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For the Love of Food

For the Love of Food

Everyone knows that planning a retreat can be daunting work – and by everyone, we mean anyone who has ever dared to plan a retreat before.

The logistics, the paperwork, the games, the speakers, the small groups, the music (and sometimes even the inflatables) can be overwhelming. Never fear, we are here to make your lives easier with some excellent advice.

And one important aspect can make or break a retreat… That’s right, folks – we’re talking about food.

We all know the power of food. I guarantee you’re thinking about food right now. Aren’t you? If you said ‘no,’ you’re lying, and should call your priest to schedule your next confession ASAP.

Jesus understood the importance of food, too – He would eat with His disciples on a regular basis. His first miracle was at a wedding feast. He multiplied loaves and fishes. It’s even the way His disciples recognized Him after the Resurrection, on the road to Emmaus – they didn’t know He was Jesus until He broke the bread. It’s also the way Jesus comes to us at each Mass in the Eucharist.

If our Lord thinks food is that big of a deal, we should too.

Throughout the 30 years (so far) that The REAP Team has been around, we have seen food on retreats done very well, and we have seen catastrophes. (And no, we aren’t being dramatic. We are incredibly serious people. They. Were. Catastrophic.)

When Good Foods Go Badly

There was the retreat where the ‘lunch’ was one slice of pizza for each student, along with an empty cup that they needed to fill up at the water fountain halfway across the school – and that was it. During an all-boys’ retreat, where lunch immediately followed the chastity session, foot-long hot dogs were served. Allow your brain to step into an adolescent boy’s brain for a moment, and I’ll let you connect the dots. There was the retreat where ‘snack time’ meant a bag of pretzels and nothing to drink… Have you ever had pretzels without anything to drink before? Exactly.

It’s safe to say that the food on each of those retreats was an epic fail, friends.

And then there are those times people are incredibly prepared and the worst can still happen: the hosts have snacks for each break throughout the day, they know the students’ food allergies backwards and forwards (life hack: Rice Krispie Treats are your new best friends. They’re delicious, gluten-free, nut-free, individually wrapped, delicious, sugary, and did I mention delicious?), and they are going to serve pizza, salad, fruit, cookies, and everything wonderful in the world for lunch. But then, the delivery guy finds a back road that gets him to the parish more quickly than expected – and he is jazzed, thinking of the excellent tip he is going to receive for his clever GPSing skills. He comes up to the door and knocks loudly – right in the middle of a video of Jesus’s crucifixion… we know, we know, it hurts us, too.

Am I trying to tell you that no matter what you do, you’re going to fail? Absolutely not. We believe in you – you are the wind beneath your students’ wings. I just want to offer four key lessons we’ve learned in our retreat work that will help you best be prepared, while making your life easier at the same time.

Lesson #1 – God loves it when you have snacks at retreats.

For real, God and I have talked about it, and we agree.

Snacks are unifying. It gives everyone something to be excited about together and helps team members have something seriously fun to talk about with the students. You may be thinking, “Well, that sounds dandy, but I don’t have the budget for snacks.” No problem! Invite the students to each bring a snack large enough to share with the group (be sure to check your school/parish’s policies on home baked goods – some do not allow them). Advise the students to avoid certain snacks that people are often allergic to, especially nuts. For a day-long retreat, we typically request that there is a mid-morning snack break and an afternoon snack break. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to be there.

Lesson #2 – The more, the better.

I know it’s incredibly tempting to be scrupulous about spending money on food. We have all been there: our budget is minimal (or non-existent), we don’t want to waste food, and we want to set a good example of temperance for the students. However, a student distracted by hunger will miss out on the retreat experience.

Don’t worry about overdoing it – that’s almost an impossible feat when it comes to teens and food. Leftovers can be sent home with the students, or returned or donated if in an unopened package. Or give them to the parish’s youth ministry. Or dump them in the faculty lounge.

If you are considering serving pizza on a retreat, (a very popular choice: easy serving, easy clean up, and who doesn’t love pizza?), we would suggest having 3-4 slices available for each person attending the retreat. If you are more formulaic in your approach to life, never fear: there is a pizza equation. You’re welcome.

X * 3/8 = P     (X= number of people, P= number of pies to purchase)

If you’re ordering thin crust pizza, round P up to the nearest pie. For deep dish or smaller appetites, round down.

Oh, and for the love of pizza – no one, and I mean absolutely no one, likes sausage pizza. Order more cheese instead.

Lesson #3 – Outside food? Prepare your battle stations.

Ordering in delivery for lunch? I don’t blame you, it’s convenient and practical. However, we live in a world where pizza chains like to pump out big orders early and get them out of the way – sticking you, the careful planner, with 25 pizzas sitting in a hallway, getting cold fast, thirty minutes ahead of schedule.

On the other end of the spectrum, we also live in a world where the restaurant completely forgets about your order, you give them the benefit of the doubt and wait 15 minutes before calling, and the pizza is now going to be two hours late. And you’ve got 75 hungry kids waiting in the seats without so much as a bag of Doritos to defend yourself.

To prevent these things from happening, or from being a distraction on the retreat when they do happen, we offer these suggestions:

  • Have food delivered to a separate location. If the food gets to the retreat room while programming is going on, especially during a serious session, do not – under any circumstances – bring delicious smelling food into the main room. Even if (and we mean IF) the food is brought in silently, everyone will immediately get distracted by the glorious food fumes. Make sure the food is intercepted upon arrival and held in another building, or room, or in your car (who doesn’t love their car smelling like pizza?!) – whatever it takes, until the moment you’re ready for it to be set up and served to the students.
  • Be sure to schedule a specific time for the delivery. Double check, triple check that they have the time correct. It may seem like overkill, but it works. If we had a dollar for each time pizza was distractingly early or late during a retreat, we would be way less poor than we are now.
  • Be familiar with the company’s work. If you use them year after year and they continually mess up your order, or are constantly tardy, or you’re not happy with their service (even though this place is the cheapest option and the owner is your pastor’s sister’s cousin-in-law), it may be time to find another provider. We have to ask ourselves if the distraction to the students’ retreat experience is worth the cheaper price… Most of the time, the answer is no. If you need a good break-up line, you can always use the classic, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Even though it totally is them.

Lesson #4 – “That lunch was so efficient!” (What every retreat leader should want to hear.)

We’ve already mentioned this, but it’s so important it bears repeating: lunch is an excellent time to mingle. But waiting 30 minutes in line because the food is complicated (like pasta) or has to be served individually, costs us in quality mingling time. (We know you’re thoughtful and want everyone to enjoy their meal – God bless you and your three different homemade chili options – but save yourself the headache and do something else in the future. Remember, we are on your team, you beautiful Martha, you.)

So, for efficiency’s sake, here are some helpful guidelines to keep lunch quick:

  • Make time to make a plan. Lunch HAS to be a part of preparation process for a retreat. Do you have a team of parents that are willing to come in and help set up the food and keep the line moving? (Seriously having a team of moms – especially during bigger retreats – is a gift from God. They put Henry Ford’s assembly line to shame.) Do you have the tables located and available for the food and students? Have you prepared for allergies that any of the students have?
  • If you have long tables available to serve the food, give students the opportunity to go along both sides of the table to serve themselves. It sounds so simple, but holy smokes, it makes things go much more quickly. And set up multiple lanes where students can access both sides – they’ll get through the lines two (or three, or four) times faster.
  • Prep the students before they get into their lines. “You can only have three slices of pizza, one bag of chips, one piece of fruit, and two cookies. Yes, that includes you, Jeremy!”
  • Have we already talked about pizza? Yes? Well, I don’t care, because it’s so dang awesome and efficient and beautiful. Other awesome and quick options: prepared deli sandwiches (Jimmy John’s does a great array of pre-made sandwiches) and Chick-Fil-A provides super delicious boxed lunches.
    (And no, we aren’t sponsored by any of these organizations… yet. I’m looking at you, Chick-Fil-A.)

Lesson #5 – You are appreciated.

I know when you work with youth, you do not hear words of gratitude very often. So we want to take a moment to thank you.

Thanks for caring enough about your teens to read a silly blog about the importance of food on retreats (It is dang important. For real, though). Thanks for reaching out to youth and striving to provide them with the best. Thanks for making the tough decisions that allow for your students to have a better retreat experience. Thanks for your sacrifices, hard work, and oftentimes overlooked efforts. Thanks for being there. You are more appreciated than you know.

So, anyone want any leftover sausage pizza from yesterday’s retreat? Yeah, me neither…

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