In the South, when words are not enough to convey our depth of feeling for a friend in need, we speak Casserole. You can say a lot with a basket overflowing with food. Get well soon. I'm thinking of you. I'm sorry for your loss. I'm your friend, and I am here. With dinner. And dessert.
I put this meal together to say congratulations to a friend from church who has just had a baby, but I must give credit to a few others who helped me welcome little Gracie Kate. First, everyone's favorite Aunt Paula sent love and best dishes with her chicken pot pie recipe. I doubled the recipe and had enough filling for three 9-inch square casseroles. (One for my friend, one for my family, and another to share!) One sheet of puff pastry makes a nice lattice crust for this size baking dish. I filled out our menu with my favorite summer salad and fresh-baked blueberry muffins. And for dessert, I visited the SITS girls new recipe blog, which led me to this great recipe for Stephanie's cheesecake tarts. Her recipe makes 12 muffin-sized cheesecakes with vanilla wafer crusts, but the wafers we bought turned out to be too small for a standard muffin pan. However, they were perfect for a mini-muffin tin, and the tiny tarts turned out dainty and sweet -- just like Baby Gracie Kate!
I like to add a little something extra to food baskets when I can. Pretty details like cloth napkins and fresh flowers add to the presentation and tell the recipient that this task was not a burden but a blessing. Ribbons and tissue paper add cheery color, and a little gift tucked into the basket adds an extra element of surprise. A magazine, some note cards, or a toy are sure to bring a smile. All these elements work together to say, "You are so special to me."
I like to find inexpensive ways to dress up my food baskets, and plundering through my craft closet usually yields some easy options. Like the cardboard box above, packaging saved from a photo album. Without a lid, I couldn't use it for a wrapped gift, but with a piece of scrapbook paper cut to fit the bottom and grosgrain ribbon glued around the rim, it made a perfect disposable dessert container for Gracie Kate's family.
I would love to hear your tips for taking meals to people. Here are a few of mine.
- Keep Your Disposable Income. Disposable containers are convenient because they make for easy cleanup and don't have to be returned. You can stock up on these when they go on sale at the grocery store, but also be mindful of products you buy that you could reuse. Yeast roll tins are the perfect size for a small casserole. And plastic fruit bowls are great to reuse, as well.
- Please Pass the Plate. Consider giving someone dessert on a pretty platter, and tell her to pass it on instead of returning it.
- Put Your Friend on a Pedestal. Present dessert on a cake plate made from a plate and bowl, as described here.
- For Return, Address. Keep return address labels in your kitchen for labelling dishes you do want back. This is a good use for the labels many charities include with their fundraising materials.
- Plan Your Menu with the Diner in Mind. Consider your recipient's circumstances. Are there dietary restrictions you need to follow? Will the dish be easy for a shut-in to eat? Is it kid-friendly?
- Size Matters. Meals that will stretch to feed a crowd can provide several meals for a large family, while a single person might appreciate getting a few individually-portioned meals. When my late grandmother was living alone, I worried that she wasn't getting the nutritional balance she needed. So over a few weeks I saved, froze and labelled individual meals. Then when I visited her, I stocked her freezer with a variety of options.
- Prepare Ahead. It is often almost as easy to make two casseroles as one, so prepare extra when making a favorite recipe. Stick it in the freezer, and you will have an easy option when a need surfaces unexpectedly.
- Make Dinner a Family Affair. Allow your children to serve by letting them help prepare food, make cards or deliver the meal. This can provide a great time of family bonding, and your children's exuberance will bring a ray of sunshine to someone who needs cheer. Plus, you are teaching them valuable lessons about the blessings of giving.
- Don't Take Off Take-Out. When there is an urgent need, sometimes time and schedules just will not allow for a home-cooked meal. Purchasing deli ham or a rotisserie chicken and tossing together a few side dishes might make getting dinner on the table possible. And sometimes picking up a meal from a friend's favorite restaurant might be the best choice. Enjoying take-out might spice up a home-bound friend's routine -- especially if you plan to visit and bring enough food for both of you.
- Pray Before Every Meal. Be prayerful as you serve others. Using your preparation as a time of intercessory prayer will keep you joyful in service and sympathetic toward the needs of your friend. And if you feel comfortable, praying with your friend when you deliver the meal will be a blessing to you both.
Yes, in the South we are fluent in Casserole. And we'll keep taking meals to friends in need because we know that at the end of the day, what we are really offering is a deep dish of comfort. Because whether the basket holds poppy seed chicken, spaghetti casserole or chicken pot pie, in Casserole it all says the same thing: "I love you. We're in this together. And would you please pass the biscuits?"