The Peculiar Zen of Meal Prep

Every now and then, on no particular schedule, when I think I should or when I feel the need for total immersion in a task that is immediate and elemental, I do meal prep.

Meal prep is what Street Angels calls preparing and packaging hot meals for the homeless people on our outreach route. So depending on the time of the year, anywhere from 40 to 120 hot meals are needed for each night of outreach – Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

Volunteers do this. They buy, cook, package, and transport hot meals to the Street Angels bus by 5:45 p.m. on outreach nights. It’s both a science and an art. Food has to be generally appealing, nutritious, but most of all, hot. The food has to be hot. There’s a trick to that. I haven’t perfected it yet but liquid is key – sauce, gravy, soup, chili – liquids stay hotter than solids. Cold food won’t do for a hot meal plus there’s the matter of food safety.

I’ve taken to doing meal prep as a sort of meditation. For me, it is a zen experience. I can’t think of anything else during meal prep except the barbecued drumsticks or mac and cheese or tuna casserole, how to multiply a recipe for 20 to one for 60, what pans to use, how to coordinate my oven and Nesco cooker, and how to keep everything hot. Very hot.

For a while I was doing meal prep with a friend and then I realized, oddly, that I wanted to be alone in my kitchen. Talking disrupted the zen, consultation scattered my focus, what I gained in companionship, I lost in the clear sense of purpose and utility that meal prep can bring.

After I package up all the meals and deliver them to the bus, I drive away worrying about things I could have done better. I made pasta with sauce and Italian sausage and it was beautiful but had no Parmesan cheese. The tuna casserole was too dry because I’d panicked and added more noodles. Not all the barbecued chicken legs had a nice sear on them.

One night, though, I made chicken soup from scratch, simmering two big chickens for hours and then adding carrots and celery and noodles. The soup was a triumph but I delivered it on a night of the Polar Vortex so I knew it wouldn’t stay hot. I wished I could load a cauldron of soup on to the bus and ladle it out person by person. Instead I dropped off my cups of soup and went home, later that night getting a message from a homeless woman relayed to me by the outreach worker, “The soup was divine.” I almost cried. She said the soup was divine!

People all over Milwaukee, all over the country, do things like meal prep. I watched a man in a warming room kitchen dump three canisters of quick-cooking oatmeal into a huge foil tray, pour boiling water over it all, stir it, and scatter raisins and cinnamon over the top and then stand back to admire it like he was presenting a Beef Wellington at Christmas dinner. I know that look, I thought. It’s his Zen.

For those of us who come from go wash your hands, it’s time for dinner, this is what we have, we’ll have to make it stretch, who came to the table where meatloaf and mashed potatoes were waiting, steam rising, who listened to their parents talking in the kitchen while dinner cooked, who hated but loved family dinners because it was proof you belonged somewhere, meal prep has a lot of meaning.

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