. That old adage holds true for entertaining, especially among the Silent Generation. Growing up decades before you could look up recipes for anything imaginable on the Internet, women learned to cook from a young age through home economics courses, Fannie Farmer and Betty Crocker, their own mothers, and a lot of trial and error.

We spoke with four Southern grandmothers who have mastered the art of entertaining with ease over decades of entertaining their family and friends. Known for their fantastic meals and dinner parties, these women graciously share their time-honored tips and tricks for making hosting easier.

1. Have a few go-to dishes.

A dinner party isn't the right time to experiment with recipes you haven't practiced. It's a smarter move to have several menu items that are tried and true, says 83-year-old Anita "Nini" Estroff from Vidalia, Ga. Though her four children and eight grandchildren (including Skye Estroff of the new TV show Foodie Road Trip) consider her an excellent hostess, Nini was once the weakest link in her college home economics course.

"I messed up everything, and [my classmates] wouldn't let me do anything but make a tossed salad [because] they didn't want to flunk the course," she explains. Nini got the last laugh, however, as her excellent Caesar salad is now one of her signature dishes. "Anytime I have company for dinner, they always want my Caesar salad," she says. Also in high demand: her sweet potato souffle and pound cake cookies.

2. Make a shopping list.

Once you've planned out what you'd like to serve, make a list of all of the ingredients you'll need for before heading to the grocery store, says Gloria Gray, an 84-year-old grandmother to four grandchildren and five grandchildren in Niceville, Fla.

And though it may sound obvious, it's helpful to also write down your menu on your shopping list so you won't forget anything, she adds. (If you've ever planned out and shopped for a dinner party and come home to realize you forgot the main dish ingredient, you can relate!)

3. Serve something special.

Try to have at least one menu item that feels like a real treat to your guests. For instance, when 90-year-old Mary Liz Foster of Germantown, Tenn., was young, avocados were a delicacy, she says. When she was entertaining, she would slice an avocado very thin and arrange it on a plate atop a large lettuce leaf with grapefruit slices and French dressing. "That was so good," recalls the grandmother to 12, and it made the evening feel special.

4. Cook what you grow.

Gloria says having a big garden helped her learn to cook. "It was so nice to be able to go out and get vegetables and [learn how to] use them," she says. At one time, she had a pear tree in the backyard and used the fruit to make pear cobblers for her guests. Fresh greens like mustard greens, collard greens, turnip greens, and cabbage greens have always been a staple on her dinner table, too. When Gloria prepares these for guests, she always makes sure to start early, as they take quite a while to cook.

5. Set a pretty table.

green table setting with fine china
Bryan Gardner

Know those stacks of plates and bowls sitting in your cabinet, still unused since you unwrapped them as wedding gifts? Dust them off. Hosting a meal — whether for a few family members or a larger group — is the perfect time to break out the fancy dishes.

"I like to use my china, crystal, and silver when I entertain," says Nini. "Even for casual dinners, my thing is to make a pretty table." Don't think you have to break the bank for decorating, though. Use the dishes you have on hand and try to always have fresh flowers on the table, says Nini. She likes to gather flowers and branches from whatever is blooming in her yard to put together a larger centerpiece or a few small vases.

6. Map out your serveware.

When Nini is planning to serve her guests buffet style, a day ahead of time she lays out all of her dishes and labels them which recipe will go in each. You can use tiny strips of paper, no fancy labels required. This simple method helps ensure you'll have the right serveware for each dish that you're preparing so you won't be digging in your cabinets to find another bowl or platter come time to serve the food.

7. Invest in kitchen gadgets you'll use for ages.

Nearly 65 years ago, Nini received a KitchenAid stand mixer as a wedding gift — and it's still a staple in her kitchen today. "I'll tell you what, it gets better every year," she says of her mixer (and her marriage). She also can't live without her Cuisinart food processor. "I think I had the first one they ever put out, and finally it died on me," she says. "I got a new one, and I think that's the most excited I've ever been to get anything!"

8. Put countertop appliances to work.

One of the most challenging parts of hosting a meal is ensuring every dish will be hot and ready to serve at the same time. Avoiding overcooked steaks and lukewarm side dishes starts at the menu-planning stage.

"I try to make menus that I can have ready [at the same time] or dishes I can easily keep hot," says Nini. Her new favorite tool? An air fryer. "I'm learning how to use that, and it's fun," she says. Her husband Donald also enjoys using it to make wings, which avoids the need to go in and out to the grill.

Betty Jo Ogletree, 83, known as Mama Betty to her five grandchildren, turns to her electric skillet for making sides like fried sweet potatoes and okra in her Cherokee, Ala., kitchen. This is an appliance not used nearly as often anymore, but one that comes in handy for hosting, she says.

9. Invite kids to cook with you.

Will they make the cooking process faster or easier? No and no. But the special memories are worth bringing children and grandchildren into the kitchen, says Nini. Mary Liz adds that it's important to teach children how to serve a meal from a young age. Get them involved in your hosting, both before and after your guests arrive.

10. Take it outside.

multi generation family eating at a table in garden
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If weather permits, setting up tables outside for your guests gives them more space and allows them to enjoy the outdoors at the same time, says Mama Betty. When she hosts a meal for her family, which may be up to 14 people, she sets up plastic tables in the backyard and covers them with tablecloths. She doesn't shy away from paper plates outside, either, which saves time on cleanup. One exception is breakfast — gravy and grits just don't taste good on paper, she says.

11. Add a hint of sweetness.

You already know that a little salt can bring out the flavor in any dish, but (surprise!) so can a pinch of sugar. Mama Betty says a hint of sweetness is her secret to almost all the dishes she's known for serving at gatherings, including her famous chicken and dressing.

She really means just a little. When Mama Betty was first married, still a teenager, she called her mother to ask how to cook turnip greens. She advised her to add a little bit of sugar. Mama Betty put in half a cup. "I ruined those turnip greens," she says, "and I learned 'a little bit' means a teaspoon."

12. Have a backup fridge.

When hosting a larger group, you may not have enough refrigerator space to hold everything, especially if you have a small fridge in a small kitchen. "I have another fridge in my storage room, and I couldn't survive without that," says Nini.

If you have a garage, basement or another space that could hold a second refrigerator, it will come in handy. You can even find a secondhand fridge. Otherwise, do your best to clean out your fridge as much as you can before you start prepping to host, Nini advises.

13. Don't shy away from shortcuts.

You don't have to make everything from scratch. Nini says she's fine with using a mix for things here and there, but always finds a way to doctor it up so it tastes homemade. For example, she'll take basic boxed cake mix and add ingredients like vanilla extract, sour cream, and butter.

Frozen dinner rolls are another helpful shortcut. Though Mary Liz says she loves making them from scratch now and then, her life changed when she discovered Sister Schubert's rolls in the freezer aisle.

14. Say yes to guests.

salads on table outdoors
Getty Images

When your invitees ask if they can bring something, let them know you'd welcome them bringing an appetizer or a dessert while you focus on the main meal. "Those little dishes can really help make the evening and avoid a lot of stress on the host," says Mary Liz. "It's nice to share [the work], and I think it makes guests feel less obligated to have you over [to their home] for dinner right away because they've contributed to the gathering."

15. Keep beverages simple.

While shaking up made-to-order cocktails and offering a fridge full of various drinks might seem like a way to be hospitable to your guests, it can cause unnecessary stress on the host. To streamline things, Nini says she always offers water along with one red wine and one white wine. "Even if someone wants to drink a white wine with red meat, if that's their preference, I want them to be happy," she says.

16. Make dessert ahead of time.

Mary Liz bakes ahead of time for most gatherings, and she's famous for her chess squares and brownies. At Mama Betty's house, the savory meal is the star, so she doesn't spend a lot of time on desserts. Instead, her go-to treat is whipping up a batch of homemade ice cream, which can churn in the ice cream maker while everyone eats.

17. Send home leftovers.

If you've prepared a meal your guests really love, send them home with leftovers to have for the next day. While you can stock up on Tupperware, you can also repurpose containers you already have.

Gloria says her family has long teased her about her habit of recycling Country Crock tubs, using them for storage in both the fridge and freezer. "They always say they have to go through a bunch of tubs to actually find the [margarine]," she says. No one complains about taking one home filled with her famous leftover chicken and dumplings, though.

18. Leave cleaning until the end.

When you're preparing a full menu, it may seem easier to make each dish one by one, cleaning up as you go. But Mama Betty believes it's actually more efficient to wait until you're completely through cooking, especially in a small kitchen like hers. "I make a big mess all at once," she says.

And though it can be tempting to leave the dirty dishes in the sink to wash in the morning, Mama Betty says she never goes to bed until she loads the dishwasher and scrubs pots and pans by hand. That way, you can truly rest and not worry about waking up to a cluttered kitchen.

19. Don't stress.

OK, so this one's much easier said than done. But if you find yourself getting overly worked up about making everything perfect, take a moment to reflect on why you're hosting in the first place.

"[Cooking] for people is a way of showing love. Just relax and enjoy," says Gloria. "Fix what you enjoy making, and what they enjoy eating." When you put it that way, it makes having people over for dinner tonight sound quite delightful, doesn't it?


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