If you’ve ever volunteered at a shelter, you know how rewarding of an experience it can be.  Shelters, like food banks and soup kitchens, are extremely important institutions within our communities — especially here in Chicago where the winter months are brutal.  Even though the holidays are over, we’re still in the season of giving.  January 19th is Martin Luther King  Jr.’s birthday and it’s also considered to be a national day of service.  I can’t think of a better way to show someone that you really care than by cooking and serving them a warm meal.

Shelters hold a special place in my heart because several years ago, while working a corporate 9 to 5, I took some time to volunteer at one of the shelters in Chicago.  In that experience, I realized just how much I enjoyed cooking for others and it set me on the path to becoming a professional chef.

Chef aram reed serving food

Volunteering at my local shelter

If you’re planning on spending your day of service at a shelter, I hope this guide will help you to maximize your volunteer shift into a memorable experience.  Now, gather a group of coworkers, friends and family members and let’s get at it!

The meal that you’re going to prepare on your day of service should be planned ahead of time.  Just as you would with a dinner party at your home, you must consider your guests and your budget.  Here are the top five things to keep in mind when planning your day of service menu:

1. Be sure to include veggies in your menu and keep the meal low in fat, sugar and sodium.  Ask the volunteer coordinator if there are any special dietary needs that you should be aware of ahead of time.

2. Keep your meal simple and straightforward.

3. It’s okay to serve meat, but make sure it is cooked until it’s well-done.  I also tend to avoid pork.

4. Consider bringing your own knife, rolling pin and spatula. The facility will have pots and pans, but you should expect minimal conditions.

5. Don’t serve anything that YOU wouldn’t eat and that includes instant foods such as mashed potatoes.  Don’t use anything instant!


Here’s a sample menu that you can borrow. It’s a well-balanced menu of comfort food that’s hearty and healthy.

Entree: Herb Crusted Beef Roast
Sides: Roasted Lemon Asparagus and Garlic Mashed Potatoes with Chives
Dessert: Apple Cobbler

Herb Crusted Beef Roast
Serves 6-8
1 (4-rib) standing beef rib roast (bone-in prime rib; 9 to 10 pounds)
1/4 cup mixed peppercorns (pink, white, and green)
3 tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and each cut into 6 wedges (keep in a bowl of cold water to prevent discoloration)
3 pounds carrots, peeled and cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces

Pat roast dry and put, fat side up, on rack in roasting pan.

Coarsely crush peppercorns in a mortar and pestle or folded kitchen towel (not terry cloth) with a meat pounder or bottom of a heavy skillet. Stir together peppercorns, 3 tablespoons kosher salt, thyme, and rosemary in a small bowl.

Rub roast all over with oil, then coat it all over with peppercorn mixture, pressing to help it adhere. Let coated roast stand at room temperature 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 450°F with rack in lower third. Roast beef roast 20 minutes.

Reduce oven temperature to 350°F and roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into center of meat (do not touch bone) registers 110°F, 1 1/2 to 2 hours more. Transfer to a platter (keep fat and pan juices in roasting pan) and let stand, uncovered, 40 minutes (temperature of meat will rise to about 130°F for medium-rare).

While roast stands, put second oven rack in upper-third position and increase oven temperature to 450°F. Line 1 sheet pan with parchment paper.

Strain pan juices from roasting pan through a sieve into a glass measuring cup (reserve roasting pan). Drain potatoes well and toss in a large bowl with 3 tablespoons melted beef fat from roasting pan and 1 teaspoon kosher salt, then spread out on parchment-lined sheet pan. Toss carrots in same bowl with another 3 tablespoons beef fat from pan and 1 teaspoon kosher salt, then spread out on other rimmed sheet pan. Roast vegetables in upper and lower thirds of oven, stirring occasionally and switching position of pans halfway through roasting, until golden, 25 to 30 minutes for carrots and 30 to 35 minutes for potatoes.

Roasted Lemon Asparagus
Serves 6
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
36 asparagus spears, trimmed

Preheat oven to 450°F.  Mix lemon juice, oil and lemon peel in 15 x 10 x 2-inch glass baking dish.  Add asparagus; turn to coat.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Roast asparagus until crisp-tender, turning occasionally, about 20 minutes.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes with Chives
Serves 6
2 1/2 pounds red-skinned potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
2 tablespoons sour cream
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

Preheat oven to 425°F. Cut top 1/4 inch off head of garlic to expose tops of cloves. Place in small baking dish. Spoon oil over; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil. Bake until garlic cloves are tender, about 45 minutes. Squeeze garlic cloves from skins and mash in small bowl.

Cook potatoes in heavy large pot of boiling salted water until very tender, about 18 minutes. Drain; return to pot. Stir over low heat to allow excess water to evaporate. Add whipping cream, butter, sour cream, and roasted garlic and mash together. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in chives and serve.

Apple Cobbler
Serves 6
Apple Mixture:
5 c. peeled, sliced apples
1/2 c. sugar
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. water
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tbsp. butter, softened

Combine first 7 ingredients; mix gently. Spoon into a lightly greased 9-inch square baking pan; dot with 1 tablespoon butter. Set aside.

1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. butter, softened
1 egg, slightly beaten

Combine batter ingredients; mix well. Spoon over apple mixture in 9 equal portions (batter will spread during baking). Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes.

Depending on the facility, you may be able to choose between a buffet service where the diners line up with their plates and the volunteers will serve them buffet-style.  Or you may be able to serve the diners restaurant-style by plating the food and serving them at their table.

Either way, think of ways to make your meal more of an experience than a handout.  Add pitchers of water to every table as well as table settings.  Maybe print your menu and place one on each table alongside the table setting… it’s the little touches that will make your meal special.

chef aram reed and friends volunteering at a kitchen in chicago

Volunteering with some great guys!


You’ve prepared a tasty meal and all of the guests have been served. Now, if the facility allows it (and most do encourage it), grab yourself a plate and sit along with the guests.  Get to know them just as you would a guest in your own home.

Don’t forget to clean your mess and wrap any leftover food.  Also, ask your volunteer coordinator if there are any people who will be dining later as you may need to prepare plates for them, too.

After you’ve completed your day of service, schedule another one.  Go back, build a relationship with the shelter staff and guests.  Don’t make your day of service just a one shot deal.

Oh and if you decide to donate food to your local pantry or shelter, here’s a list of the items that they need the most.

Remember to have fun on your day of service.  While your intention is to give to others, you just may leave with a gift yourself.  I’d love to see shots of your group, so tag me in your photos on Facebook and Twitter @chefaramreed and Instagram @aramreed.

Happy volunteering!
Chef Aram