soup kitchen volunteers! can you lend me your recipes, menus, & advice?
November 14, 2013 8:16 AM   Subscribe

I am part of a group that regularly gets together to cook and serve meals at a soup kitchen. Our amazing group leader of many years recently passed away very, very unexpectedly, and we have been struggling somewhat in his absence -- he always just kept everything in his head: set menus, what to buy and how much, where to get the best price on stuff, etc. Can you help us put everything back together?

We usually serve anywhere from 50 to maybe 150 folks depending on the season. Probably 25% are small children, 25% teens, 50% adults. Location is an inner city church in a deeply segregated major metropolitan area in the Midwest. Volunteer group size is usually 6-10 people.

The folks we serve don't have very much experience eating ostensibly 'healthy' food, particularly fresh fruit and veg, so that stuff does not usually go over very well -- canned corn yes, green bean casserole no. Canned fruit cocktail is OK, sliced apples or fresh fruit salad not so much. Some dishes that have been very well-received: mashed potatoes and gravy, lasagna, ham and rolls, beef chili, any kind of cookies, pumpkin pie, chocolate cake.

These folks are usually getting their biggest and sometimes only meal of the day from us, so it's really important that they enjoy the food and that it fills them up. We used to be able to let people box/bag up and bring home leftovers but the church recently put the kibosh on that. Fortunately, we almost always have enough food to be able to serve seconds and sometimes even thirds.

If you have participated in a program like this, especially serving a similar population, do you have any recommendations?

Here's some aspects I'd especially love help with:
* Any standard menu suggestions or individual favored dishes for any part of the meal, from appetizer to dessert? We'd like to be able to cook a variety of foods instead of the same array of stuff every time.
* Any nationwide or regional stores that have especially good bulk food deals?
* Anything in particular that we can make for and give to the kids? Toys, books, treats? We do give out school supplies in the fall.
* We have access to a full industrial kitchen, but not everything works properly, and we can only get into the building 90 minutes before the meal is served so we are always battling the clock. Is there anything that can be made from scratch for 200 people in 90 minutes by a half-dozen or so moderately-experienced cooks? We normally get boxed or frozen stuff from Costco or Restaurant Depot but I would love nothing more than to provide a good home-cooked meal and I am totally willing to bust my ass to get it done.
* Is cooking stuff at home/in advance advisable for this sort of situation? I haven't suggested this because it seems inadvisable in a food safety sense, but I would do if it meant we could serve better-quality meals with the increased allowance of prep time.
* Are there printable charts that might help us accurately scale servings up/down for our diners? Sometimes baking recipes can't be doubled/trebled without something going awry, for example.
* Recipe sites, messageboards, or cookbooks that address these issues?
* Anything we can do to increase the general level of dignity for the meal service? Tablecloths, maybe? As it stands, we usually have just enough volunteers to cook and serve, people come up with lunch trays that we put the food on (like in a school cafeteria) and then they circle around to the drink/dessert table for napkins and silverware. We could probably get someone to go around and serve the trays individually, but folks like to pick and choose what goes on their plates, so I'm not sure if that would work out.
* Has anyone ever done this with a "waiter" sort of deal, where someone goes around with menus, takes orders, and brings out custom-made plates to people as they're prepared? As a kid who ate at soup kitchens, that would have made me feel very fancy and I think it would be so great if we could pull it off.

Bonus question:
Is there any way to make it slightly less psychologically devastating to play the role of gatekeeper by having to stand between a hungry child and a giant bin of food? I used to belong to a similar population to the one we're serving so it's a bit emotionally complex, with a simultaneous sense that I am trying to give back to my community in exchange for all I have been lucky enough to receive in this life AND that I don't 'deserve' to be on the other side, the helper instead of the helped, and that this makes me inherently and inescapably condescending (white savior syndrome).
And having to tell a six-year-old kid that she needs to wait until seconds are served so she can have another piece of bread, and the gratitude that lights up her face if I realize there's enough food that I can just wink and give her two pieces anyway? That is just not right. I want to be able to say, "It's OK, take as much as you want! Eat until you aren't hungry anymore!" and I can't and it destroys me. It's such an undeserved luxury to even be able to be affected by it, because I am blessed enough that I don't have to live that way anymore, that it makes me feel like a traitor to My People (i.e. poor and food-insecure/hungry people). Is this a common feeling in volunteering, or just some dumb personal nonsense I need to go over in therapy?

Any other information, suggestions, or advice would be very much appreciated. Our group has regular meetings to discuss menus and new approaches and I'd really love to bring something to the proverbial table next time -- I'm usually just the silent worker bee type.

Thank you so much!
posted by divined by radio to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite many people do you have, exactly? I can think of some more home-cooked recipes that might work, but I feel like the biggest problem might be having enough time/people to do vegetable prep. Like say, jambalaya is something that adapts well for a big crowd, and you can sneak some vegetables in there in the form of the Trinity, and I think it would fit in your timeline and budget, but only if you have enough people for prep. Though you may be able to get pre-chopped onions and peppers at a place like restaurant depot, I'm not sure, and that would make things way easier.

Either way --- dessert wise, apple crisp seems like it'd be perfect for you. It's got some nutrion in it with the apples and oats in the topping, and it'd dead simple to put together. Pretty flexible, too, I think you should be able to just multiply a normal recipe to fit your needs.
posted by Diablevert at 8:33 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might be surprised to find out how much people like salad. Some friends and I prepared food and served it to homeless people in St. Pete, FL, every Friday. for the four years that I lived there I was known to dozens of homeless people as the salad lady- I'd be walking downtown and I'd hear someone shout out "hey salad lady!". Every week I brought a big plastic bin full of salad and a few bottles of dressing- ranch and Italian. I didn't have time to dumpster-dive or solicit donations. I just went to my neighborhood discount supermarket and got lettuce, carrots, cabbage, and whatever else was cheap and put it all together. I spent maybe $8-10. a week and usually had enough salad for 80 people or so. Yes, it might not have been the most nutritious food they got, but it gave them pleasure, and other friends brought heavier food. Oh, and some people like to put ranch dressing on absolutely everything so it's good to have a whole lot of it.

One friend always brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, individually wrapped, that people could put in their pockets for later or breakfast.

I also brought donated books for kids and adults, and magazines.
posted by mareli at 8:42 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a good jambalaya recipe. I've made it and you could easily get 10-12 generous servings from it as is; I'd double it to fill a full size catering tray. Adjust the cayenne level to your crowd's palate at your discretion.
posted by Diablevert at 8:45 AM on November 14, 2013

Do you have a Restaurant Depot near you? Great place for large quantities, though stick to the simple things, name brand is not always cheaper.

The key to collaborative food prep is to read and understand the recipes ahead of time and assign clear roles to make sure it all gets done in the correct order. Food processors are a timesaver for quickly chopping onions and other vegetables. Cooking at home is against food safety regulations, though I would be less worried for baked goods like cookies.

Some other recipes that might work - pasta casserole (if nothing else, mac & cheese), tomato soup and grilled cheese, pasta with meat sauce... You might like this database of military recipes which are in large quantities.
posted by beyond_pink at 8:58 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Good on you! I help a group in Reno, NV that does something like this but more commando style. We feed up to 200 people a night in the parking lot in front of homeless shelters. There is a lovely woman, Amber, who organizes volunteers to do it four days a week, so I get a group of my friends together and we step in and take over for her to give her a bit of a break. We've done it 17 times so far. A couple of thoughts.

Amber has found that it's much easier to keep to a regular menu every week. Monday is Mexican night, Tuesday is spaghetti night, Wednesday it's sandwiches or hot dogs, Thursday is whatever else she can pull together. The side dishes vary, depending on what she gets as donations or what other volunteers bring in. People are used to this and when you are hungry, you can't be too picky.

Because there are NO facilities on site, we cook everything at home and just have mastered ways to keep food warm one way or another, from insulated bags to using camping stoves.

When I bring my group of friends together, I send an email reminding everyone of the upcoming dates. I like to keep it fun so I put a theme together, whether it's Back To School Night, Comfort Foods, Hot Hot Hot, whatever. Everyone reports to me on what they want to bring so we don't have people bringing the same thing. We try to serve at LEAST five different things.

Here is a list of dishes that have worked well for us.

This easy chili with a little less meat and supplemented by elbow macaroni to make it heartier and stretch it out. I multiply this recipe x 6 and it WILL feed at least 150.

Sandwiches in bags in case people want to save it for later. Always have just plain cheese sandwiches for the vegetarians. Depending on what we can afford, we either give full sandwiches or half a sandwich out.

Bread (the cheap loaves) of white and / or wheat. A SPATULA to use to spread the cheap tubs of margarine.

Hard-boiled eggs. Winco is a cheap grocery store that has some items in bulk. I think I bought a bag of 1000 salt packets for $5.

Tater tots topped with shredded cheese.

If you are near a Jimmy Johns, call and ask them if they will sell you their day old bread. I think I read somewhere that they sell loaves for 50 cents or something. I've been meaning to check this out.

Meatballs in jarred spaghetti sauce. Sometimes we serve this as a side dish - 2 meatballs each. Sometimes it's served with pasta - one meatball each.

Plain spaghetti with marinara sauce. Parmesan cheese as a topping always makes people happy.

Simple pasta salad. If you have extra $$$, add drained tuna.

Simple green salad. Dump bags of salad (88 cents from Walmart) into a clean plastic bin. Add dressing just a few minutes before you serve.

Bananas and grapes. Apples are too hard and don't go over well.

Hot dogs. If we can afford it, we buy hot dog buns. If not, we wrap them in a slice of bread. They don't care.

Funny, green bean salad served hot is always a hit. People tells us it is comfort food.

Sometimes we do Breakfast for Dinner. Two people volunteer to make 200 small pancakes each so we can give 2 pancakes out at a time. Tubs of margarine. Giant jugs of the cheapest imitation maple syrup (just a dash). Toast. Choice of a spoonful of scrambled eggs or a hard-boiled egg. Small finger-sized sausages. Orange juice (we water it down a bit to make it last a bit more).

Cookies. Homemade brownies are popular.

Condiments are great! Hot sauce, ketchup, etc.

I buy generic brands for EVERYTHING. I usually just take a recipe and multiply it by at least 5 or 6.

One thing that is helpful are foods that may not be eaten immediately but can be saved for breakfast or another meal.

Sometimes if we have less dishes, we serve greater servings. If we have a lot of different dishes, we serve smaller servings. I go to a restaurant supply shop and they make ladles (i.e 1/4 cup) that are perfect for figuring out how to serve.

No foods with hard nuts or too crunchy. Lots of bad teeth out there.

I went to my local grocery store and talked with the manager. While he can't straight out donate food without going through corporate, he does give me some nice discounts. I shop pretty much at all the cheap grocery outlet stores and Walmart for most things and occasionally Costco, but I do a lot of comparison shopping.

Hope this helps. Feel free to MeMail me!
posted by HeyAllie at 9:04 AM on November 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and this was me asking a similar question when I first started doing this….

One interesting thing…. I am a regular at my library and told one of the librarians about this. Not only does she and some other librarians now help out, but she has gotten approval from the library system to give us STACKS of donated library books that they can't use to give away when we do the feeds. I can't tell you how loved this is - people start screaming with joy when they see me pull up and bring out paperbacks and magazines. I'm now the "book lady."
posted by HeyAllie at 9:08 AM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is a bit of a trivial answer but I've noticed that older or smaller run (like community or church printings) cookbooks, and also some of the classics like Joy of Cooking, will generally have at least one or two recipies for a crowd.

It may be called something like "To feed a barn raising crew", "Mammy's Reunion Punch, serves 100" or "Community Gumbo" but it's often there. I can't recall what variation of this is in our Joy of Cooking but I think it might be deviled eggs or egg salad, oh well.

Anyway, I'd consider taking a field trip to the library or a local goodwill/thrift store and camping out in front of their cookbook section and looking for these recipes within those cookbooks. I guess what I'm saying is that finding a cookbook for massive numbers of people would be great but is less likely than finding the one to five recipes a given church cookbook might have for you. Not to mention that type of food will likely meet your needs as it's almost guaranteed to be hearty, down-to-earth fare.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:26 AM on November 14, 2013

Best answer: For raising dignity levels, ask local florists to donate their seconds for table decor. The local community meal does this here and the psychological impact is huge.
posted by susanvance at 10:18 AM on November 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

Re: the 90 minute limitation. Can 1-2 volunteers stay in the kitchen during meal service to get a head start for the next meal?
posted by aniola at 10:18 AM on November 14, 2013

I'm seeing jambo, and chili, and wondering if this is a good idea for people who aren't getting meals on a regular basis.
Might it (the spiciness) not mess with your innards?

I Googled "running a soup kitchen" and seems to be a lot of hits (15 million).
I'm thinking that instead of inexpensive food, how about FREE food?
Community food banks will probably help you out; grocery stores.
Bakeries will usually give you their day-old, end-of-the-business-day stuff.

The government is probably sitting on equipment that you could use. Ask for it.
Best of luck!
posted by JABof72 at 10:24 AM on November 14, 2013

You might find this handy for working out recipe sizes.

If making something like chilli or a red sauce for pasta it is super easy to "hide" veggies in and it bulks out the meat so it goes further. Grated carrot and zuchinni are cheap and a great and add flavour along with the traditional onions, peppers and celery if you have access to a food processor it doesn't take long to prep the veg and a nice runny sauce makes it go a long way and doesn't take long to cook once the meat is browned.

I can't help you with suggestions on where to shop, if you have access to a wholesalers like Sams you might save money, but then again some supermarkets will offer case discounts if you are buying cases of items regularly every week you might be able to work out deals with one of the smaller chains.

Honestly the best way to do this is as someone already suggested make your life easy and go set menus for every day of the week, you can then slowly work out the best places to get the different ingredients and volunteers know what to expect when they turn up so will get routines in place to save time getting ready it will make things a lot less stressful.
posted by wwax at 10:30 AM on November 14, 2013

Best answer: My go-to web sites for when my church hosts large-scale dinners:

* This PDF from the Crossroads Soup Kitchen in Detroit, MI has some info on scaling and a few recipes.
* Ditto for this MS Word doc from Operation Hope in Connecticut.
* Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen provides info on a typical day for their soup kitchen.
* The Big Pots section of not only has recipes, but has articles on things like planning for buffet tables and lines, and shopping lists for a large turkey dinner.
* has recipes and other valuable tips for cooking for a crowd.
* There's, of course
* has a guide for estimating how much to buy for a crowd.
* I found this soup kitchen recipes PDF recipes from the Sai Center of Austin, TX. They run a weekly breakfast and lunch soup kitchen.
* For recipes more specific to soup kitchen cooking, check out these threads: - Homeless Shelter Recipes?, - Soup Kitchen Cookery: large quantity recipes, cheap and delicious, Catholic Charities of Baltimore - Our Favorite Casseroles, and this Taco Soup recipe scaled for 250 at

Things I've learned or been told over the years:

* Do the volunteers go through any kind of training? Not just "how to cook" but things like "don't leave knives on counters" or "basic food safety" or "All volunteers must wash hands after using the bathroom before returning to work"? This can save on headaches.
* In a similar vein, the PDF "Cooking for Groups-A Volunteer's Guide to Food Safety" from the USDA is your friend.
* In a similar continuing vein, take a look at pages 38-39 of the PDF Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen from I don't know if their Resources page is helpful to you, but it's worth a shot.
* Whatever you can do in advance, do in advance! Wash/peel/chop vegetables and fruits, sautee meat and freeze it until you get the facility, whatever it takes. If you can, adapt once-a-month cooking techniques to leverage getting things together beforehand.
* Poor people have food allergies, too! Label your pots with the ingredients, in case someone trying to avoid garlic or nuts or whatever asks!
* Do you or anyone in your network know any caterers? You might find a sympathetic caterer who would share recipes or techniques. Failing that, what about a local vocational school or cooking school? Or even another organization that runs a soup kitchen? Churches, especially, have a lot of experience in this sort of thing.
* Laurie Colwin used to cook for a women's shelter, and her account of the experience is included in the book Home Cooking, along with her recipe for baked spaghetti. It's well worth reading,
*Best deals for bulk food purchasing tends to come from either CostCo or GFS Food Service, in my experience, but YMMV. Again, a local vocational or cooking school, or even a caterer or church, would be an awesome resource for that.
* Someone mentioned salad. That's great, but sometimes in low-income areas many people don't have good teeth, and can't handle hard things like nuts, certain tough vegetables or fruits (apples, carrots unless grated, and so forth), or hard baked items, so keep that in mind. Maybe try something like this black-eyed pea salad?
* They also may not have the best taste buds, so if you can get supplies of Louisiana Hot Sauce or Rooster Sauce, it would probably be appreciated.
* In order to up the nutrition quota of meals for the poor, one of my aunties used her food processor to whiz down veggies and sneak it into the suppers. She told me she would mix celery, carrots, garlic, onion, sometimes bell peppers if she had them, maybe spinach or cabbage, and grated unpeeled apples. The resulting sludge would then be sauteed in canola oil, then added whatever meat she was cooking to bulk it out. So a pound of ground beef ended up being more like two pounds of meat loaf or taco meat or what-have-you. She would also add it to every chili, spaghetti sauce, gravy, etc. If you get fresh produce, make Aunt Charlotte's Veggie Sludge and freeze it until needed, then go to town with it.
* "To Go" packages at a soup kitchen are always appreciated. Something that can travel well, like certain desserts (brownies, cookies), fruits (oranges, peaches), a sandwich, etc. Put out a bowl of fruit leftovers and a bowl of mini toiletries, then hang a sign that says "Help Yourself".

The general dignity thing? TALK TO PEOPLE. So many poor folks get talked to by others like they'rer moochers, or total idiots ('cause if they were smart, they wouldn't be poor). Talk to them like real human beings. Spend some time with them if you can. Don't make them feel rushed--let them relax and enjoy their meal. And yes, tablecloths and a clean, warm (or cool, depending on locale), nice atmosphere really help.

Good luck!
posted by magstheaxe at 10:37 AM on November 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

The chili recipe that I linked to above is not that spicy, especially when you add in the elbow macaroni. Good point though - whenever possible, if there is a low sodium option, I always pick that (e.g. low sodium beans, low sodium chili mix).
posted by HeyAllie at 10:38 AM on November 14, 2013

Please nothing spicy. At all. If kids will be there (or anyone who can't eat spicy food), it would be so disappointing to see a big lovely-looking bowl of something only to find they couldn't eat it.

You can make mild (I mean _mild_) chili -- no hot pepper at all -- and provide a bunch of hot sauce to add to it (either packaged Tabasco or make some oily tomato sauce with a lot of spice).

Please don't trust your own taste perceptions if you're used to spicy food (as more and more people seem to be). "Not that spicy" can still equal inedible to some people.

Thank you for doing this!
posted by amtho at 11:30 AM on November 14, 2013

Best answer: The place we volunteer at has cafeteria-style service, but it also has a volunteer very sweetly busing the tables. This is nice both because it's restaurant-y, and because it means people don't have to get up to clear the tables, so there's a bit more of a "relax, sit and talk for a bit" vibe to it. The social aspect is a draw for a lot of people.
posted by kmennie at 11:36 AM on November 14, 2013

Cafeteria style is going to work best for most people, so they can choose what and how much food, but it would be nice to provide volunteers who can go through the line for anyone with mobility issues. Do you have a greeter at the door? It's both nice to welcome people as they come in (and give the greeter a chance to know everyone and learn names) but also so that you see if anyone is too drunk to behave well, or to offer a chair to the side to anyone who would have trouble with the line, before they've had to wait in it.

And please talk with the church about the leftover ban -- leftovers can mean a second meal for someone the next morning or lunch and it's really nice to be able to provide that. (And if you don't give out leftovers, more people will have to try and bring their own containers to put their seconds and thirds into. It's nice to be able to give out containers too or plastic bags for baked goods.) Is it possible to negotiate more time in the kitchen too?

Is there a reason you aren't asking stores to set aside food they can't sell for you? (I can't tell if you are part of a group serving daily or if it's more occasional.) The soup kitchen I was part of went out with a van to six or seven stores who all set aside food -- milk right before it's sell by date, slightly bruised apples, and so on. It all cooked up just fine and you're serving the milk that night to people, so it's okay if it expires soon. We rarely used recipes, just making hearty soups or casseroles out of whatever vegetables we had the most of that went together well, toasted all the bread on large sheets in the oven with some butter, made large salads (green and fruit), though it sounds like the latter won't go over well with your crowd. If you do have a cheap/free source of apples, consider making a vat of applesauce. You might experiment without recipes at home, just using your sense of what tastes good together and how long things are cooked, before trying it out on the whole crowd.

Tablecloths are great for making a space nicer as long as someone is up for taking them home to wash each night.

One way we had more camaraderie was eating with our guests, once our kitchen jobs were done. This gave everyone a chance to get to know the people visiting. I had a group of regulars that I sat with, some people moved around getting to know everyone. (I also spent some time at the door.) I think it feels better when you can greet more people by name and they you. (It also makes it easier for people to be all "hey, is that cornbread full of preservatives?" and you can tell them you made it yourself and what went into it (I agree that an ingredient list would be helpful, but I'm not sure if it's feasible in your time span).
posted by Margalo Epps at 12:54 PM on November 14, 2013

I do this once a month with a local group at a transitional center where people live as well as eat. We serve 60 people, mainly older men.

We serve cafeteria-style, but we always introduce ourselves and say grace before the meal and then sit and eat with the residents after we have served everyone. Some of the residents have volunteer jobs either before or after the meal to set up or clean up. They seem to look forward to working with us and helping us out. I don't know if you have any small, pre-meal volunteer jobs that you could delegate? Some people appreciate being asked to help out.

We always check beforehand to see what meals they have had that week so we don't duplicate. We have had good luck with sandwiches, BBQ sandwiches using Costco heat and serve BBQ, Brunswick stew, soft tacos with corn tortillas, baked chicken with an herb/spice blend, frozen vegetables cooked with seasoning, canned baked beans, and coleslaw (shredded cabbage + dressing). Some other volunteer groups make casserole-type dishes and bring them in instead of cooking at the center. We find that if you're going to cook one item that's more involved, it helps if the rest of the meal is easier heat and serve stuff.

When we sit and eat with the residents, I sometimes ask what their favorite foods are, or what they'd like to eat that they haven't had in a while. Some of the suggestions I have gotten but we haven't figured out how to implement are ribs and chicken and dumplings. We may try chicken stew with biscuits soon.
posted by bbq_ribs at 3:35 PM on November 14, 2013

Our group brings in casseroles once a month to feed 10 people. I developed this recipe list because I wanted to do both home cooking and healthy, and get away from mac & cheese. Another group heated the casseroles and served them. The feedback was as above: familiar, comfort foods were preferred.

If your group could prepare casseroles at home and then bake or reheat them at the church, that would buy you some time.
posted by MichelleinMD at 10:35 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older I don't drink. How do I answer "Why?"   |   Biology Gift Idea Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.