It is well-known that food has the power to bring people together, and this can be especially true for college students. For at least fifteen years, we have been providing weekly home-cooked meals at the ministry my husband and I work at. I’ve learned a few things over the years, and I’d like to share some of those here so that you can successfully bless students by serving them free meals."It is well-known that food has the power to bring people together, and this can be especially true for college students." -@YarnellKarin #collegiatedisciplemaker Setting the Table for Community Click To Tweet
Why to Eat
Decide what the goal of your weekly meal together is. Our goal has changed through the years. Some will decide to have it as a precursor to a Bible study or worship service. Right now, our primary objective is for it to be a no-strings-attached event that our students can bring their non-Christian friends to. The secondary goal is for it to be a time of fellowship and community-building for the students as they sit around the table talking.
What to Eat
Students will eat anything, right? Wrong.
Some people think that college students will eat anything. I have found this to be false. For instance, I used to have sloppy joes on our menu. It was routinely the least-attended meal, so I finally cut it out completely. I don’t know if that meal brings back horrible memories from elementary school cafeteria experiences or what, but it had to go. It might take a little time to figure out what college students will eat, but if you want them to attend your meals, it is important to make something they like.
Planning Your Menu
The meals you serve don’t need to be fancy or expensive, but they do need to look and smell appetizing, and obviously they need to taste good. You don’t need to be an award-winning chef, but it helps to have some basic culinary experience.
What you make very much depends on your budget, availability, kitchen supplies, and expertise. When I plan our meals, I plan them to include a protein, but that is not the main course. Protein is quite expensive. Carbs are a great filler. I rarely have vegetables as a side dish as they don’t really get eaten anyway. I always make sure there is some sort of dessert.
Some examples of meals I do are:
- Chicken Alfredo
- Taco Soup
- Chicken Tortilla Soup
- Pulled Pork and Cheesy Potatoes
- Pancakes and Farmer’s Casserole
- French Toast
- Breakfast Burritos
- Taco Salad
These aren’t fancy meals, but they are filling and accomplish the purpose.
Accommodating Dietary Needs
It is difficult to accommodate everyone’s dietary needs, but it can be such a blessing to students who have restrictions when you can. For several years, we had many students in our ministry that needed to eat a gluten-free diet. I was familiar with this, so I provided gluten-free options. It was worth the extra work knowing these students could come be a part of a social event where they could eat food that was safe for them without having to pack their own.
Food allergies aren’t the only consideration. This concept can also be a great way to reach international students who do not eat beef or pork or are even strictly vegetarian for religious reasons. I do try to make sure there are vegetarian options every week as we have students from India who often come.
Once you know who is interested in coming, you can do your best to accommodate their dietary needs.
How to Eat
Prep and Cleanup
In our ministry, I do most of the cooking. I have a team of students that sets up tables, helps finish cooking the meal, cleans and washes dishes. Once in a while, a church or small group will sponsor or bring the meal. This is a great way for churches to be involved in your ministry. Some of the churches that bring a meal for us will bring several of their members to serve the food as well which allows them to interact with the students.
Serving the Meal and Interacting with Students
Your friendliness as you serve the meal can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your event. I ask whoever is helping me serve to smile and interact with everyone as they come through the line. I suggest having a few different questions you can ask the students.
Since our meal is on Monday nights, I often ask students how their weekend was or if they did anything fun. I try to say their names as well. It ends up being about a 15-30 second interaction with each student. Whether they have had a good day or bad day, they will be greeted with a smile by someone who cares about them. I really can’t stress enough how important this is. If you are grumpy as they come through the line, that will set the whole mood for the rest of the night. My husband, if I don’t need his help serving, will greet everyone as well as they are standing in the line waiting for food.
While You Eat
Interacting with Students
Ask your leaders to spread out and sit with students they don’t know well and engage new students in conversation during the meal. No one who comes to your meals wants to be ignored or sit by themselves.
Promoting Other Events
Through the years, we have tried different ways to also advertise our other events during this time. As we want our weekly meals to be a no-pressure setting, we don’t want to overdo it, but we also don’t want to miss an opportunity to invite students to be more involved or go deeper in their faith.
In the past, we have had our TV screens set to a slideshow of our upcoming events. We have also made tri fold table tents to stand on each table. On them were advertisements, fun facts, conversation starters and maybe a verse or word of encouragement.
Currently, we just create a small handout that we place at each seat that promotes what we are doing that week. It has our logo and purpose statement on it with a welcome to get more involved.
I hope these tips help you feel confident in hosting meals for students, whether in your home, your BSU building, at your church, or on campus. It doesn’t have to be complicated, fancy, or expensive. All you need to set the table for community is a little bit of planning, some help from your team, a simple meal, and a smile on your face.