See a letter from Ellen about the donation campaign. Your help matters!

Turkey for Many; Planning and Sharing a Community Holiday Feast

"It is only for the love that we bear them that the poor forgive us the good that we do them." Vincent De Paul

Beginning in October the question arrives; "our church- our club- our organization wants to provide Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner for 100-200-300 or more members and/or poor, homeless, people, families, seniors, relatives. How much food do we need?"

It is a lot of fun but also a lot of work to bring off a large holiday meal. Here is information:
How to carve a roast turkey at the table
How to cut up many raw turkeys for faster roasting
Ellen's Better Green Bean Casserole for 60
Ellen's Southern Baked Dressing for 25 or 50
Ellen's Freezable Holdable Mashed Potatoes
Shopping list and quantities for large turkey dinners
25,000 for dinner; Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving
OAMC Freezable Turkey and Stuffing Casserole
Lowering the Fats and Carbs in Your Thanksgiving Feast
The Gravy Pages: Gallons of Gravy
Safely Storing and Reheating Turkey and Gravy
Turkey and Chicken: Yield Tables
Crockpot Cranberry Relish
For vegan options, I recommend my friend Bryanna Grogan's "A World Feast" available on Kindle or as a standard book. She includes A Vegan Menu with Tofu and a Seitan-Soy Turkey

Hosting a community meal is a generous impulse, but "How much turkey do we need?" is the wrong first question. If you are thinking about preparing a community dinner for a low income or underprivileged group, keep reading.

From Thanksgiving through Christmas there is an outpouring of generosity in communities, and that is a gift. But the greatest need for the poor is not food, but hospitality and inclusion. So, this is a real opportunity to help your group become more common sense in their help and to focus on the larger and ongoing needs of their prospective guests.

For example, maybe a cooked public meal is not the best option. Given a choice, many families would rather prepare or serve their own meal at home. Perhaps you can offer a choice of a food gift delivered Monday or Tuesday or reservations/tickets for your community meal. If you do prepare a food gift, make sure to include ALL the foil, pans, paper goods and storage bags- all the items needed to prepare the meal that are not covered by food stamps.

Talk now in the planning stages about how many guests you can accommodate and how you will publicize your event or find your guests. Do you plan a sit down dinner? You want people to have time to sit and enjoy their meal, so be realistic about the seating you have available, allowing an hour or more for each person. You might use tickets and have two or three seatings, but most often it is less scheduled, the important thing is to allow enough time. If you want to feed 300 people and you can seat 80 at a time, you need to plan to serve for at least 4 hours.

Transportation is a major concern. Many of the most needy, including the elderly or disabled, live alone and are in fairly dire circumstances. They can't afford taxis, and busses don't run well on the holidays. Can you provide bus or taxi vouchers or transportation? Will you take meals to the homebound? If you have not done much work with the homeless and poor, you will be surprised (shocked) to see how many children are included in that number.

When it comes to the community meal itself, there are some issues easily overlooked by the sponsoring group. Thanksgiving, like Christmas, comes at the end of the month, often before a payday, when money and food stamps are short or gone. Individuals face a long weekend when many of their usual helpers/ organizations are closed or on reduced staff because of the holiday. So, if you are hosting the Thanksgiving meal and can plan for it, it is a wonderful thing to provide more than just the meal; what about a second plate or even a whole "take home" package for each person- just an extra plate of food, or maybe with a package of portable dry foods such as dried fruits and shelled nuts, jerky, candy, granola or breakfast/cereal bars or cookies or muffins, some hard fruit such as oranges or apples, juice boxes, instant coffee with creamer and sugar, some moist towelettes; perhaps a small gift certificate for fast food or groceries; maybe even a small toy, book or game for each child. You will have to plan ahead for amounts, a good supply of sturdy take out containers, bags, utensils, etc. Think about additional resources. Do you have a facility that can offer hot showers or a place to clean up? What about free cell phone calls to distant relatives? Or can you offer music throughout the event?

And while you are figuring out how to do your holiday event, also consider scheduling a second "Thanksgiving in February" or March, when people are still hungry and a lot of folks have withdrawn to their own cozy homes. People generally have a more difficult time finding casual work in the winter, and it just gets tougher as the season progresses.

The group that undertakes a large community meal has many chores ahead:

  • Hospitality
  • Site selection and kitchen evaluation
  • Volunteer recruitment, coordination or scheduling, and training
    • You will need about 25-30 volunteers all day the day of the event to serve 200 people easily for set up, serving, hosting, and cleanup. Hosting is VERY important if you want this to be a success.
    • You will use about the same number in the weeks leading up to the event.
  • Guest recruitment, publicity and transportation
  • Menu planning
  • Donations and funding
  • Shopping
  • Permits and/or licenses
  • Food Storage
  • Food Preparation
  • Food Service
    • Plan for keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold
    • really sturdy plates, "silverware" and serving utensils
  • Equipment/ Service Items procurement
  • Set Up and Decoration
  • Cleanup
  • Food and Trash disposal
  • Equipment return

Hosting or true hospitality is the most important aspect of this event, perhaps even more than the food. Everyone has something to offer to enrich this program. If you are part of an active church or other group with children's activities, your children's program can make placemats, cards and centerpieces. Have volunteers whose only job is to welcome people as they arrive, seat them comfortably and wish them good bye when they leave. Will your members sit down and dine with the guests? Hope so. Here in San Antonio, the annual Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving dinner has become a true community feast, with over 4,000 volunteers hosting almost 25,000 guests over 6 hours of the event.

The first choice for a holiday meal is the traditional seasonal menu. Usually, the American menu includes:

  • turkey or turkey and ham
  • dressing or stuffing
  • mashed potatoes
  • vegetable casseroles and/or sweet potatoes and/or winter squash
  • green vegetables, especially peas or green beans
  • gravy
  • cranberry jelly or relish
  • desserts, especially pumpkin pie
  • rolls and butter
  • nuts and/or candies
    Specific other foods might be included as budget and cooks permit:
  • relish trays
  • salads, especially jello salads, fruit salads
  • rice dishes or rice dressing
  • "luxury" vegetables such as cauliflower, asparagus, brussel spouts or other green vegetables
  • A regional or local specialty dish

Just as families develop special dishes for a holiday, so can community events. One Texas community serves thousands of pounds of freshly made German sausage with sweet and sour cabbage as a main dish at their Thanksgiving, a Mississippi church always includes a spicy gumbo and a summer squash casserole laced with butter and cracker crumbs, another is renown for its homemade pickles and variety of desserts. A beautiful homemade lasagna might be part of Thanksgiving in another feast.

Try to make every part of the meal special. My goal is simple; that each item is better than that found in a typical school cafeteria holiday meal. Also, some volunteers may have a specialty, something wonderful like really good rolls, lots of real gravy, special beverages, etc. If you do decide to include an unusual course such as a soup course or a special signature food, be sure that there is enough for everyone.

There are two basic approaches to the food; either it is all prepared and stored by volunteer groups at a central kitchen, or items are prepared by volunteers and brought in. Food safety, especially for meats, stuffings and vegetable casseroles is much better controlled at a central kitchen, so if only part of the meal is brought in by volunteers, let it be the safer items such as breads, condiments, desserts and beverages.

Even if many people are each cooking a part of the meal, I suggest you pre-set a menu guideline. The food coordinators must be fairly specific about the amount and type of food each volunteer is responsible for, when it is to be delivered and how it is to be kept hot or cold. Otherwise, you will find yourself with some folks bringing sweet potatoes and some white mashed, not enough of either one or the other, and some odd shortages. People even have strong preferences about whole berry cranberry relish or jelly. It is preferable to offer your diners a choice, so be specific with your volunteer cooks.

Please encourage all your volunteers, shoppers, cooks and servers, to read the food safety article at and be VERY careful about cooking and refrigeration, especially for the turkeys, gravy and dressing after cooking. Not just the time spent on the serving table but also the time spent travelling to an event counts against the "2 hour safe period" for a food. So the person transporting a hot or cold dish needs to use an ice chest or other insulated container to keep the food temperature above 140 degrees or under 40 for the transport.

Finally, plan with your committee to sell leftovers to committee members or volunteers, or to donate to the local food bank or soup kitchen. Make these arrangements, including safe storage and transport, way ahead of time. Even the bones of your feast can be of use; if you carve ahead and reheat, the turkey bones will go into the gravy making. If you carve the day of the event, you (committee members) could take the turkey carcasses home to make soup stock- or you could freeze them and have a bare bones soup supper as a fund raiser later in the year.