Making a meal for someone else when they need it is a practical way of showing people you care. I love this quote from journalist Annabel Crabb: “Food is a great way of saying things that maybe you don’t say all the time. It’s quite a profound gesture that says, I took time out to think about you and to give you this in the hope that it will make your life easier, or make you a bit less sad, or demonstrate that I, too, am excited about your new job.” *
I have gratefully been on the receiving end of more than my fair share of food over the years, so this is a topic close to my heart. When our twins were first born our kind friends, family and supporters cooked us dinner most nights a week for two months. Needless to say, we were extremely grateful.
Fast forward a few months later, after a move to a new city with a toddler and baby twins in tow, and I remember turning up one morning to a bible study group looking and feeling even more haggard than usual. That afternoon, there was our friend Fiona on the doorstep with dinner. It was very much appreciated.
Fast forward more than 13 years and I am now at a time of life when I can cook for others, and it is something I enjoy doing. I have picked up a few tips through trial and error while making meals for people. While I was thinking about these ideas, I realised it would be useful to go back to Fiona to find out some of her tried and true tips for taking someone a meal. She has been making meals for people for a really long time and has lost count of the number of meals she has made over the years.
Thank you, Fiona, for agreeing to be interviewed and to give us these suggestions:
1. Be grateful
We have appreciated receiving meals as well at different times in our lives. If you are on the receiving end of a meal, be grateful.
2. What’s the best help?
Remember that meals aren’t always the thing that the household needs the most at a particular time. For some people, looking after kids, cleaning the house, or other practical things will be more useful than another meal. It is worth checking what kind of support would help them the most.
3. Keep it simple
It doesn’t have to be expensive to be appreciated. Keep it simple.
4. Notice the need
Notice how people are going and be in tune with where their lives are at, so that even if there isn’t a formal meal roster in place to help them out, you can check in with them and make them a meal if they need it.
5. Co-ordinate the help
If someone is in crisis or a busy time of life and does need a lot of meals or other help, it can be helpful to pick someone from amongst their supporters to co-ordinate a roster of willing cooks. This will make the meals more organised, let the recipients know if a meal is coming and avoid having 10 meals arrive in one day. [Note: there are online volunteer sites for this. Our church often uses the Take Them a Meal site at takethemameal.com]
6. A little creative
Keep it simple, but try and be a little creative as well – it doesn’t always have to be spaghetti bolognese.
7. Pantry staples at the ready
Keep some easy stand by ingredients in the pantry so can you respond quickly if need be. For example, if you have half a kilo of chicken, a bottle of sauce, some vegetables and some pasta or rice, you have a simple meal that is easy to put together.
8. Just buy it
Sometimes even a barbecued chicken and salad from the supermarket is an option as it is easy for you and means the person doesn’t have to think about getting themselves something to eat.
9. Kid friendly?
Think about providing kid friendly meals for families with children. An example is tacos or something similar, a fun and tasty meal. You could also take some iceblocks for the kids.
10. Cook it there
Another meal idea is to take some chicken and vegetables prepared and in a tray ready to cook, so the person can put it in their oven and let it cook at their house.
11. Bonus food for feeding mums
If you are delivering a meal for a mum feeding her baby, think about making some extra food that she can grab and eat during the day, eg muffins.
12. Cold bag
Take the meal in an esky or insulated bag with a freezer block, which gives you the option to leave it on the doorstep if they are not there.
It is best if the containers don’t need to be returned as it can be hard for the recipient to remember to return the empty dish. Empty ice cream containers are a good option.
14. Gluten free ingredients
If you keep some gluten free soy sauce and/or a few other gluten free options, it will help you be ready to prepare a gluten free meal.
15. Special extras
If you are good at making a particular thing that’s a little bit different to the standard meals people usually provide, think about including that. What about some home made ginger beer or some of your own garden produce? If the person is in hospital, you could take in some extras to help liven up the hospital food (unless they are on a special diet). For example, a nice home made strawberry jam or a chutney.
16. Packet cake
A very easy option to make a cake is to use a supermarket chocolate cake packet mix that cooks in the microwave in a matter of minutes.
17. Check on who’s there
Be aware that the food needed will change depending on who is in the household. There may be extra family or other supporters staying with the people in need. If it is a new mum needing meals and grandma is staying, it is worth checking on what they really need, as you don’t want to step on toes by assuming one way or the other that grandma is there to cook.
18. Group lunch leftovers
If your church or group has lunches or other meals together and there is food left over, package up the leftovers into suitable containers for freezing so they can be given to people when needed.
19. Do it together
Cooking together as a group is a good option. Doing it together can be fun and a way of making more meals in the same amount of time.
20. Cook double
Make it easier by cooking double of your own household’s meal so you don’t have to cook two separate things.
I had some of my own ideas to add to this list:
If you agree to provide a meal for a person who has an allergy or food intolerance / preference, please take it very seriously. Make sure you clearly understand which foods they can and can’t have. Be prepared to read carefully all labels of anything packaged, give your chopping boards and utensils an extra rinse to remove any traces of an allergen, and provide a list of all ingredients in the recipe. It is usually less risky for an allergy friendly meal if you can make it from scratch rather than using packaged or short cut foods.
22. More about containers
If you take the meal in a container that doesn’t have to be returned, it will be one less thing to think about for the sick/busy/grieving person. Disposable containers can work. Sometimes I have used dishes which have been passed on to us from here or there, and I am quite happy for them to join the “circle of life” and not be returned to me. I also use one kilo honey containers. Another option is to stock up on a few (clean) second hand dishes.
23. Fresh, healthy = good
I usually try and squeeze a few extra vegetables in to any dish I cook, and often make a simple garden salad to take with a meal. Chances are that in a stressful time of life the meals being eaten by the household may not be as fresh or healthy as they could be, but fresh and healthy food will be much more nourishing.
24. Allow plenty of time
I have learnt from experience to factor in much more time than you think it will take to prepare the meal and deliver it.
25. Factor in delivery plans
Also, don’t forget to factor in time or arrangements to deliver the meal to the person. If you have small children yourself or other transport complications, this can be the trickiest part of providing a meal – actually getting it there. If this is a challenge, see if there is another way to deliver it, eg someone to volunteer to be a central drop off point for a number of meals, or delivering it earlier in the day.
26. Small fridge
Something we were able to arrange recently was a small bar fridge to sit on the person’s back deck, so that people could deliver meals and place them in the fridge even if no one was home. This worked for a couple who needed meals over a longer time and were often out at the hospital during the day.
27. Prepare for delivery
Make sure that the container you take the meal in can survive the car trip without spillage or food safety issues. Perhaps take an old towel wrapped around the dish, and use an ice brick and insulated bags or boxes for cold things.
28. Sensitivity on arrival
Be sensitive as to whether the person is happy for your company for a little while when you arrive delivering a meal. Sometimes they are grateful for the people contact and/or eager to introduce their new baby. At other times the situation is awful and too raw for them to face people, in which case simply delivering the meal without expecting conversation is the best thing to do.
29. Again, keep it simple
I like to adopt the “Playschool Principle” with the meals I make for people. If you have ever watched the children’s educational TV show Playschool, you might have noticed that the smiling presenters will take a cardboard box, stick on a couple of paper plates and draw a few lines with a marker pen. There you have it, a car! All the parents watching think to themselves, “I could do that”. I’m hoping the same principle applies for the meals I make – the food is simple enough that the recipients and others around them can think “I could do that”.
Please share in the comments below if you have any other helpful ideas.
* quoted in the Australian Women’s Weekly magazine, October 2015 issue
By the way, if you visit the Five Beans Food facebook page you will see evidence of some behind the scenes fun and games during the photo shoot for this post.