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Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Preparing a meal for area shelters during the holiday season

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Juliette Tahar, owner of the nonprofit Healthy Living, Inc., demonstrates how to make a tasty quinoa dish to share with family, friends and those less fortunate.
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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, December 17, 2009

This the most challenging time of year for those of us watching our weight. We feast and nibble our way through the holidays, and if we try to skip the season's gustatory delights, it feels downright Grinch-like.

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But there is a way to indulge your enthusiasm for holiday foods without packing on pounds. Instead of focusing on your own wining and dining, you could channel your energy into cooking for others. And, in the spirit of the season, why not shift your attention from baking for friends and family to creating a meal for someone in need?

The Washington area has dozens of shelters for homeless people and those in crisis who could really use a nourishing meal (not just now but throughout the year). Your donations of home-cooked food can make a big difference in the day of a person who's feeling isolated and disconnected from loved ones. And preparing a nice meal for someone provides you all the fun of cooking and the joy of lending a helping hand.

Here are some tips to get you started from D.C. chef, cooking-class leader and shelter volunteer Juliette Tahar and Kristin Thompson, executive director of Calvary Women's Services in the District.

-- Choose a shelter. Different shelters house different populations and have various kitchen setups and food needs. For a directory of shelters in the area, visit http://www.dcpages.com/Community and click on "Shelters and Soup Kitchens."

-- Find out what foods the shelter needs most. Tahar says that around holiday time many people donate such main-dish meats as turkey and ham, and desserts such as cookies and pies. And throughout the year, she says, food donors often provide "comfort food" such as rich macaroni and cheese, which may taste great but which might not be the most healthful meal you can offer.

The shelter you cook for may welcome healthful side dishes, fresh salad or fruit. Tahar notes that providing healthful (while delicious and nicely presented) food can help residents make a successful transition from their current lives to the better ones that lie ahead.

Be sure to ask about your role beyond simply preparing a meal. Some shelters, such as the Calvary ones, invite donors to serve the meal they've made and even join residents at the dining table; that and cleaning up afterward takes about an hour and a half, Thompson says. Others may have you just drop off your food.

-- Match your kitchen skills to the shelter's needs. Maybe all you can manage is a simple stir-fry of frozen vegetables and a pot of rice. So be it! Consider asking friends to team up to prepare a full meal. That lightens everyone's cooking load and could even turn into a holiday tradition.

-- Take all the usual food-safety precautions. Brush up on safe practices, including the "clean, separate, cook and chill" routine described at FoodSafety.gov.

-- Adding a small present is a festive and thoughtful touch, if you're inclined to do more.

-- Think long-term. You might feel like decorating a batch of gingerbread cookies to share with shelter residents, which would be great! But perhaps the shelter could really use a veggie lasagna or chicken casserole to stick in the freezer for later.

Thompson notes that the residents in Calvary shelters typically are served breakfast and dinner daily, but when the weather grows cold and residents spend more time inside, lunch is served, too. Having some fallback items in the freezer, she says, is a logistical and financial boon.



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