I’m an avid cook, but I think in the past three months I’ve probably made a total of four meals. Menu planning, grocery shopping, and cooking elaborate meals—all activities I love—have been out of the question since March, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. We have spent so little time in the kitchen since the diagnosis that my mom, an enthusiastic and innovative chef in her own right, recently joked she had probably forgotten how to use a measuring cup.
Though I miss cooking and baking, spending time with my mom is my top priority these days, so I’m glad that our community has stepped in and set up an extensive network of people to bring us food so we don’t have to spend all day in the kitchen. We have gotten some truly amazing and delicious meals. Still, there have also been some pretty substantial bumps in the road.
Here are some tips to take into consideration if you’re called on to bring food to a family member or friend who’s ill, recovering from surgery, or dealing with a recent loss.
Don’t Overdo It
The number one issue we’ve had is with people who make waaaay too much food. There are four people living in my house right now, and someone recently brought us a dinner of two rotisserie chickens, a meatloaf, plus side dishes and soup. That’s three dinners, not one. And when everyone brings enough food for a few days of leftovers, it’s easy to be completely overwhelmed. Ask before you cook for an army, and if you know you’re not the only person bringing food, try making just enough.
Ask About Food Restrictions
Chemotherapy in particular has wacky effects on people’s taste buds. Things that my mother used to love—bread, chocolate, fruit—now taste foul to her. For months she found tomatoes to be too acidic, but loved oranges and grapefruits. People on dialysis need to limit their potassium. Diabetics will want low-cal offerings. There are also food allergies to contend with, and vegetarians/vegans to be accommodated. Ask before you buy and prepare anything. If you’re feeling really nice, instead of asking what the person in question can’t eat, ask what he would like to eat.
Stick to the Program
Often, communities will set up a rotation of people bringing food. If you’re assigned to bring food on Monday, bring food on Monday. If you decide to stop by for a visit on Thursday, don’t just show up with a pot of mushroom barley soup. People are constantly dropping by to say hello and bringing an unnecessary kugel, loaf of banana bread, or, in one case, an entire turkey. Though we appreciate the thought, we may not have room in the fridge for an entire turkey with no notice.
Tupperware: Friend AND Foe
Tupperware and all of its cousins (Gladware, etc.) are awesome when you’re making food for others. Less wasteful than disposable containers, cheap, and microwave safe. That said, when three to five meals are being delivered to one place every week, the Tupperware starts to build up. (We have a garbage bag full of abandoned Tupperware.) If you want your containers back, label them clearly and ask that they be returned. If you don’t need the containers returned, mention that, too. Also, if the family you’re cooking for keeps kosher, be sure to mark what’s dairy and what’s meat so nothing gets accidentally used incorrectly.
Skip the Guessing Game
When you bring food, mark everything clearly. If at all possible, provide a list of ingredients for each item so that it’s clear what’s meat, what’s veg-friendly, and what’s going to be too spicy for the kids. Bring everything as fully assembled as possible, so that it can go straight in the oven or microwave, and then right to the table. Soup, especially, needs to be specified because lots of soups look alike (minestrone and red lentil soup, for instance, look nearly identical, but if you accidentally combine them, the result is kind of gross).
When you have the food all ready to go, call its destination to find out if someone is home to receive, and also ask if it’s a good time to come and visit. Sometimes, when someone brings dinner they assume it’s fine if they hang around and chat for an hour or two. Sometimes it is fine, and sometimes, after a long day of doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, and a never-ending string of phone calls, we just want to eat dinner and get in bed. In most cases people will be happy to tell you if it’s okay to come in, or if they’d rather you just dropped it off and visited some other time. Personally, I love the people who bring us wonderful meals, give us a quick hug each, and head right back out. We get to eat while the food is still hot, and later we can call and have a lengthy chat about how tasty everything was, and how much we appreciated it.
It’s Not Personal, It’s Cancer/Heart Disease/Diabetes/Grief
Sometimes, even the best food from the closest friends doesn’t help. Sometimes things just suck and people feel awful despite all of the love coming their way. If you don’t get the thank you you think you deserve, or if the food doesn’t stay down, or if things somehow go wrong, don’t take it personally. One of those horrible-but-true clichés comes to mind: it really is the thought that counts.