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Volunteer cooking for large groups

Emily Angle Emily Angle | 10:20 UK time, Tuesday, 27 September 2011

"We're short. We need two more regular meals, and everything's boxed up."
"What have we got left?"

"Potatoes and cabbage."

It's a common nightmare for any cook volunteering on a meal delivery service. And if you've been inspired to volunteer by the recent Hairy Bikers' Meals on Wheels campaign, you'll soon be having these nightmares, too! Hurrah!

I never slept well before cooking for the Food Chain, a London-based organisation that (among other services) provides a Sunday two-course lunch and light evening meal for people with HIV and their families. Each kitchen rolls out between 50 and 150 meals, tailored to dietary requirements. Cooking starts at 8:00am and everything's sent out by 11:45am.

a foil serving tray containing a freshly cooked meal

It's definitely a challenge: the planning is tricky and the work is physically hard. An industrial kitchen has heavy catering equipment and infernal ovens, and that's if you're lucky enough to have the use of one. Here are some tips if you're just getting started with cooking for a large group, so that when those kitchen nightmares are plaguing you at 4am you can roll over and get a little bit more kip.

Keep it simple...
For people who are older or ill, food is comfort as well as sustenance. Familiar dishes that evoke home-cooking are appealing to everyone and also easier for you to cook. Fiddly recipes from celebrity chefs should usually be saved for the dinner parties and more adventurous taste buds.

...but make it lovely
Appetite begins in the mind. Think about what containers you have to send food in, and how you'll arrange the food. How well will it travel? (No soup, please.) Plan in a nice garnish so that boxing up the meals with a little extra love doesn't take a lot of time. (Also, icing sugar hides a multitude of sins!)

Get some help with the shopping
If you have to do the purchasing as well as the cooking, make it a team effort. A supermarket shop will probably fill two trolleys - impossible to push on your own. I once lugged two huge pork roasts wrapped in black plastic bin bags down an Islington alleyway, looking very suspicious. I could have used a look-out.

Print plenty of copies of recipes off
It lets teams of helpers get on with a project without too many questions to interrupt your flow, and there are spares in case they get dropped in the batter.

Put the water on to boil first
When you're planning (on paper) boiled potatoes for sixty people, somehow your brain assumes that you have a kettle ten times normal size that boils in three minutes. At the start of the cooking process get a lot of water on to boil, even if you don't need it in the end (I always did). An urn or boiling water spigot is really helpful if you have one.

Start early on anything to be served cold
(After you put the water on.) It takes a long time to chill food down to a safe, cold temperature. And if there's only one fridge that everyone keeps opening to get ingredients, it will take even longer. If there's a freezer, use it for a faster chill.

Sharpen your knives
Make sure you have a knife sharpener or steel. Prep with a dull knife is dangerous as well as frustrating and time-consuming.

Boil rather than steam
Unless you have a proper catering-sized steamer, it's going to be very hard to generate enough steam for, say, sixty portions of greens. I've ended up with a layer of overcooked yellowing cabbage under a layer of uncooked cabbage, and no one happy. A quick plunge in lots of boiling water is more reliable. (And you boiled all that water, right?)

Practice portioning
When you're dishing up a tray of shepherd's pie the size of a dinghy, it's easy to lose perspective and make portions too big or too small to achieve an equal distribution in lots of serving dishes. Divide the tray mentally into smaller sections that you can keep count of as you dish up.

Count, count and count again
If someone else has counted the serving trays for your meals, count them again. In the heat of the kitchen it's easy to makes mistakes, but if they're caught early it's not a crisis.

Make (at least) two spare of everything
See earlier, re: counting.

Do the food hygiene training
I think we'd all prefer meals that didn't make us sick, right? You'll need to do a proper food hygiene course. It's a day long at most, it builds on common sense, and it's very revealing. (Archers fans, you know the story.)

Have fun
It's a tremendous challenge, but it's really fun in a crazy way.  It's not a professional kitchen, and the volunteers are there to enjoy themselves as well as doing something worthwhile. With a positive outlook, some creative thinking and a good oven timer you can do it.

If you've been cooking for large groups, what advice have you found invaluable? What trade secrets does every volunteer cook need to know?

Emily Angle is the Producer of the BBC Food site.


  • Comment number 1.

    Really cool post, highly informative and professionally written..Good Job
    I love cooking and I want to create many good dish for all people fish curry recipes

  • Comment number 2.

    These are some really useful tips. Sometimes I'm involved in catering at church for large numbers so will definitely make a note of some of these.

  • Comment number 3.

    If you don't do the shopping yourself, you need really good communications between the cooks and the shoppers. Also, my clients - I cook at a lunch club for up to 30 older people per day - much prefer meals cooked from scratch to pre-prepared, 'take it out of the box and shove it in the oven' foods; harder work, but well worth it when you know they've enjoyed the meal.


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