Old episodes of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” have been my daughter’s show of choice lately. And truthfully, I’ve enjoyed having this soft-spoken gentleman and his kind earnest words back in my life as well. I often think of what Fred Rogers said on the topic of heart-wrenching and terrifying events in the news, and his words have comforted me and guided discussions with my child when she’s asked me questions about what she’s seen on the news.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’” Mr. Rogers once said.
My daughter reminded me of this quote as we were grocery shopping for a volunteer project recently. She was excited to be a helper herself as we loaded up our shopping cart with ready-bake lasagna noodles, shredded cheese and marinara sauce. Several weeks ago I’d signed up my family to make a meal for Helping Hands of Springfield’s Winter Warming Center. A request for volunteers popped up on my social media feed, and I enrolled us on a whim. I’d been looking to do some sort of service as a family, but finding something my five-year-old could participate in and that worked with our schedules had been difficult. Making a big meal together as a family and sharing it with some truly grateful folks has turned out to be exactly what we’d been looking for.
Admittedly, I am a chef, and preparing a meal for a large number of people doesn’t really intimidate me. But truthfully, many adept home cooks can pull it off. With a little help from friends and proper planning, it can be done.
Some organizations, such as Ronald McDonald House and Helping Hands shelter allow you to sign up online and pick the day you’d like to cook. Other organizations, such as Compass for Kids and Sojourn House shelter can be contacted directly about signing up to prepare meals.
Many hands make light work, so invite friends to participate. It helps to spread some of the cost, and it’s more fun when one person isn’t bogged down with the sole responsibility of preparing the meal.
When planning a menu, classic casseroles are really the best. They can be batched up easily, and are a cost-effective way to deliver protein and vegetables in a compact package. Plan to make something that you’ve made before – this is not the time to experiment! Dishes like meat lasagna, tuna noodle casserole, baked ziti or chili make for a hearty and balanced meal when paired with a big garden salad and a fruit crumble for dessert. A 9x13-inch casserole will generally serve 10-12 people with side dishes, and a pound of ready-to-use lettuce with other vegetables added in will generally make enough salad for 10-12 people.
Disposable aluminum containers work beautifully for both casseroles, desserts and salads. With the lids on they can be stacked, making for easier transport and storage. These types of pans can be purchased in Springfield at Sam’s Club or Gordon Food Service. If you will be making the meal on site, a visit before your first cook day is helpful so you know what cooking implements are available. You may find that you want to pack a kit with some of your favorite pans, knife or salad spinner to make things easier.
Some organizations will accept home-cooked meals, but many require that meals be cooked in their entirety on site or in a licensed kitchen. Meals for guests at Ronald McDonald House, who stay at the house while a family member is in the hospital, must be prepared at their facility. Compass for Kids, an after-school program for at-risk kids, is hosted at various local churches in Springfield, and invites volunteers to prepare meals on site at the host church. The facilities at Ronald McDonald House and many churches have multiple ovens, ample refrigeration and lots of counter space, making it easier to prepare on site than at most homes. Regardless of where they are prepared, it is important to follow proper food safety guidelines when preparing meals. Bring along a meat thermometer to assure that cold foods are kept adequately chilled and that hot foods are brought up to safe serving temperature. Food safety guidelines (useful to all home cooks) can be found at https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/basics/index.html.
And by the way, shortcuts are OK! I am generally a from-scratch purist, but when I am cooking a large quantity of food off site, I find it’s helpful to take advantage of a few shortcuts, especially when they don’t impact the taste or quality of the finished dish. Ready-bake noodles help to speed up the production of lasagna and reduce the number of dishes dirtied up in the process. Take advantage of time-saving products such as pre-shredded cheese, washed lettuce, prepared pasta sauce, frozen fruit and bottled salad dressings.
Don’t forget extras! Be sure to include disposable plates, cutlery, napkins and bottled water with your meal if necessary. Condiments such as salad dressing, hot sauce and whipped cream help make a meal special.
If you can, take the time to stay and enjoy the meal with the clients who are being served. You would be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable and rewarding way to spend time with your family, friends and community.
Helping Hands shelter http://www.helpinghandsofspringfield.org or 522-0048.
Compass4kids http://www.compass4kidz.com/volunteer.html or 691-8103.
Ronald McDonald House https://rmhc-centralillinois.org/provide-a-meal-heart-ronald-mcdonald-house-charities-central-illinois/ to sign up and review their guidelines, or call 528-3314 for more information.
Sojourn House of Springfield www.sojournshelter.org or call their hotline at 726-5200.
Contact Ashley Meyer at email@example.com.