Dinner for 120

It’s what they call the silly season, well and truly, now the calendar has rolled over into December.

For most of us that means things pretty much accelerate; there’s the end of school term looming; all the end-of-year celebrations and gatherings; and all the work we need to get finished before Christmas, which has become a completely arbitrary and artificial deadline.

Why Christmas? Yes, everyone takes off for a couple of weeks and the country goes into holiday mode. But after that, life (and business) go on, just as before. Really, it won’t kill us if we don’t get that job done, or the renovation finished, or the house spring cleaned or the garden looking perfect. What’s really important to focus on, at this – or any – time of year, isn’t anything to do with stuff or with work. It’s really all about the people.

This was brought home to me recently when I went with Healthy Food Guide editor Jenny to spend an evening as part of a group of volunteers, cooking dinner for the families at Ronald McDonald House in Auckland.

The house provides a home away from home for families with kids being treated at Starship Hospital, who would otherwise have to travel a long way or find somewhere else to stay in the city. It’s an impressive facility, that really does manage to feel homely even though it’s quite a big operation. I was really impressed with the way things have been thought about with great care and sensitivity. There are quiet rooms for adults to get away from the noise and think or take a breather. There are special connected rooms for families where the parents are separated but both want to be there to support their child. There’s a school for kids who are patients but also their siblings, whose lives are often uprooted when a brother or sister is sick.

When a family member is sick – and especially, I think, a child – life is thrown into sharp perspective. Nothing else matters, really, but the health of the child and all the focus is on treatment and recovery. I heard stories of families who have stayed for years at Ronald McDonald House with their children. I think I’ve known a bit of stress, but I can’t imagine the stress of that.

Twice a week at the house, a group of volunteers comes in to cook, just like we did. The House doesn’t provide dinner every night, because they’ve found it’s better for families to maintain at least one of the ‘normal’ routine tasks of family life: cooking a meal. But those two nights when families don’t have to cook provide a nice respite, too. And I think those of us who cooked probably got at least as much from the experience as those who were cooked for. It was lovely to serve up our food to people who clearly had had a much more stressful day than me, but who still all offered grateful smiles and friendly greetings. It was lovely to feel how much our simple meal meant.

And that’s the power of a meal shared, isn’t it? Whether it’s roast meat and vegetables for 120 or special Christmas dinner for 12, when we sit down and eat together it’s really not about the food. It wouldn’t have mattered to the Ronald McDonald House families what we served them; they’d still enjoy it as a night of not having to think about making dinner. And it doesn’t matter for us, ultimately, at Christmas, whether we have the perfect roast turkey with all the trimmings or something much more simple. It’s not about the food. It’s about the act of sharing and the sense of community and family we have when we take time to focus on the people.


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First published: Dec 2016

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