four meal deliveries: what I learned

The logistical challenge of preparing a home-cooked meal and then delivering it has always made my head spin. I much prefer to feed people at my house where the distance from stove to table is measured in feet, not miles. But back when Delta was surging and medical staff were struggling (and they still are, I think), I decided it was time I got over myself. For a month of Wednesdays, I’d make lunch for our local hospital’s critical care unit. 

Turns out, making that decision was seventy-five percent of the battle. Once I committed, I no longer spent all my mental energy waffling. Instead, I could focus on the task at hand: cooking.

Below are the four meals I made, plus my notes. Having a record of this will, I hope, make it a little easier for me to cook for someone in the future. Here’s what you did, Jennifer. Remember? The hard work of thinking and planning has already been done! Now get off your duff and go cook.

Or something like that. 

First up, here are a few pointers I gleaned over the last several weeks.

Contact Person
I had a staff contact, which was tremendously helpful. I could text my questions — how many people would I be feeding, did they have a freezer for ice cream, should I send along any plates or utensils — as well as my arrival time. At the hospital, I simply called the CCU and someone ran down with a cart. I’d load up the food, explain it, and then home again, home again, jiggety-jig!

Scale Up
They told me there’d be about 8-10 people at lunch so I tried to plan for about 12, but I actually have no idea if the food ran short or they had tons leftover.

I didn’t cook for special food needs (or even really inquire about it), but I did try to have a couple items without meat each time. I figured not everyone would actually eat all the components.

I tried to label each item, either with a piece of written-on tape, or by writing on the foil directly. I also included include a piece of paper listing the entire menu. Sometimes, if the components weren’t entirely obvious (like with quiche), I jotted down the ingredient list.

I tried to plan my meals around what I had on hand. What I could easily make. What was economical. Fancy, special food was off the metaphorical (and literal) table).

This is important! As much as possible, I tried to use containers that I no longer needed: junk plastics I’d collected, bags, and old, thrift store dishes. (The few items I did eventually want back, I labeled.) I also stocked up on assorted, purchased foil containers, but even so, by the end I had almost nothing left. From now on, I’m going to try to stay supplied with to-go items, like rolls of aluminum foil, extra tea towels, cheap plastic trays, random baskets, small jars for condiments, and bulk lidded containers like pretzel tubs and mayo and peanut butter containers, etc.

Time Commitment
It takes time to make up a full meal like this, which kinda surprised me since I’m used to casually cooking large quantities of food on the reg. But having a deadline, and needing to plan each detail — no jumping up from the table last minute to grab the ketchup! — was time consuming. However, even though I spent each Wednesday morning cooking, it really wasn’t that bad. Bonus: Wednesday nights we ate well.

Repetition! Repetition!
The first meal was the biggest hurdle. Everything was new: cooking in the morning, making a noontime delivery, learning the route, calling the desk, etc. The next times were much easier. So if signing up to make one meal delivery, might as well agree to doing several. Eventually, the process becomes familiar and doesn’t feel like such a big deal.

Menu Number One: Quiche

Spinach and sausage quiche (3)
Brown butter green beans (about 2 quarts)
Hot buttered rolls, butter and jelly (20-24)
Applesauce (1½ quarts)
Key Lime Pie Bars (a bunch, cut into small pieces)

*I used second-hand, washed, foil pie pans from the bakery for the quiches. (Probably used bakery pastry scraps, too.)
*I parbaked the pastry crusts and made the sausage spinach filling the day before. 
*The key lime bars I’d made awhile back (from surplus bakery pie components) and stuck in the freezer. Sending them along was totally an after thought. I wasn’t even going to take dessert.
*Remember to take a cloth to cover the hot rolls. Transporting fresh bread, uncovered, in a hospital probably isn’t good protocol (oops). 

Meal Number Two: Meat and Potatoes

Mini meatloaves (20-ish)
Hashbrown potatoes (1 big foil pan)
Cole Slaw (a Costco-sized mayo container full)
Single layer chocolate peanut butter cake

*Mayo containers are fabulous to giving away food — save them!
*Hashbrown potatoes don’t get sufficiently crispy in foil pans.
*Muffin tins are great for little meatloaf balls.
*I felt like this meal was a little too down-homey. Maybe I should’ve added fresh bread?

Meal Number Three: Brown Rice Bowls 

Brown Rice
Red beans
Chopped lettuce
Tortilla chips
Sour cream, salsa, grated cheese, lime wedges
Avocados, uncut
Grape Pie (1)
Vanilla Ice Cream

*I could’ve called this “taco salad,” and I could’ve added ground beef, but I decided to keep it simple. 
*Except there’s nothing simple about a meal with lots of different components!
*Grape pie is so rich that a little bit goes a long way, so I only baked one and made a note so they’d know to stretch it.

Meal Number Four: Soup
(Shucks. I forgot to take a photo.)

Sausage and Lentil Soup with spinach
Braided Bread, butter and jelly
Fruit salad

*I always struggle with finding a veggie (that’s not salad) to serve with soup. In the end, I just added a pack of frozen, chopped spinach to the soup for a hit of green.
*For the fruit salad, I shopped my pantry and freezer for nectarines and peaches and sweet cherries and then pulled out a couple store bought tins of mandarine oranges and pineapple chunks to round it out. 
*Braided bread is too big for plastic bags, so I stuck the loaves in a brown paper bag.

After I dropped off my first meal, my contact person texted me this photo of the team: 

Those sparkling eyes! I couldn’t stop smiling.

This same time, years previous: wait for it, old-fashioned apple roll-ups, cinnamon pretzels, meatloaf, when your child can’t read, the quotidian (11.4.13), awkward, chatty time.


  • SB

    Wow, so lovely from both a kindness perspective and from outline the logistics. A group of friends and I make a meal once a month for a local food pantry for about 100 guests and staff. After trying out different menus and options, we’ve come up with a fairly simple menu that we replicate each month: bbq chicken or pork sandwiches, cole slaw and baked potatoes with broccoli, sour cream, cheese, etc. I think we also take frozen corn. It’s easy to transport & reheat and the residents always report that they’re happy to have some meat/protein, since a lot of meals are carb-based. Thank you for a wonderful post (as always!).

  • Thrift at Home

    How lovely, Jennifer! It’s really a special skill to transport a meal to people!! Years ago I started taking notes on it in my supper notebooks to help myself because I was so so so grateful to receive meals at different stressful times in my life and wanted to pay it forward. I agree with the comment above that stressed people love comfort food, familiar food, nothing too different. I also have a collection of containers that I never need back – stressed out people don’t want to deal with details about whose container to return where…

  • Becky R.

    What a generous and loving thing to do, Jennifer! I am retired now, but when I worked in the ICU, I would have been overwhelmed if someone had done this for me. As to your “too homey” comment, I would reconsider that. Comfort food is great when you are stressed out and busy, so I wouldn’t shy away from it in the future if you do this again sometime. Again, blessings on you for being such a wonderful person. While nurses appreciate pizza, there is nothing like a home cooked meal that you didn’t have to cook yourself to provide a bit of comfort in hard times.

  • Shoshana

    I have made your lemon lentil soup for people for my church’s meal train a few times. Today I am making a coconut rice with red beans for a friend with a new baby. Sauté garlic, add rice and cook with a couple cans of coconut milk and then stir in cooked red beans afterwards. Goes nice with collard greens with Cajun seasoning and cornbread.

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