The Gift of Foodlove
Have you ever considered the importance of food in the experience of life’s great moments? Wedding banquets, holiday meals and church picnics draw people together, symbolize abundance and express gratitude. Last night’s episode of Little House on the Prairie (we’re going through the series with the kids) ended with a teenaged Laura Ingalls radiating womanly pride in the privilege of cooking dinner for “Pa” and the object of her yet unrequited affections, “Manly.”
Similarly, food is a universal method of outreach to people in crisis- either good or bad. The receivers may have just become parents of quadruplets, be experiencing a health crisis or be coping with the loss of a loved one. As members of their proverbial “village,” one of the first questions we ask is, “Can we bring you some meals?”
There are two main reasons why we reach out with food. The first is that, practically, we recognize how hard it is to focus on preparing nourishing meals during a crisis. On a more symbolic level, we know that we all cope better with a crisis when we’re well-fed. It is an offering of sustenance.
The second reason – and one that is very important to acknowledge- is that we offer meals because we want to feel better about what is happening. When the struggle or suffering of people around us affects us, our human impulse is to want to do something- anything- to lessen their burden. Doing something is an expression of hope that the burden can be relieved- and sometimes it can. The offering of a meal can be like the cup of cool water proffered by strangers on the edge of a marathon course.
There are good ways and bad ways to provide meals, however. I used to organize meals for families in our rather large church in San Francisco who had babies. I learned a few things about using this gesture to the best effect. When done poorly, a meal delivery schedule can actually be more of a curse than a blessing.
What to bring
Curb your impulses to bring baked goods
When a friend was going through chemotherapy last year, she was delighted that her church was going to be providing her with meals for the first few weeks. She eagerly awaited the first day’s meal. The first family brought over a store-bought coffee cake and a box of chocolates. The next meal delivery consisted of a coconut cake. Whaaat?! A person going through chemo needs easily digestible nourishment, not pastries!
If you must send baked goods because, well, maybe you are a locally renowned baker, then just send enough cookies to finish dinner with a little something. Most likely, if you send 2 dozen cookies, the receiver will feel obliged to consume them all- or will feel guilty throwing them out or giving them away. Either way, you are burdening your recipient.
Bring nourishing, well-balanced meals
I’ll concede that I’m imposing some of my own bias here, but really, the people you’re trying to help out need to eat well. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring comfort food. However, if you decide to bring your ooey-gooey baked mac ‘n’ cheese, balance it out with a side of roasted summer squash or lean protein.
Bring something special
You know I’m an advocate of scratch cooking. Something made from scratch says that you care in a way that store-bought stuff just can’t. It is also more nutritious. If, because of circumstances or something else, you can’t make something from scratch, bring something special.
After having a baby, I once had someone bring some amazing grilled chicken from her favorite Korean restaurant across town. It was so tasty that my mouth waters just thinking about it. After another baby, someone brought me chicken tenders and mac ‘n’ cheese from the prepared foods section of our local grocery store. I hate to be ugly but- really? I waited around for that!?
Bring foods that reheat and freeze well
The families you are serving might not have an appetite tonight. They might have business to tend to that compels them to eat away from home. Let’s say your signature dish is a Tequila-lime Marinated Grilled Shrimp. If it doesn’t reheat well (and shrimp tends to get tough when reheated) it’s probably not a great choice.
Similarly, a 9×13 pan of Penne with Chicken, Olives and Tomatoes would be a fine choice for dinner for a family of five, but for an older couple, it wouldn’t be such a great idea. Either they are going to be having it for dinner three nights this week or they’re going to have to pitch the leftovers because that dish will be dry and nasty after being frozen. See the article titled “Freezer Stash” for guidelines on dishes that freeze well.
Bring food in disposable containers
Don’t burden the recipients with the need to return your containers. Your serving dishes might be prettier, but unless you live next door, remembering to pick them up promptly will be difficult.
Don’t go too far “out there” with your menu
The family says they eat everything. “Oh great!” you may say to yourself. Then I’m sure they’ll love my braised rabbit! Folks, this is not the time to expand other people’s culinary horizons. If it isn’t mainstream and you don’t know that they routinely serve grilled octopus, save the exotic marine life for a dinner party. Also, unless you know that they love spicy food, keep the heat in check.
Don’t be afraid to bring something that you have frozen in your fridge. Just make sure that the family is aware beforehand
Some friends of our family had quadruplets last year. I sent a bag of frozen Boeuf Bourguignon and a sack of uncooked potatoes. I did this after I knew they’d caught up with the pace of quads a bit more and I knew it wouldn’t be a big deal for them to cook the potatoes. The nice thing about something that’s already frozen is that is a great gap-filler.
Of course, it sucks to have a bag of frozen food delivered at 6PM when you are expecting a ready-to-eat meal. Give ‘em a heads up.
How to bring it
Find a point person to organize the calendar and liaise with the recipients
The ideal candidate is someone who is not just super organized, but also someone who is sensitive and knows how to read people well. It is great if they’re friends with the recipients.
People in crisis sometimes feel overwhelmed by the meal delivery thing. They need the point person to reassure them that the givers truly desire to do this. They need to make them feel comfortable expressing needs and wishes. Recipients might be embarrassed by how picky they are, be afraid to be too specific about their preferences, or be concerned that they’ll have to socialize with the deliverers when they’re really not in the mood.
I learned the importance of this the hard way. When I had to replace myself as the head of the meal delivery program at church, I asked for a volunteer. Big freakin’ mistake. The person who volunteered was this quirky shrew of a woman whom we’ll name Tina. Suddenly, everyone at church was politely declining the meal delivery ministry. It wasn’t because they had anything against Tina- most of the new parents had never met her before. Rather, it was because her tone and demeanor kept them from feeling safe and nurtured by this gesture.
Find a person to send reminders about meals
This is a job that can be done by almost anyone. It should ideally be done by someone other than the organizer/liaison. Performing both roles could be quite overwhelming. As much as we’d all like to say that we’re “all adults” and “should be responsible for our own calendars,” life can be overwhelming. I’ve been known to look at my iCal, see that I have an appointment in two hours, and then completely forget about it.
Remind meal givers the day before they’re scheduled to bring a meal. Alternatively, you could remind folks at the beginning of the week. Include the time window when the meal should be delivered and, ideally, a list of the dishes others have brought over the past week or two. As good as lasagna is, most folks probably don’t want to eat it for two weeks straight. It would also be nice to remind givers of the dietary requirements and culinary preferences of the recipients.
Make the calendar public
There are all sorts of public calendar applications, such as Google Calendar, on the internet. Using one of these enables folks to conveniently schedule themselves. It makes it easier for givers to switch dates or for the recipient family to inform givers in changes in their plans. Recipients could block out days when they know they’re travelling or don’t want to receive meals. It also saves my email inbox from being barraged with every change to the meal schedule.
Note: A day after I initially posted this, I got an email from a company called “Meal Train” that has a free website dedicated to scheduling meals for people. How great is that? Haven’t used it yet, but it seems to be a fantastic resource.
Start the meal calendar about 2 weeks after the crisis begins
Whether in birth or death, the first two weeks are chaotic. Those first two weeks are also when close friends and family tend to concentrate their visits. Funerals generate leftovers. Moms love to cook for their daughters who’ve just become moms themselves. The fridge is always full in the immediate aftermath.
Set up a cooler outside the home that can be used if the recipients don’t come to the door
They might not be home. They might not want anyone to knock on the door because the dog will bark and that might wake the baby. Again, this is all about the recipient’s comfort.
Provide meals on time
Come up with a two hour delivery window. If you can’t make that window, just email the recipients and let them know when you can come.
When my last baby was born, we were all accustomed to eating at around 5:30PM. The person who organized meals for me didn’t set up delivery times or reminders, so I never knew what time I should expect the meal. More than once, we had to make and serve dinner before a piping hot meal showed up at 7:30PM- cutting off the giver at the front door so that they wouldn’t see the evidence.
Provide meals every other day no more than three times a week
This is really, really important. Here’s what happens. Remember how I told you that people give meals, in part, to make themselves feel better? Well, that usually means that they give abundantly. It gets especially crazy in situations of tragedy, when we all want to believe that more Shepherd’s Pie might mean less grief.
Your recipients will have lots of leftovers. Three times a week will be all that they can handle. Two times a week may very well be plenty.
Understand and respect the dietary preferences of your recipients
You might be thinking, “Of course!” However, I have to say this because I happen to know not everyone does. If your recipient is trying to lose weight and wants only lean dishes, respect that: even if you think she doesn’t need to lose any weight. Don’t bring her brownies. If a family just went vegetarian but you know they really do like meat, don’t bring them a pork loin.
Assure your recipients that they do not have to write thank-you notes or suggest they do so through email
I’ve heard that there are a few people in the world who will swear that- out of the abundance of their gratitude- they just love to write thank you notes. I’ve also heard of women who orgasm during childbirth. Good for them.
I might be accused of trying to undermine the last holdout of social formality in existence, but let’s be honest for a moment. Most of us find the whole “handwritten thank you note” thing to be a chore. The last thing I want to do when I’m giving to someone in crisis is create an entry on their “To Do” list. And by the way, what’s the note writer supposed to say other than some version of the following?
Thank you so much for the wonderful lasagna. It was so nice of you to do that and we really appreciate your thoughtfulness. It was the best lasagna we’ve ever had!
Looking forward to seeing you at church.
I’d love to hear you weigh in on this. What has meal delivery meant to you in times of crisis? What are the best and worst experiences with it? And do you agree with me about that thank you note thing?