Cooking for the Shelter

Cooking for the Shelter

From November through April, UniLu members gather every Thursday evening to prepare and serve dinner for Harvard Square Homeless Shelter guests. For more about volunteering with others from UniLu, see Shelter Volunteer Opportunities. Volunteers from UniLu are also welcome to prepare meals at other times, particularly during school breaks; see these instructions for more. Thanks to Clare Gordon for preparing this page.


Coordinate with the Shelter Staff by emailing the Volunteer Coordinator at Be sure to clarify whether you plan to be at the shelter to work and/or if you are bringing food.

Regular shift times are: dinner, 6:45-9:15 P.M.; breakfast, 6:30-8:30 A.M. except Saturdays 7:30-9:30 A.M. Plan to serve dinner at 8:00 P.M. and breakfast at 7:00 A.M. (8:00 A.M. on Saturday). It usually requires at least an hour’s prep to serve breakfast, more for dinner. If you cannot be there for the whole shift let the coordinator know ahead of time.


Remember that Student Directors are in charge when coming in to volunteer. Usually there will be two Directors present, even on breaks and weekends. They are responsible for dealing with guests and answering the phone except for meal-related requests and questions.

Everyone must scrub hands and wear gloves to participate in food handling. See instructions at the small handwashing sink.

Instructions for using each appliance are mounted nearby. Ask for help if you are not familiar with any equipment or are using the appliance for the first time. WE NEED TO MAINTAIN SAFETY IN OUR FOOD SERVICE AND AVOID DAMAGING EQUIPMENT.

Food Donations

Fresh fruit and vegetable donations are particularly appreciated.

Pastries, bread and desserts are not usually needed because of ample restaurant donations and may have to be discarded.

Non-perishable items such as canned goods and pasta are welcome anytime.

It is best to use disposable foil containers when bringing in casseroles or other food prepared at home. This avoids contamination introduced when transferring food to other containers for serving or storage, the need to store and return your item, and possible breakage of glass.

Planning for a Meal

  • To avoid wasting food, try to check supplies on hand the evening before or during the day before. Donations are irregular and the amounts consumed tend to fluctuate too.
  • Regulations require that food that has been heated and put out for serving cannot be used after 72 hours (3 days). Leftover food (in the refrigerator) should be checked for the date in case it was not discarded on time.
  • Flexibility is needed because the situation may change in ways staff can not predict.
  • Plan to serve about 30 persons for dinner, because people without reservations who come to the door are served outside. At breakfast only shelter guests are served—up to 24.
  • In most cases there are plenty of breads and pastries on hand that have been donated by restaurants. They are put out before the meal and replenished as needed.
  • Coffee, tea and milk are also routinely available for guests.
  • Salt, pepper and some spices are on hand.
  • It is OK to make use of supplies available, but if you need more than small quantities of items, it is best to bring what you need.
  • Calculate prep time considering arrival of volunteers and extra oven time for large quantities.


  • A healthy balanced diet is very important! Most of the guests get plenty of carbohydrates (even at the shelter) because abundant breads and pastries are available and it is very easy to fix pasta and rice as the meal standbys if other options are not there. Please help introduce variety!
  • Most guests appreciate meat, but there are some vegetarians to be accommodated also.
  • Vegetarian alternative dishes should contain a protein source such as beans, tofu, cheese or eggs.
  • Soup seems to be welcome and more vegetables may be consumed this way than as side dishes.
  • Only small amounts of salad tend to be taken. Raw vegetables as finger foods are more popular.
  • Donated desserts are frequently available, so not critical to bring in.

Dinner patterns that have worked:

  • Vegetable soup, meat and pasta (or rice) casserole, veggie alternative main dish, raw carrots & celery, cookies.
  • Main dish of chicken and vegetables, scalloped potatoes, rice pilaf with vegetables (veggie alternative), steamed green beans, applesauce.
  • Corn chowder with crackers and cheese, roast meat, baked potatoes, steamed vegetable, individual puddings.
  • Pasta casserole with cheese or meat, steamed vegetable, garlic bread, fresh fruit.

Limits on what works.

  • Three hot items (or four or more if split pans are used for side dishes) can be accommodated on the steam table. Since an hour is allowed for the meal, all hot dishes need to be served there. A soup may be served from the kettle it is cooked in if it goes back to the stove to keep hot.
  • Not everything can be done in the oven. The ovens are quite small with limited clearance if you use both shelves.
  • More time is needed in the oven for large quantities of food to heat through and cook. It often takes twice as long as it would for the amount cooked for a family or small group.