Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff

In this season of giving thanks, remember those less fortunate by cooking for one of your local shelters or group homes. Make it fun and gather your friends to prepare a meal for a local shelter or family in need. It’s easy to take for granted the simple act of gathering for a meal, but sharing food with others feeds everyone’s souls.

Recently, my friends and I cooked a meal that was donated to a home housing abused women and their children. We had the opportunity to hear from one of the young women and were moved by her story. She was working towards independent living and the gift of a meal for her family meant someone cared. The gift of a meal also gave the woman in charge of running the home more time with the residents and not in the kitchen.

Learn how to save money on your Thanksgiving feast ingredients with our tips on how to save at the grocery store! If you’re looking for ways to stick to your holiday budget and timeline, our Holiday Helper series will be your best friend this holiday season!

If you’re looking for a feel-good way to give back to those in need this holiday season, volunteer to serve Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve put together some helpful tips to help you get started giving back to your own community here!

The benefits of a simple, home-cooked meal during the holidays

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff

A home cooked meal is a simple way to say we care and are rooting you on. Many living in shelters are working hard to rebuild their lives and the holidays can be a challenging — even lonely — time for them, but you can encourage them while providing a warm nutritious meal. Other benefits include:

  • Provides people struggling to rebuild their lives with the comfort of a home-cooked meal
  • It’s a time to bond with your friends while making a difference
  • Provides a nutritious meal
  • Lightens someone’s load for the day
  • Models generosity to your children

Step 1: Connect with a non-profit

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff

Many shelters have specific focuses. Some shelters serve the homeless, others abused women and their children, and there are even private group homes for foster kids. To start, call a non-profit that you’re interested and ask if you can volunteer to serve Thanksgiving dinner. Non-profits tend to love having volunteers on board, and some homes will allow more volunteers than others depending on the number of people they serve. When you call, it’s a good idea to ask some of the following questions:

  • How many people will I be serving?
  • Are there opportunities to interact with the residents?
  • Can I come in and teach a class on cooking quick meals?
  • Is it possible to provide a party by decorating, cooking, and enjoying the meal with the residents?
  • If the meal is drop-off only, what are the days and times I can drop off my food?
  • If you can serve the meal ask how many people can I bring with me and are children allowed?
  • If you’re required to cook at the facility ask what equipment is available and plan to bring missing items from home.

Step 2: Ask what type of food is best

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff

It’s also important to ask about the type of food the shelter prefers. Be sure to ask if any residents have dietary restrictions or if children will also be eating the dinner. If you like, you can also ask if the residents have any favorite foods. Other tips for deciding what kind of food to bring include:

  • Keep the menu simple — avoid super rich or complicated food
  • Include fresh fruit and a crisp salad with dressing on the side
  • Avoid using alcohol in your recipes

If money is a challenge, ask your grocery store if they are willing to donate food. Use coupons to reduce the cost on pantry items.

Step 3: Plan & prep

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff

You’ll want to plan and prep ahead for your meal by creating your menu and shopping for your ingredients. If money is a challenge, ask your grocery store if they’re willing to donate food and use coupons to reduce the cost of ingredients. Be sure to shop for items that are necessary for cooking safely, such as plastic gloves.

If you have a group of friends or family cooking or serving with you, ask each person to bring ingredients for one dish on the menu, then spend the afternoon cooking together and chatting. Once you’re done, be sure to safely package up and store your food. Let your food cool before popping it in the refrigerator and don’t let it sit on the counter for more than one hour.

Quick tip: Label items. Label each menu item with the name of the dish and its ingredients. Don’t forget to provide clear, simple reheating instructions.

Whether cooking at home or at the shelter, be sure that you and everyone in your group follows proper safety and hygienic procedures. This means everyone should wash their hands when necessary and use plastic gloves for food prep and assembly.

Quick tip: Use re-heatable cookware. By placing food in re-heatable containers, you’ll make it much easier to warm up each dish before you serve hungry residents.

Menu idea: Skinny Chicken & Kale Mac & Cheese

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff


  • 1 pound whole grain penne
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 4 teaspoons flour
  • 3 cups fat-free milk
  • 8 ounces Cracker Barrel sharp white cheddar, grated
  • 1 ounce Parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce
  • A dash cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt, or according to personal preference
  • 3 slices center cut bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled
  • 1 cup chopped chicken
  • 5 ounces fresh kale, chopped
  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs


  1. Cook pasta for 1-2 minutes less than package instructions. Drain and set aside.
  2. In a large French or Dutch oven, melt the butter and olive oil. Sauté the onion for 3-5 minutes over medium heat, or until tender and golden.
  3. Add the garlic and sauté an additional 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Whisk in the flour and cook over medium heat until golden. Slowly whisk in the milk while cooking over medium heat.
  4. Stir in the white cheddar and Parmesan cheese, whisking until melted and creamy. Add the hot sauce, cayenne, black pepper, and salt. Bring to a slow simmer, and then stir in the pasta, chicken, bacon, and kale.
  5. Transfer the pasta mixture to a 3 1/2-quart oven-safe casserole dish. Mix together panko crumbs and olive oil, then sprinkle in a pinch of salt and pepper. Sprinkle the top with the crumbs. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit on the center rack for 10-20 minutes, or until the mixture is hot and bubbly.

Recipes for a group

Are you serving a large group? Here are a few more recipes that will feed a crowd!

Spaghetti & Meatballs

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff

Source: Natasha’s Kitchen

Everyone loves this classic dish. The combination of Italian sausage and ground beef make these meatballs extra flavorful, while bread keeps them tender.

Sloppy Joes

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff

Source: A Farmgirl’s Dabbles

Sloppy Joes are an easy summertime treat. Serve these up with a fresh summer salad and seasonal fruit for a full, satisfying meal.

Chicken Tacos

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff

These hearty chicken tacos only require four ingredients. Best of all? You can make them in your slow cooker!

Pizza Ziti

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff

A savory pasta dish is not only delicious, it’s filling. The last recipe here is for a tasty pizza ziti that’s sure to please even a picky eater!

Step 4: Spoil them with a little extra gift

Give Back: Volunteer to Serve Thanksgiving Dinner | thegoodstuff

From a gift card to toiletries, a little extra gift during the holidays will bless the residents. If money is tight, you can still include a card with heartfelt notes of encouragement.

If you love the idea of giving back to those in need, don’t be afraid to think long term. Everyone wants to help during the holidays, but shelters are in need year-round. Consider cooking a meal once a month or once a quarter. Another great idea is to bring a birthday cake once a month to celebrate residents’ birthdays. It’s the little everyday moments we often take for granted that bless others.