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The Gift of a Meal: Sometimes, Food Really is Love

gabriel-metsu_sickchild_f.jpgWhen I stayed home because I was sick during elementary school, my mother often made me a bowl of chicken noodle soup that contained not only the requisite broth, noodles, carrots and chicken, but a message that I was loved. In college when I was heartbroken (again), my roommate brought me blueberry whole wheat doughnuts from Gibson’s, and I often returned the favor; my dear husband knows that my ills can be cured by takeout Pad Thai. In all cases, the message is the same: somebody is thinking about you and wants you to feel cared for.

If we have any ties to humanity, there are times when someone we care about needs to be loved, supported and nurtured with food. Whether the occasion is a sad one such as a death, a serious illness or a breakup, or a happier but hectic time like the birth of a baby or a move to a new home, the gift of a homemade meal in the freezer is both kind and practical.

BASIC GUIDELINES

There are some rules for providing food to others in times when they need a hand. Some of these I have posted previously, but they bear repeating.

  1. If possible (particularly if the recipient is not a very close friend or family member) find someone close to the recipient who can organize all “cookers” and plan who will provide meals on what day, and make an effort to diversify the offerings so that the family doesn’t end up with three pans of lasagne. Find out if the family is deluged with food and needs everything frozen, or if they would prefer a meal delivered hot and ready to eat at meal-time. Ask whether they would like meals dropped in such a way that they don’t have to see anyone, or if they like to have the bearer of dinner stay and chat for a few minutes. You aren’t just taking food over; you are expressing your interest in and compassion towards a person or a family.
  2. If at all possible, check into preferences and restrictions of everyone for whom you are cooking. Chemotherapy patients often have changes in their sense of taste, and may have developed strong aversions or intolerances for certain foods. Breastfeeding mothers are limited in what they are able to eat. Is there a vegetarian? Do they eat fish? Do they like spicy foods? Are there kids in the house who would really like to have some homemade cookies around? You are not a short-order cook, but there is really very little point in delivering something that the family will not eat and enjoy.
  3. Create absolutely no work or thinking for the recipient. Send food in disposable containers unless you are frequently in their home and able to wash and retrieve dishes yourself. If you send a dish that is not already hot, include a label that explains what the meal is, along with instructions for re-heating. Do not include perishables (salads, for example) unless you are certain that the meal will be consumed within a day or two.
  4. Make double the recipe so that your family has a dinner, too. Of course you don’t have to do this, but why not?
  5. If you can’t cook, would rather not, or just plain think the food recipient would like it, go ahead and take them a pizza from Pizza Hut with breadsticks and a salad. Its the thought that counts, and particularly in households with kids, a pizza is rarely a bad thing.
RECIPES
All of these recipes are freeze-able, and I have tried to avoid what I believe are the most commonly delivered dishes: lasagnes and chicken casseroles. I have tried to be a little diverse in terms of flavors and types of food, although there are some limitations on what can be frozen.
Ham and Bean Soup

Note: although the recipe on the “Cooking Light” website does not include the fact that this soup may be frozen and re-heated, the magazine version does. The best re-heating method would be to place the frozen soup in a saucepan or stockpot over low to medium low heat and stir occasionally. It could also be microwaved, if frozen in 2-3 serving containers. If you freeze the entire quantity, be sure that you freeze it in a container that will easily fit into a pot – its difficult to force a Ziploc-sized square of frozen soup into a standard pot. This recipe makes 8 fairly modest servings; double it if you would like to serve it at home, too. It would be nice to include a batch of commercially made and frozen biscuits in a resealable package so that the family can make as many biscuits as they want with their soup.

Ham and Bean Soup Recipe

Breakfast Bake

Although this is labelled as a “breakfast,” is makes a fine, light dinner or lunch and offers a welcome change from the usual suspects. The recipe as printed below makes two 6-8 serving pans. Its easily altered to accommodate different tastes, and if you think it isn’t enough food for your recipient, add a package of pork or turkey breakfast sausages which may also be frozen.

Breakfast Bake

  1. 4 1/2 cups seasoned croutons
  2. 2 cups (8 oz.) shred cheddar
  3. 1 medium onion, chopped
  4. 1/4 cup chopped red pepper
  5. 1/4 cup chopped green pepper
  6. 1 4 1/2 oz jar sliced mushrooms (I omit these)
  7. 8 eggs
  8. 4 cups milk
  9. 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  10. 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  11. 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  12. 8 bacon strips, cooked and crumbled (you can also use turkey bacon or vegetarian bacon strips)

Sprinkle croutons, cheese, onion, peppers and mushrooms into two greased 8-inch square baking dishes. In a bowl, combine the eggs, milk, salt, mustard, and pepper. Slowly pour over vegetables, dividing between pans, and sprinkle each with bacon.

To bake and serve immediately: bake uncovered at 350 for 45-50 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

To freeze and re-heat: cover and freeze for up to three months. To re-heat, thaw in refrigerator for 24-36 hours, remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking. Bake, uncovered at 350 for 50-6- minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Pizza Hoagies

This is a great choice for families with kids; its not gourmet, but its not another casserole with weird things in it. Kids “get” pizza. Particularly if you are cooking for kids, add in a poke of frozen, homemade chocolate chip cookies and some individually packaged containers of applesauce, which have the half-life of uranium in the refrigerator. If the family has more sophisticated taste, by all means go upscale with Italian sausage, fresh herbs and the best rolls you can find. This recipe makes eight individual sandwiches which may be enough to split between your family and a recipient family, but I double it because these make great snacks or emergency meals. If you are going to keep some for home use, you may want to wrap them individually or in twos.

Pizza Hoagies

  1. 1 pound ground beef (or turkey or Italian sausage)
  2. 1/2 cup chopped onion
  3. 1 15-oz can of pizza sauce
  4. 1/4 can chopped, ripe olives
  5. 2 teaspoons dried basil
  6. 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  7. 8 hoagie buns, sub buns or French rolls
  8. At least 8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese

Brown ground beef and onion over medium heat, and drain off fat. Stir in pizza sauce, olives, basil and oregano and cook for 10 minutes.

Cut 1/4 inch from the top of each roll and set pieces aside. Carefully hollow out the larger part of the roll, leaving a 1/4 inch shell. (I save the filling to make croutons). Sprinkle 2 or more tablespoons of cheese inside each shell, top with 1/2 cup sauce and divide remaining cheese over the sauce. Pres down with the back of a spoon to flatten and replace “tops.” Individually wrap hoagies in foil, in group of four.

To bake immediately: place wrapped sandwiches on baking sheet. Bake at 375 for 15 minutes, or until heated through.

To freeze and reheat: place foil-wrapped sandwiches on a baking sheet. Bake at375 for 60-70 minutes or until heated through.

MORE RESOURCES

Here are some other places to get inspiration and tips for meals that are freeze-able.

Food Network

Good Housekeeping

Don’t Panic – Dinner’s in the Freezer

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

6 responses »

  1. I appreciate your sharing these tips. Food ‘speaks’ in every language, culture, and to every heart. I especially appreciate your suggestion of finding out how the recipient(s) would like the food gift delivered, with or without a face-to-face visit. That’s an important tip. junemoon

    Reply
  2. These are great, you are right something different than the usual chicken or lasagna. I have to imagine after a few weeks of a varied assortment of chicken casseroles, no matter how thoughtlfully provided could send a family into a severe case of dinner blues!

    Reply
  3. Good post, Annie.

    I especially agree with “Ask whether they would like meals dropped in such a way that they don’t have to see anyone, or if they like to have the bearer of dinner stay and chat for a few minutes.” Two very close family friends had problems with people stopping in and staying. Both were sick from chemo and not in any place to visit. They would have rather done without the meals than deal with company every night. Some people even planned to eat WITH them. Not thinkers!

    One friend resolved the issue by putting a cooler on the front porch with fresh ice packs each day. May not seem very friendly, but we can all understand.

    Reply
  4. i, too, appreciate the “Ask whether they would like meals dropped in such a way that they don’t have to see anyone, or if they like to have the bearer of dinner stay and chat for a few minutes.” advice. when my son jordin, died three years ago, there were days i couldn’t have borne looking at anyone and others that i craved human contact.
    a gift of food, during a crisis, is truly a gift of yourself, and from my
    perspective, very very appreciated.

    Reply
  5. Hi, Annie,

    Wonderful post! You know my feelings about the blessing of a meal. We continued to receive so many meals all throughout my chemo and surgery that we had a freezer full…enough to get us through my recovery and going back to work. It was amazing. I’m going to start radiation soon and I wouldn’t be surprised if the meals start coming in again! Speaking from personal experience on the receiving end, if you want to help and don’t know what to do…give a meal!

    (P.S. I do still read your blog even though I’ve let my own blogging fall away. Maybe I’ll try again after radiation!)

    Reply
  6. junemoon, it is a universal language, and (one hopes) makes the giver feel that they are expressing their support while making the receiver feel loved and comforted.

    Annette, you’ll have to let me know what you try and how it works! I do seem to remember that when people cooked for us we ended up with 10 chicken casseroles and 10 lasagnes, which Sam and Rob eventually found so depressing that it was better if I just cooked.

    Barbara, I love the cooler idea – I don’t think folks should be driven to do that by insensitive clods, but is is a way for people to leave meals without disturbing someone who neither wants nor needs visitors. I guess it s also good to make it clear to “givers” what you need and want; people get very flustered trying to do the right thing when someone is grieving or ill.

    jaydee, I wish I’d been able to make you a dinner or two after your son died. I can’t even imagine what you went through and are still going through. It is complicated, what goes on in your heart when your are suffering and alternating between wanting companionship and comfort and needing to be left alone. In a perfect world, I guess we would all have someone to direct traffic for us and let the greater world know when we need an ear and a shoulder and when we are overwhelmed by the idea of leaving the bedroom.

    Vicky, I’m so glad to hear from you!! I think of you often, and hope that you are doing well. You know that I am sending your family some dinners in spirit, and I am glad to hear “from the trenches” that the gift of a meal is appreciated. Please take care of yourself.

    Reply

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