Helping feed the homeless with just a little bit of time and cash and creativity
November 2, 2011 12:05 PM   Subscribe

Other than chili and spaghetti, what can I make in mass quantity that requires not much $$$, time or ingredients? If it's warm food, how do I keep it warm when it won't be served for at least another 90 minutes in an open parking lot, at night, where there is no electricity and it's freezing cold? Yes, it's to feed the homeless.

Last night I volunteered for the first time to help feed the homeless in a nearby city. It was an amazing experience I'd like to do again. Because it was a spur of the moment decision and I live an hour away, I decided to just bring butter and rolls this time. Other volunteers brought rice, chicken stew, and fruit cocktail, but next time, I'd like to bring something a bit heartier, and with winter coming on, a dish that would be served hot would probably be very welcome.

A little more info: there is a sort of ragtag group of volunteers who come down on their own almost every night to a parking lot which is surrounded by homeless shelters around 7 pm. Apparently, one couple tries to make a hot main dish (using some food donated by restaurants and shops), while other volunteers usually bring sides (pasta dishes, for example) that supplement the main dish. The deal is that you make or buy the food and serve it yourself. Sometimes there is just that couple, but sometimes there are 4, 5 or 10 other volunteers who come and help out. Since this is not an organized nonprofit, just real people helping others out, they never know how much food or volunteers arrive every night.

Sometimes there are 100 people to feed, sometimes there are hundreds of people waiting for the food.

Since I live an hour away, I would love your ideas on something I can easily make in advance. Keep in mind the following caveats:

1) I'm not a great cook - 5 ingredients or less would be great.
2) I'd like to keep my budget around $20-$30 for each time I do this. I could spend more $$$, but would be able to do it less often.
3) Chile and spaghetti are often served, so I'm trying to think of other options to mix it up a bit.
4) It's got to be a dish I can easily and quickly ladle out into a small cup or bowl.

Also, any tricks to keeping the dishes warm if all I've got is a cooler to store them in during the drive over and the setting up? There is no electricity set up so I can't plug in a crock pot or anything like that to keep it warm.
posted by HeyAllie to Food & Drink (34 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Rice and beans would probably work. If you just make it in a big pot and keep it in the big pot until serving it holds heat pretty well.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:08 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Frito Pie. Chicken Soup. Pasta Salad.
posted by cross_impact at 12:09 PM on November 2, 2011

Minestrone. Very easy to make from canned vegetables and beans. Any stew-like soup, really.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 12:12 PM on November 2, 2011

Stir-fried rice or noodles with vegetables. You can use frozen diced vegetables to cut down on costs. Plenty of onions, which are cheap and add lots of flavour. I've put small pieces of potatoes in stir-fry before too, it works.
posted by yawper at 12:12 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Split-pea or lentil soup
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 12:13 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: One trick to keeping food warm on the drive over is to wrap the pot/casserole/whatever in a blanket, then put it in the cooler. The blanket will act as insulation, keeping the food warm.

My suggestion was going to be hamburger soup, my sister's stick-to-your-ribs winter warmer.

Chop an onion or two, fry in a large pot with some oil. Then crumble in some hamburger, and fry till cooked. Toss in whatever chopped veg you have handy (my sister often uses carrots, canned corn and celery), maybe some oregano, salt and pepper, or other spices of your choosing, and toss in several cans of tomato sauce to loosen the whole thing and make it a soup.
posted by LN at 12:15 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely hearty soups. Green Pea, black bean, and potato are all filling, warm and cheap to make.

Curried vegetables, lo mein, or mashed potatoes would also fit the bill.
posted by troublewithwolves at 12:18 PM on November 2, 2011

Best answer: Pea and ham soup. A nice thick potato or pumpkin/butternut squash soup served with bread rolls would be warming. Chilli with beans. Irish stew with lots of veg and potatoes in, you can use quite cheap cuts of meat and cook long and slow to make it nice and tender. Chicken and dumplings or noodles if you aren't up for dumplings. A nice thick veggie soup, you can use in season veg or I use the ones they are in a hurry to get rid of at the supermarket for mine though check the discount rack because sometimes it's hard to tell just how old the veggies are in the plastic bags. Add lots of spices or garlic for flavour, when cooking bulk lots of people under flavour also if the people are outside and cold flavours won't taste as strong.

My mother used to do catering for big events, you can use a cooler (or foam/polystyrene broccoli boxes) to help keep food warm. Wrap the pot in a couple of layers of towels and then wedge it in the cooler. Wedge more towels around as needed to stop it tipping over. It also makes transportation easier.
posted by wwax at 12:21 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Easy recipes would be really helpful, rather than randomly throwing out names of dishes. For example, what's your recipe for rice and beans? Thanks!
posted by HeyAllie at 12:28 PM on November 2, 2011

Refried beans + some cheese and tortillas = awesome burritos. Throw in some rice for a complete protein.
posted by jquinby at 12:36 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite] can also individually wrap those burritoes in foil to keep them warm and portable. The Burrito Project folks do this with guerilla-style feeding programs in various cities.
posted by jquinby at 12:37 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What I call "Mexican bake" - get a big casserole dish, and coat it with spray oil or butter.

Put tortillas on the bottom. They can overlap a bit. You can also tear them in half to fit better.

Then a bunch of layers, depending on your ingredients:
- black beans from a can, drained and rinsed. Or - cook a whole pot of black beans, it's cheaper!
- refried beans
- a bit of jalapeno, not a ton
- cilantro and parsley
- cheese - cheddar jack is good
- salsa or canned tomatoes, drained a bit
- pinto beans
- squash - especially butternut in the winter
- yams - either pre-bake them, or slice very thin
- a layer of sour cream
- at least one or two layers of tortilas
- end with a layer of cheese

Remember - don't include all of that. One or two versions of beans. Squash OR yams.

Cover with tin foil. Cook at 350 for a while. Probably 35 -40 minutes depending on your oven. You want to see it bubbling away in the casserole dish. Take off the foil and let the top get browned for another 10 minutes.

Sooo good, and if you use in-season food, and pick up tortillas and beans at an ethnic grocery store, it can be super cheap.
posted by barnone at 12:39 PM on November 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You can also search for "recipes for a group" or "cooking for a crowd."

Here is a list of recipes for a crowd of 100. It includes finger foods, salads (e.g. chicken salad on rolls!), and hot main dishes. Here's another for baked chicken and noodles - with 18lbs of chicken! Roast beef sandwiches would be easy-ish.
posted by barnone at 12:44 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Individually wrapped burritos. Seriously. You can buy all the ingredients in bulk and wrap in foil. It is easy to fix ahead and reheat. It is easy to transport and keep warm in a cooler/insulated container and is easy for the recipients to carry and keep.
posted by jadepearl at 1:00 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

This red lentil curry is delicious, hearty, and cheap (basically lentils, tomato puree, onions, and spices. Feel free to fudge on the spices and throw in whatever you have that tastes good, or just a bunch of curry powder).

Mujdara (lentils + rice + onions) is also delicious + cheap. Easy mujdara recipe here.

Both of these will hold heat well you keep them in as big a pot as possible, wrap the pot in towels, and store in a cooler on your way over.
posted by rebekah at 1:06 PM on November 2, 2011

Depression era corn chowder. Easy, cheap, delicious. You can even use less butter and less milk and make it cheaper. Keep it warm by lining a large cooler with tin foil. that would also help in the event of a spill!
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:06 PM on November 2, 2011

This is a really good red beans & rice recipe.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 1:13 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

2 cups split peas
8 cups water
1 sprig thyme
2 bay leaves
salt & cracked pepper (lots)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup each chopped carrots/onions/celery
1 ham bone (or a ham steak, a ham hock, a pack of chorizo, chopped into bits, or some bacon)
sherry (optional)
Rinse & pick over peas. Put in water. Bring to boil in a big pot, turn off & let sit for an hour. Skim off any starchy scum. Put everything else in, bring to boil again, then simmer for 2 hours, covered. Take out ham bone (but leave in any meat). Season to taste. Serve with a lashing of sherry and it will taste magical. You should be able to double the recipe, or even triple it, within your budget.
Stays warm in plastic takeout containers, sealed, inside a cooler, packed in towels. Bring some wet naps to clean your hands and implements, though; this stuff sets like cement when it dries.
Congratulations on using your humanity wisely.
posted by jcrcarter at 1:17 PM on November 2, 2011

Throw about two cups of split peas into a rice cooker. Add water (4 cups or so, double the amount of dried peas). Cook. Mash and stir when done. You end up with a sticky, powdery pea paste.

Put the paste in a crockpot. Add some finely chopped ham, chopped onion, and enough vegetable or beef broth to make it liquid. Throw in a couple of bay leaves and 10-12 whole peppercorns. In about an hour, you have a thick, yummy pea soup that looks like you spent DAYS simmering it to the proper consistency. Take the crockpot, keep it wrapped in a towel, fit it into a cooler or insulated bag if possible. The ceramic of the slow cooker ought to hold in a lot of heat.

You can do the same thing with lentils, too. Skip the ham and stick to vegetable broth if having meat in the dish might be a problem for some of your target homeless persons (if you're Muslim/Jewish and homeless, you still need to eat, right?). Throw in a box of saltines, hand out 5-10 crackers with each bowl.

Anyone hungry and cold ought to be pretty happy with a bowl of that soup. I'm always happy with it, and I'm fortunate enough not to be sleeping outside.

Beans and rice: Bags of quick-prep beans and rice are cheap (look for Vigo brand red beans and rice or black beans and rice, or similar - Zatarain's has similar boxed dishes too). Throw a bag or two into a large pot, add water per directions, cook. Usually done in about 20 minutes. You can do it in a rice cooker or in the microwave, too. Add chopped cooked sausage if you wish.

Jambalaya is also pretty easy; use the Zatarain's boxed recipe, in a rice cooker. Steam chicken or sausage in the steamer basket usually included with the cooker. When done, chop the meat and stir into the rice mixture.

Dirty rice is another option - again, go for the inexpensive boxed variety, throw in a pound or so of cooked ground beef.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:18 PM on November 2, 2011

Best answer: Mushroom rice. Really flavorful and inexpensive to make! I crave this stuff on a daily basis..


1 can french onion soup
1 can beef consume
1 small can of mushrooms (4 oz, pieces and stems)
1 cup of rice
1 stick of butter - melted

Pour all ingredients into a baking dish and stir them together slightly. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until top browns. (I use fresh sliced mushrooms and in larger amounts than the recipe calls for.)
posted by loquat at 1:27 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I made this cabbage, bacon and potato soup on the weekend. (Don't ask me why I crave winter soups and casseroles when spring arrives here in Australia, I just do.) Very easy to make, and incredibly delicious and filling.

The comments below the recipe have some good ideas for variations. I thought next time I might skip the bacon and substitute chicken instead. Even using half the recommended amount of cabbage and adding different winter vegies would work. Multiply the recipe x 10, serve with a bread roll, and their tummies will be full of nourishing, warming, filling goodness. For a while, at least.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 1:33 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For example, what's your recipe for rice and beans? Thanks!

What I usually do:
(1) dice one green pepper, one onion, a few spoonfuls of minced garlic. Cook in vegetable oil.

(2) once the pepper and onion are cooked, add two cans of beans (I usually do one can of kidney beans, one cup of black beans), four cups of water. bring to boil.

(3) add two cups white rice. (I use jasmine rice, but the kind of rice you use doesn't matter; if you're feeding the homeless go with whatever's cheapest so you can feed lots of them, I don't think this affects the quality of the finished product.) Season to taste (salt, hot sauce, oregano?) Cook until done. (I never seem to be able to get the amount of water right, so keep an eye on it, make sure it doesn't burn.)

The amounts should scale up. Some people don't like onions, so you may want to leave them out. Modifications to this that I do fairly often:
(a) add tomatoes (with the pepper and onion); you could also add tomato paste to the liquid.
(b) add meat (chicken, sausage, ground beef all work). Precook and add at the same time you add the rice. Ground beef could also be added between steps 1 and 2; let it brown but not cook all the way before you add the rice.
Sometimes I add cheese, but I wouldn't do that in this setting; I generally add the cheese right before serving, and that's not really practical with your constraints.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:33 PM on November 2, 2011

Best answer: You could consider investing in an inexpensive portable stove like this one.
Just leave your dish in the pot and transport the pot in a cooler as mentioned above.
When you get to the site, fire up the stove and your dish will soon be piping hot.

And good on ya for doing this!
posted by islander at 1:48 PM on November 2, 2011

I think you will find this website useful. It is very old and has wonderfully quaint graphics but don't let that fool you it has great ideas for feeding large numbers of people on a budget with recipes. It will also help you work out just how much food you would need to feed large groups as well as give you tips on serving and extras. Some of the info is for catering something like a budget family reunion or a camp or something, but a lot of the info would work for what you are doing. Good luck with everything.
posted by wwax at 2:14 PM on November 2, 2011

Best answer: Hah, islander, was just coming in to suggest this cheap portable stove as well. And yes, my hat is off to you, Hey_Allie, for your willingness to feed those in need.
posted by Lynsey at 2:15 PM on November 2, 2011

Potato and cabbage soup. Saute onion, add cubed potatoes, chopped cabbage, water to cover and cook until potatoes are done. Add neufchatel or cream cheese and puree in blender in batches or with stick blender, add dill, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with big crispy croutons or rolls. For whatever reason (the cabbage maybe?) this is a very warming, filling soup and super cheap also. Good for you for looking out for your fellow humans.
posted by Allee Katze at 2:25 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've seen hot dogs work well for this and people can take an extra for later. One person cooks hotdogs, another puts them in a bun and wraps them in a sheet of wax paper. When they are wrapped they are piled in to a cooler. They stay pretty warm for a while. Set up condiments at the hand out spot and voila.
posted by readery at 2:48 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hoppin' John is pretty easy to make. It's just black-eyed peas cooked with a little bay leaf, onion, and some ham hocks, then served over rice. This recipe also includes collard greens, which are dirt cheap, and have a nice hit of vitamins.
posted by Gilbert at 3:05 PM on November 2, 2011

Best answer: Baked potatoes stay hot for AGES if there's a ton of them in a foiled lined box then no problem. Then you just add butter and cheese when you serve. Alternatively heat up a load of beans as well/instead of - a bit hot pot of beans will also stay hot for ages.
posted by fatmouse at 7:33 PM on November 2, 2011

Best answer: I've recently discovered Chicken Taco Stew which is far more delicious than anything this cheap and simple has a right to be. If you aren't doing it in a slow cooker, just cook the chicken separately and add it to the other ingredients and simmer them altogether for while.

Wrap stuff in blankets and place in cooler as others have suggested for keeping warm.
posted by HMSSM at 11:12 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lasagna is nice variation on spaghetti.

-Brown 1 lb hamburger with some pepper and maybe onion flakes. (mom never used meat but I like meat)

-Boil lasagna noodles (some noodles say you don't have to boil first but I was trained to boil) I use 9 standard sized lasagna noodles for one 13x9 inch pan.

-spoon spaghetti sauce (mom uses preggo, I like newmans ymmv) into bottom of pan.

-begin layering: noodles > sauce > 1/2 the meat > some cottage cheese > noodles > sauce > 1/2 the meat > some cottage cheese > noodles > sauce > sliced or shredded mozzarella (not anything fancy like "fresh" mozzarella.

Bake in 350 oven for 20-40 minutes until cheese is all melty and delicious looking. Cover with the handily lid or foil and wrap in towels/blankets
posted by HMSSM at 11:31 PM on November 2, 2011

Japanese-style curry is super easy to make if you can find the pre-made "vermont curry" cubes. Chop up carrots, potatoes, onion, cube some meat or mushrooms if meat is a no-go. Put all in a pot with enough water to cover, and boil until the potatos/carrots are soft, and add roux cubes.

You would want to serve this with rice, which can be a bit tricky if you don't have one of the gigantic rice-cookers used in asian restaurants, but making the curry more potato-heavy could make the rice less of a necessity. Rice will stay hot for a reasonable amount of time in a covered pot. If you pre-soak rice it cooks a lot more quickly and you can avoid burning the bottom.
posted by that girl at 4:53 AM on November 3, 2011

Response by poster: Excellent suggestions here. The thought of bringing a camping stove or my little portable Weber grill to keep foods warm is brilliant - there might be a night of hot dogs coming up soon! (Perhaps pre-cooking them the day before and using the grill to keep them warm.)

I also discovered my crock pot came with some sort of insulated cover, so that'll be helpful with any of the recipes above that uses a slow cooker.

Many thanks for the support for me and especially from the homeless folks who are so grateful for the kindness of strangers.
posted by HeyAllie at 8:20 AM on November 3, 2011

Response by poster: Oh, I just wanted to add - one of the volunteers mentioned that foods that were a bit "ethnic" or spicy, such as curries, didn't go over as well with the crowd. She said to keep it basic and hearty. Thought that might be helpful - you know, just in case there was a wave of Mefites who decided to spontaneously go feed the homeless in the next few weeks!
posted by HeyAllie at 8:24 AM on November 3, 2011

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