“Meals can often be the first casualty when someone is really strapped,” Elsbach says. If you have a minute to think about food, you are probably making a quick peanut butter sandwich rather than a carefully planned dinner. She calls this “the gas station effect.” When life becomes busy, stressed, and disordered, food becomes fuel.
In her new book “Extra Helping: Recipes for Caring, Connecting, and Building Community One Dish at a Time,” Elsbach takes a look at how helping people with meals in times of stress not only provides nourishment, but comfort and pleasure at times when all can be in short supply. “When you’re not just refueling, but taking in something with real value, it changes the situation pretty dramatically,” she says.
Elsbach, who lives in Sheffield in Western Massachusetts, began thinking about the importance of food and a supportive community while caring for her sister who had cancer. As Elsbach stepped into a caregiving role, as she had for other relatives, she saw that food is a natural vehicle to express empathy. Her book includes recipes and advice for preparing meals for a variety of life challenges.
In general, how do you make sure that the food you prepare for someone in a time of need is providing care and comfort and isn’t just the fifth lasagna of the week? Elsbach says the key is being curious and observant. Curious to ask — by e-mail or another inobtrusive way — if a dish you want to make is what they would like or if there is something they are craving. And observant to know when a visit is welcome and when it is best to efficiently deliver the meal and get on your way. “Sometimes the kindest, most loving thing you can do, is put it on the doorstep with a note and leave,” she says.
Online tools such as Meal Train, Take Them a Meal, and Lotsa Helping Hands are becoming increasingly popular for helping manage meals. These sites connect a community of people offering food help with a signup calendar. Some can also be used to coordinate rides, visits, and other means of support and allow menus to be posted, helping to avoid multiple lasagnas.
Lotsa Helping Hands is what Suzahne Riendeau of Somerville has used to help organize meals since she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in mid-October. Riendeau, who teaches at the New England School of Acupuncture, had surgery five days after her diagnosis and is now undergoing chemotherapy. Before her surgery, Riendeau sent an e-mail to her large community of friends and colleagues and was deluged with offers of help, food being the most frequent offer.
“It can be overwhelming if you have a large community,” she says. But Lotsa Helping Hands helps by allowing people to sign-up for meals online, according to a schedule. Riendeau says she appreciates when friends ask questions, “People who have not been through this are imagining how they want to be comforted. Thoughtful friends have reached out and said, ‘Is this what you would like?’ ”
Riendeau has always maintained a heathy diet, and during chemotherapy she is making an extra effort to avoid sugar and additives. But she says her tastes have changed somewhat during chemotherapy. Even friends who know her well may not be aware that the coffee and wine that she has always enjoyed aren’t appealing right now.
Elsbach concurs that it is valuable to find out what people want: “When you’re in a crisis of that nature, self-determination is very closely tied to dignity and self-care.” Elsbach suggests there are collateral benefits when meals are prepared with thought and care. When she was caring for her sister Elsbach came to appreciate that putting a flower on the tray, adding a favorite fruit from the farmers market, or other touches weren’t superficial niceties. “It says I’m recognizing this moment where you can just look at something beautiful and take in something that tastes good and take a beat,” Elsbach says.
Understanding dietary restrictions, as well as preferences, is an important part of preparing meals for someone with health problems, says Kevin Conner. Conner is director of food services for Community Servings, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that oversees preparation and delivery of 650,000 medically-tailored meals a year for people with critical health problems, their caregivers, and families. At Community Servings, the chefs work with registered dieticians to create more than 15 different medical diets, including specialized plans such as a moderate-sodium, mild, and soft diet for cardiac patients with trouble chewing foods.
Conner echoes the advice of asking questions, particularly about dietary limitations for people battling illness. As examples, he notes that someone with compromised kidney function needs to avoid tomatoes or beans, while someone with diabetes requires whole grains but has to watch overall carbohydrate intake. “Understand what it means to be on a specific diet,” he notes, advising that it is important to read labels to understand nutritional facts and avoid additives. At Community Servings, detailed attention to nutrition is all part of creating healthier versions of familiar dishes with a goal of delivering meals that are comforting, appealing, and healthy.
What people find comforting is driven by a number of factors: individual tastes, culture, and the changes that come with stress or illness. When Riendeau came home from surgery, she found comfort in an unexpected source: a dish of Turkish buttered rice prepared by a friend. She had difficulties eating after surgery, but found both psychological and emotional relief as she enjoyed a simple dish of white rice, butter, chick peas, and lemon. She says, “It was the most wonderful thing I ate. It relieved a lot of worries. If I can eat this, I’ll be able to eat other foods. I was lucky that [my friend] brought it.”Michael Floreak can be reached at michael.floreak@gmail