HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Soup kitchen cookery - large quantity recipes, cheap and delicious

I volunteer at a soup kitchen once a week. I started another thread yesterday, asking for a recipe for a large-quantity cheesecake because I have all the ingredients to make it for my Tuesday shift. It occurred to me that other C-Hounds may be doing similar things - I got one reply asking me to report on my cheesecake results from someone who also volunteers at a similar place. Got me thinking we should share these recipes. It's a challenge - we call it the Soup Kitchen Iron Chef - to make something out of whatever weird ingredients happen to have been donated on any given week. Sometimes we get huge amounts of unlikely things - red peppers, mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, frozen cranberries - and we have to figure out how to use them before they go to waste. There is rarely any meat, so sometimes the volunteers will actually split the cost of something on sale so that we can serve a meat main dish - usually it's hamburger (to make a pasta casserole) or a big pork roast (to slice and serve). We do a lot of prep at home - partially cooking a big vat of soup to finish at the kitchen or throwing together a casserole of some sort to bake on site.

Would love to share ideas and recipes with others who do similar things. It can be really hard to figure out how to make something delicious out of food bank donations.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. So many threads on this already - here's one: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/594406
    And one of many on frugal meals: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/735189#

    1. Nyleve, wow, what a challenge. Are you looking for basic strategies that help you accomodate/preserve the food bank donations as they come in? Or specific recipes/methods that are flexible? Or something else entirely? Also, how many folks are you serving each night?

      I have experience in the soup/bread for 100+ department, but am not sure if my tips would be at all helpful to you. (Also quite a bit of experience in the "wow, what are we going to do with three cases of kohlrabi" department.)

      Good luck to you and looking forward to contributing whatever I can to your challenge.

      16 Replies
      1. re: miss louella

        Since I'm only in once a week, I can do nothing by way of establishing any strategies for keeping donations or using them. It's a mess. One week you put away everything in a logical way, the next week you go in and nothing is where you left it. Sometimes I arrive and find a pot of soup sitting at room temperature on the stove and no one will be able to tell me when it was made and how long it's been sitting there. We spend a lot of time pitching food that was donated in good faith - this part of it kills me.

        I was just asking if anyone had any good recipes for large-scale casseroles etc. - we make do with what we have. Last week someone found a huge frozen block of ground beef, so shepherds pie will happen. I came home with a ton of cream cheese etc., and will be making cheesecake for dessert for Tuesday. We almost always get donations of bread - and nice bread, too (from Costco) - and there are almost always potatoes. Other than that, it's a crap shoot.

        1. re: Nyleve

          Do you have sheet pans, and racks to store them when they've got food in them? If so, it's easier to make cheesecake bars (lots of bars and brownies, really, and pizza) than actual cheesecakes.

          1. re: Jay F

            That what I was planning to do - I'm going to use those large disposable foil roasting pans (from the $$$ store) and line them with parchment or foil. I think each pan will hold about a double recipe (9x13 pan size) and I think I have enough cream cheese to fill two of those pans. All will be clear tomorrow when I bake. Most will go at lunch time, but leftovers will be eaten throughout the day, so no problem storing them.

            1. re: Nyleve

              Those large aluminum pans are dirt cheap at Costco and some times you can get more than a single use out of them. They come in two sizes, both of which fit in a commercial oven but I couldn't get the larger one in my old wall oven.
              If other shifts are disorganized you might keep your own roll of heavy duty foil in your car. It's a bummer to run out when you are cooking in those pans.

          2. re: Nyleve

            When I volunteered at a soup kitchen, there was a box of tags on elastic on one of the main counters. The general rule was once you cooked/prepared something, you would write what it was, when it was made, how it should be stored on the tag. The tag was looped to the pot handle or taped to the container. That way there were no doubts about what it was or when it was made.

            1. re: cheesecake17

              I will try to institute a plan like this (she says, beating head against wall) to avoid the kind of terrible waste I've seen. We've had magic markers taped to the fridge to mark things, we've asked people not to chop more vegetables than they need, I've had meltdowns that made me look like a maniac about having to throw out an entire bucket of fresh mozzarella cheese (!!!) that had been left at room temp in the summer. Something needs to be done but it's hard when you're just there for a short time every week - and I can't be there every day. Thanks for the suggestion.

              1. re: Nyleve

                It's definitely tough, especially when everyone wants to help and do their best. Another suggestion- come up with a list of basic "do's and don'ts." DO refrigerate if in doubt, DONT' leave knives on the counter.. stuff like that. Hand out a copy to all the volunteers, tape a copy to the fridge, freezer, and cabinets, and invite other volunteers to add to the list. It'll only help reduce waste!

                1. re: Nyleve

                  I agree with what others have said...all volunteers should go through a short "training" when starting out. Volunteers want to know that they are doing a good job...and some basic training would be welcome. I know in some places when volunteers come in, they are just put to work without any real training. This is not good for a number of reasons....including potential health violations. GOOD LUCK.

              2. re: Nyleve

                One casserole I've done for large (very large) groups is penne with tomato sauce. I use multi-grain pasta and add in whatever donated veggies make sense (either grated or sauteed--depending on veggie and time). Oh and I don't boil the penne/pasta first--just add a little extra water to the sauce, cover it for the initial baking and then uncover to crisp.

                Friends and I are about to start cooking for a nearby shelter that houses about 75 adults. No cooking onsite so it will be an interesting challenge to bring nutritious food in quantity and keep it hot. At least we'll know who did what and when. I can't imagine what it must feel like to see a giant pot of soup you end up discarding.

                Good luck to you. I'll add to your post when we get started and find dishes that work in mass production.

                1. re: miss louella

                  I saw something like your penne dish on a buffet once where the sauteed zucchini rounds were arranged on top of the dish. Really looked nice, and stretched the zucchini as well.

                  1. re: cheesecake17

                    I help out with 2-3 groups that feed homeless people... Food is served at a park(s) or a private parking lot. All food is cooked at home with the exception of summers when meat (usually chicken and hot dogs) is barbecued on site.

                    Food is provided by various church groups or donated by food pantries.

                    One of our main meals is mole, rice, beans, salad, bread or rolls, fruit, cake, drinks.
                    The mole is made with whatever meat source available (turkey, chicken, pork).

                    Basics include the meat cooked/simmered/braised in water, onion, garlic, salt and pepper. When cooked, shred the meat add canned mole/chili/enchilada sauce and further season as desired. The easiest to cook with is boneless skinless chicken thighs which can be purchased in 40 lb boxes from your local restaurant supply for around $40.

                    The meat mixture can be extended with either potatoes and/or pasta with about a 4 to 1 or 2 ratio. (10-20 lbs of potatoes to 40 lbs of meat).

                    One pan (steam table pans 6x12x20 or 22 qts) each of the mole, beans, and rice should serve 100.

                  2. re: miss louella

                    We took a large woodened box or crate and took a sleeping bag and turned it inside out to line the box.....it holds heat pretty good.

                    1. re: miss louella

                      I have some ideas for large groups:
                      macaroni and cheese
                      chicken (roasted, barbequed)
                      mashed potatoes
                      lasagne (meat or vegetable)
                      sweet potato and apple casserole
                      tuna salad (tuna with elbow mac)
                      crushed garden salad
                      baked ziti (with ground beef and turkey sausage)
                      spaghetti and meat balls with onions and peppers.

                      I love to cook and am volunteering a a soup kitchen. (I would love to start my own soup kitchen...but for now I am volunteering to understand the "ropes" of such an undertaking). We have to prepare meals with whatever is on hand...or what has been donated for the day that only has a short shelf life. Soup is always good...but having a good meal is welcomed.

                    2. re: Nyleve

                      The feeding program I work with turns extra bread into bread pudding, wildly popular. You can also use up other stuff in the pudding by adding dollops of canned or fresh fruit or of jam, all sort of layered in between the bread.

                      1. re: Nyleve

                        ground beef would work well in a recipe of mine. the base is rice, cooked in canned diced tomatoes+juice (some rotel works too), water if needed, with spices, canned corn, canned beans (i use black beans, but whatever you have) and any other canned/fresh veg that makes sense. i usually finish by stirring in a cooked protein (anything works, from sausage to beef to chicken), and if you have cheese, topping with cheese and baking at 450F until browned and bubbly. makes a nice rice casserole, and beans (+cheese if have) can serve as protein with or without meat.

                    3. Our group volunteers to make a meal for a soup kitchen once a month. We get our provisions from a very generous discount food store. What they have for us changes every time (sometimes boxes of onions or carrots, sometime boxes of organic lettuce). Luckily, they usually give us whole chickens or chicken thighs. We find that basing a meal around roasted chicken (baked with butter and spices) and roasted potato wedges works well. We add whatever vegetable or salad stuff they give us, and usually one member will make dessert, like cookies. Sometimes we have had to split the cost of meat. A meal based around baked chicken and potatoes is filling and more healthy than many meals I've seen. We tried getting donations from chain grocery stores didn't work - they are tapped out from donating - but this local discount store really came through for us.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: cybergrrl

                        Do you have the chain Panera near you? They are very generous in donating their leftovers.

                        1. re: arp29

                          Same for Noah's Bagel's and some Starbucks..

                          1. re: cybergrrl

                            One of my favorite quick meals is chicken pot pie. Take rotisserie chicken and pull all meat off, place in large foil pan. Add drained can of veg-all, peppers, onion, salt, pepper cream of chicken and some chicken broth. pour bisquick (pancake consistency) on top and bake according to bisquick directions. it should be brown on top. (we then boil off the chicken bones and freeze the broth for cooking use later...no waste!)
                            Easy, delicious and filling.

                            1. re: momaH

                              Nice recipe! Since posting above, we have also gotten a CSA farm to donate salad greens and whatever vegetable is being harvested. They are happy to do so, and we are super happy to be able to serve fresh and organic fare.

                              1. re: momaH

                                I make something similar for our local soup kitchen. I make the base, chicken or turkey, frozen veggies, chunks of potatoes (or frozen hash browns) some canned cream soup (celery, mushroom, broccoli) add some broth or water, add to large dollar store foil pan. I allow this to warm up, stir if necessary to heat thoroughly, then about 20 min before serving, I cover the top with a layer of unrolled Pillsbury cresent rolls. Put back in oven till nice and brown... DELISH :-D

                                What else would you do with bones and skin... of course you make some broth, bring it in the next week, chop or use mandalin to chop up all your veggies (as much colour as you can) add some rice or pasta, a bit of seasoning, and another delicious meal

                            2. I've always wanted a copy of the book "Food for Fifty".......sounds like you could use one too. It's a great jumping-off point for bulk recipes. For instance, how much hamburger do you need to make chili for 50 servings.

                              If you could find someone to donate that book, plus some large chalkboards or white boards to track your incoming donations you'd have a leg up on the organizing part of your job. It's a tough thing to get all volunteers using the same protocols.

                              7 Replies
                              1. re: applgrl

                                I'm going to look for that book. The hardest thing for me is estimating amounts so this could be helpful. Once I know how much rice I need to cook for x-number of people, I can figure out a recipe of some sort. But I never know if it's 10 cups or 15 or what. Thanks for the suggestion.

                                1. re: Nyleve

                                  Try half.com for Food for Fifty; you can get an older edition for about $40.

                                    1. re: mscoffee1

                                      There have been a number of editions of this book, and it's not immediately clear from the link which editions are being sold. However, you can use the ISBN to dig further.

                                      1. re: sr44

                                        The one above is 1989 edition. Since I've never seen the book it's hard to know how much of the content has changed. What I do know is that the way we eat has changed A LOT since then, though. Of course quantities etc., remain the same but there may have been a reliance on certain convenience foods we no longer like to use or an avoidance of things that would have been considered exotic (garlic, chilies, etc.). I should probably hold out for a more recent version. But thanks for the heads-up. The original price did stop me in my tracks.

                                        1. re: Nyleve

                                          yeah, the cost stopped me when I was a student and all these years later. I still look for it at the thrift shops tho....

                                2. re: applgrl

                                  I just checked out our small local library, and this book is available there for free!! I have it reserved for me to pick up tomorrow :-D

                                3. If you have a vocational school near you that teaches cooking, they might have an older copy of a textbook for "institutional" (large quantity) cooking.

                                  You might also find a caterer who would share recipes or techniques. The ones around here seem to be very good with finding stuff on sale and making great food, often at low prices. Maybe one around wherever you are has some ideas to share.

                                  If you have lots of bread, you might try garlic soup if you can get garlic. You basically need water or chicken stock, bread, garlic and some spices. You can add chicken or ham or whatever, some folks put in eggs (ala egg drop soup). Sometimes I top with cheese (and run under a broiler or salamander if I can. There are lots of recipes out there. Google's recipe search can be a big help. I'll bet it would be good with the peppers or mushrooms, too. It is a peasant dish so you can add whatever you want, really.

                                  1. Two more thoughts:
                                    I googled for
                                    soup kitchen cookbook
                                    I found this free one http://www.saicenterofaustin.org/pdf/... along with some others.

                                    If your people like sweet bread puddings they might also like savory ones. you can find a lot of recipes for them on google. There is an Italian name for savory bread pudding, but I cannot remember it.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: travelerjjm

                                      Budino di pane salato.

                                      also strata.

                                      eggs are so cheap and a super food. these kinds of things are good "catch-alls" for assorted vegetables and cheeses, with bread as the base. even if there is no meat available, it makes a great healthy meal.

                                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                                        I made up a strata recipe that uses one pound loaf of TJ's french bread plus eggs milk cheese veggies in the standard half size disposable aluminum pan and it feeds 10-12. We used to bake up to 8 of these at a time in the church oven but they needed to be assembled the day before baking. Don't know if the OP has the ability to do this in her current situation.

                                        1. re: Berheenia

                                          ideally a strata sits overnight, but soaking the bread cubes in liquid for 30-40 minutes gives very good results too.

                                    2. I have been cooking for the homeless for 14 years....remember that most do not have good teeth and cannot handle hard things like nuts or hard baked items. They also do not have the best taste buds so usually want Hot Sauce on everything so please dont take it as an insult. The most important thing is to just speak to them....they probably could not tell you the last time someone other than a street person actually spoke to them, most avoid them.

                                      10 Replies
                                      1. re: momaH

                                        Absolutely. Quite a few can't eat salad - because they can't chew. Many just want very plain food like they grew up with. We make what they like - but using good ingredients whenever possible. They never fail to thank us profusely for the food we serve and it feels like a real honour to be able to provide a decent meal to folks who might otherwise eat crap or nothing at all. We've come to know quite a few of them and my volunteer day is the highlight of my week.

                                        1. re: Nyleve

                                          Good points about not being able to chew and also a huge need for nutritious food.

                                          For my kids, I've always used the food processor to whiz down my produce to "sneak" it into the nooks and crannies of my dinners. In every chili, spaghetti sauce, pot roast, etc I mix:
                                          ...and sometimes...
                                          bell peppers
                                          grated, unpeeled apples.

                                          This sort of "veggie slush" can be sauteed in canola oil, then add whatever meat you're cooking to extend it. A pound of hamburger ends up being more like two pounds of meat loaf, or taco meat, or whatever when you cook it this way. Would work well in a soup kitchen. As you get donations of fresh produce (if?) then you could put them in the food processor and freeze them until needed, especially if you need to use things up before they spoil.

                                          1. re: applgrl

                                            I just made a great and basically inexpensive recipe for a large group. Baked ziti with hot italian turkey sausage (you can use beef or whatever meat you like) and spinach ricotta. The spinach ricotta is just ricotta, egg, parm cheese and chopped spinach mixed together and added to ziti, meat and tomato mixture and baked.

                                            It is easy to make for a large crowd and really delicious!

                                          2. re: Nyleve

                                            Very good point about chewing. In terms of salads....using lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, etc., I suggest making it like Subway (the sandwitch co) does. they put all the ingredients in a big bowl and then almost grind it up in very small pieces and then add whatever salad dressing being used. The "salad bowls" are delicious and the pieces are very small...very easy toe eat.

                                            1. re: semicooking pro

                                              Years ago I brought a case of apples to hand out to a group of homeless men our church group was serving lunch to and it was a rude awakening when a kindly toothless gentleman explained to me that most of the men couldn't eat apples.

                                          3. re: momaH

                                            I remember packing "to go" packages at a soup kitchen. Most of the clients would eat their meal and be too full for dessert. We'd pack up brownies, fruit crisp, or another soft dessert and attach a spoon and napkin. It was usually appreciated, and when we handed them out it encouraged a moment of interaction.

                                            1. re: cheesecake17

                                              That's a great idea, cheesecake. I think I'll bake something wrappable for our next dinner.

                                              1. re: laredo

                                                Please let us know what you bake and how it works out!

                                                Another thing we'd do is put out a bowl of donated fruit-apples, oranges, peaches. It was the odds and ends or pieces that looked too good to throw into a dessert. Alongside the bowl was another basket of donated mini toiletries. We had a volunteer that was a great artist and shed draw a sign sayig "help yourself" or "one for the road"

                                                1. re: cheesecake17

                                                  We have a friend that is a flight attendant...stays in 4-5 hotels a week so she brings us her toiletries for the little to go bags. Most dentist office will donate tooth brushes because they get them by the boxes from sales reps. Something most dont think about is bug spray...it really helps if sleeping in the woods.

                                                  1. re: momaH

                                                    Mini snack bags are a good idea too. Small bags of chips, pretzels, entenmanns little bites... They last a while and always taste good.

                                          4. Hopefully, you may receive the ingredients for Ginger-Carrot-Cauliflower Soup.

                                            1. I also volunteer two times a week at a soup kitchen and made a delicious sweet potato and granny apple casserole...with just butter, cinnamon and brown sugar. Can be used as a dessert with whipped cream or as a nice side dish.

                                              6 Replies
                                              1. re: semicooking pro

                                                I would like to see a recipe, even if amounts are approximate. My compliments on what sounds like a creative use of ordinary ingredients.

                                                1. re: sueatmo

                                                  I don't have an exact recipe...I just eyeball ingredients. Anyway....just boil sweet potatoes until they are almost done. Peel and slice. Use granny smith green apples and slice. Layer in a casserole dish...sweet potatoe...green apple...sprinkle cinnamon...sprinkle brown sugar....add pats of butter. Do as many layers as the casserole pan can hold. Cover and bake in oven until bubbly. It is delicious and smells great!!!!

                                                2. re: semicooking pro

                                                  Oh did we have a bomb last week. My cohorts made a tuna casserole thing, but didn't have enough mushroom soup and didn't add enough seasoning to compensate so what might have been delicious comfort food was dry and tasteless. Clients left a lot on their plates and I can't blame them. I was in charge of dessert, though, which somewhat made up for the yucky main. Ah well, sometimes it just doesn't work out. We try.

                                                  1. re: Nyleve

                                                    Live and learn. There are probably sites that have recipes for large numbers of people.

                                                    1. re: sueatmo

                                                      http://mennonitegirlscancookforacrowd... Is were I go when I'm looking for tips on feeding a crowd :)

                                                    2. re: Nyleve

                                                      If you can keep a couple of number 10 cans of tomatoes on hand for back-up you might save the day. They are dirt cheap at Costco too.

                                                  2. I purchased a YONANAS and make fruit sorbet. It's healthy because you just use frozen fruit, ie., bananas, strawberries, peaches, etc. It takes a few minutes to do...depending on how many people you have to serve...but it was a BIG HIT! The machine is very inexpensive.

                                                    1. I serve at a food kitchen. Once a month we give out bagged groceries and cook a meal for about 150 people. I make the desserts out of what we have on hand or can find in the grocery on sale. Would love to have some ideas and recipes.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: CarolVance

                                                        Ideas and recipes for just desserts?
                                                        Off the top of my head:
                                                        Bread pudding
                                                        Fruit crumble or cobbler with whatever fruit is on hand or cheap
                                                        Banana cream pudding (the classic with nilla wafers)
                                                        Brownies (sometimes the box mixes go on supersale)
                                                        Rice krispie treats

                                                        1. re: Ttrockwood

                                                          Thanks, have done all of those. Baking chocolate cake for November pantry meal. They don't care much for pumpkin pie in the deep south. They usually eat sweet potato pies but will be serving sweet potatoes for a vegetable. I like to garnish with a little something on my desserts to make them look special. Found cake mixes for $.75 last week. It will take about 10.

                                                      2. look for navy recipes web site

                                                        1. Hi, I also run a soup kitchen. We serve about 120 lately. Looking for ideas. I usually decide the day before the meal in order to take every opportunity for donations to come in. Looking forward to communicating with you.

                                                          1. although the recipes are UNtested, this site (growlies for groups) may provide some inspiration, as well as general guidelines re: quantities

                                                            1. Nylene-

                                                              I recently made a Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese at the soup kitchen where I volunteer, it went over really well and the Squash was barely recognized here's a recipe or approximately 175 portions:

                                                              9# Elbow macaroni ( we had Whole Grain)
                                                              8 Cups Assorted cheese ( Anything but mozzerella or swiss, a good hunk of either American or Cream Cheese makes a HUGE difference)
                                                              2 Gallons Milk (what ever you have I used a mix of full fat + Skim + Half & Half)
                                                              1# Butter
                                                              1/4 Cup Paprika
                                                              1/4 Cup Mustard Powder
                                                              1/4 Cup Black Pepper
                                                              5 Bay Leaves
                                                              10 cups Bread - cut in crouton sized Cubes
                                                              10 Cups COOKED Pureed Winter Squash ( I steamed in salted water then processed in food processor, because of time constraints but would have roasted it)

                                                              IF YOU CAN :
                                                              Fresh Rosemary, Sage, Thyme Parsley

                                                              Boil the macaroni in SALTED Water till tender (the water should taste like tears or the ocean)

                                                              Reserve 4 Cups Pasta Water
                                                              Drain- Hold

                                                              Heat Milk, Paprika, Mustard Powder, Bay Leaves & Rosemary (if you have it) Simmer about 10 minutes--- Slowly add 3/4 of the cheese whisking as you go to incorporate fully

                                                              Whisk in Pasta Water

                                                              Keep whisking till its creamy ( you can use am immersion blender)

                                                              Add the Squash

                                                              whisk in again-- taste for seasoning

                                                              Divide the pasta amoung 3 deep hotel pans)

                                                              Pour sauce over pasta- equally

                                                              Stir to combine

                                                              Melt Butter with herbs if you have them

                                                              Toss Bread Cubes in Melted Butter

                                                              Evenly distribute remaining cheese over top of each pan

                                                              Cover with bread cubes

                                                              Bake @ 30 -45 minutes @ 375 till bubbly & Brown

                                                              IF YOU have mozzerella or swiss save that for the last step so you have a gooey top - Mozzerella especially won't emulsify in a sauce.

                                                              GOOD LUCK!!

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: Aliwaks

                                                                That sounds delicious! We just made a big baked penne casserole (served around 110 today) that was very well received. We somehow ended up with a giant block of mozzarella and the rest just came together. I will put your recipe on the list. We will often end up with some kind of winter squash that no one wants to deal with - this sounds like the perfect use for it.