I’ve written before about hosting church coffee hour. The people in my church are willing to eat packaged coffee-cakes and things of that ilk, but most of them prefer healthier snacks, and so do I–our coffee hour begins just before noon, so my stomach is ready for lunch, not just simple carbs! I try hard to avoid making the excuse that I’m too busy to serve healthy, basically “real”, vegetarian food with some nutrients. This article explains how to be prepared to serve real food for a snacky gathering on short notice, and gives one example of the specific array of food one might serve.
My church’s coffee hours are coordinated by a volunteer called the Hospitality Chairperson. I was Hospitality Chairperson for three years, started to feel burned out, and turned over the position to the awesome Barb Curlee, who did it for nine years but finally decided it was too much work for a cancer patient–and nobody else wanted the job, so I took it back! It was something of a leap of faith, since at that point I was newly pregnant and starting to feel queasy, but for a long while it was easy to recruit volunteers and I only had to bring the food once every few months. But then we hit a dry spell.
Every Sunday, I set out the coffee hour sign-up book on the table next to the food. It’s a nice little binder that another parishioner fills each year with pages listing the dates of all the Sundays and special events, with Bible quotes chosen to inspire generous food-sharing! Ideally, people notice the book, sign up for a Sunday, remember to bring the food, set it up, and clean it up–and all I have to do is thank them graciously and keep an eye on whether or not they remembered to put out the napkins and fill the cream pitcher. Sometimes, though, everyone’s busy or not paying attention, so I spend coffee hour begging people to sign up, and then I fill in for the Sundays nobody wanted.
This particular coffee hour was in late September (I just now found the photo and remembered I’d planned to post about it!) five or six weeks after I’d been in a car accident. I was doing kind of okay, but I needed a lot of rest and was having trouble remembering and/or getting around to all of the things I usually do. It was Thursday or Friday morning when I suddenly grabbed my ten-year-old Nicholas and gasped, “Did anybody sign up for coffee hour? Did we even put out the book?!” He couldn’t remember, either. Luckily, the church is on my way home from work, so I stopped by and tiptoed around the AA meeting to check out my little binder. Alas, Sunday’s sign-up space was bare! . . . and then I forgot all about it until Saturday morning, when we were shopping in Trader Joe’s and Nicholas said, “Can we try Eggplant Garlic Dip? We could serve it at coffee hour!” and I agreed . . . and then I forgot all about it until Saturday night at 11:22 p.m. when I had finally gotten my toddler to sleep and was tidying up the kitchen and noticed the jar of dip sitting randomly on the counter.
Right! I, the amazing ‘Becca, was going to find in my home the food for a reception for 50 people, I was going to get it all ready so that in the morning I could just throw it all in a tote bag and go, and I was going to get it done before midnight so that I could get enough sleep! With a brain injury! Without a net!!! (This is the kind of pep-talk I find most motivating. It works even if I am wearing an old nightgown and merely picturing myself in a spangled costume.)
Here is my 15-step plan for success! You might think that sounds like a lot of steps, but I have really broken it down so that you will not forget anything even though you’re tired and flustered.
- Coffee. Because you need coffee to make coffee hour. Well, maybe not, but when you unexpectedly need to stay up an hour later than anticipated and make some decisions and use knives, a brain-stimulating drug is helpful. Calibrating for only a short period of alertness, I put 1/3 cup of leftover coffee into the microwave and headed for the basement pantry.
- Browse the pantry. We had an extra bag of corn chips and several extra jars of salsa, as these are staple foods for our family. We also happened to have a bag of pita chips, which I buy when they’re on sale. We did not have instant hummus mix. We did have canned garbanzo beans, but I couldn’t make hummus in the food processor while everyone was sleeping. I brought the chips and salsa upstairs, added milk to the coffee, and drank it during the next step:
- Browse the refrigerator, seeking dippable vegetables, yogurt or sour cream for making a dip, and cheese. We had all of these things: carrots, a large cucumber, a half-full bucket of yogurt, and about 1/3 pound of colby-jack cheese in an open package.
- Browse the fruit basket. This step yielded nothing for me this time.
- Apron. You should always wear an apron over your nightgown so that you will not get it wet and have to change before bed. Also, the apron will make you feel more competent about cooking when you are not even dressed.
- Study the potential ingredients and consider plausible combinations. Corn chip + salsa. Pita chip + eggplant dip. Any chip + yogurt dip. Carrot + yogurt dip. Cucumber + yogurt dip. Cheese + pita chip. Cheese + eggplant dip. Yeah, it’s all coming together now! (An incompatible component would be set aside at this stage.)
- Cut up stuff. Carrot sticks. Cucumber sticks. Strips of cheese suitable for dipping.
- Put each cut-up thing in an appropriate storage container.
- Mix the dip. Just mix it in the yogurt bucket; you can put it in a fancy dish tomorrow.
- Label the yogurt bucket (I used masking tape and a permanent marker) so that you’ll be sure to grab the right one.
- Take a picture of everything, if you’re a 21st-century person who takes pictures of every mundane event in your life so you can be all like, “Look at me, making coffee hour without a net.”
- Put the things that were in the refrigerator (yogurt dip, cheese, carrots, cucumber) in the refrigerator all together, for easy grabbing.
- Put the non-refrigerated things in the tote bag and place it next to the refrigerator.
- Wash the knives, cutting board, and dip-stirring spoon.
- Go to bed.
See how nicely it turned out? And I finished, with time to spare for brushing my teeth, before midnight! Arranging the food for serving the next day took only a few minutes.
You may have noticed that the key to pulling off something like this is having a lot of foods lying around so that they are there when you need them. This is a basic strategy of home management that also makes it easier to prepare meals for eating at home. It comes pretty naturally to me, but I’ll try to explain how it’s done: Figure out what foods your family is going to eat on a regular basis that are healthy and affordable and non-perishable enough that you can just keep them in stock; put these on the shopping list when the supply gets low, not when it’s all gone. (Salsa, corn chips, the dried herbs and spices and nutritional yeast for the dip, and carrots are in this category for us.) Figure out what perishable yet versatile foods your family is going to eat fast enough that you can keep them in stock and will often have a little extra available for feeding a crowd. (Yogurt and cheese are in this category for us.) Always have some kind of fresh vegetable and/or fruit on hand; eat some fresh produce every day so that you’ll use it before it goes bad.
Another key strategy is having some versatile containers to store food in between preparation and consumption. The ones you see here are clear polypropylene containers from take-out food. We wash these by hand (they don’t do so well in the dishwasher) and use them over and over again until they are stained, warped, scratched, smelly, cracked, or otherwise damaged, and then recycle them. They’re good for cold, not-so-oily foods. Our other favorite containers are reused glass jars.
I hope that this strategy will be helpful as we move into the holiday season, which sometimes involves unexpected entertaining! If you have a great story about food you’ve pulled together on short notice, without a net, please share in the comments.
P.S. Trader Joe’s Eggplant Garlic Dip is not something we’ll buy again. It’s one of those foods that tastes good enough while it’s in your mouth, but the garlic flavor crawls up under the gumline so you can’t get rid of it and your coffee and everything tastes like garlic for the next several hours. Only about 1/4 of it was eaten at coffee hour, and my family ate about another 1/4 before it went moldy only a week or so later.