Skip to main content

Mansfield Magazine

Cookin' With Carol: Back to School Care Packages

Jul 18, 2015 01:58PM ● By Kevin

Following World War II, the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe began a program to send food relief to people who were at risk of starvation. That’s how the “CARE Package” was born. Nowadays, this term is commonly used to describe any package lovingly prepared and filled with all sorts of goodies from home, usually sent to friends or family members who may need a little support or inspiration when living away from the people who care about them the most.

The first CARE Packages were filled with lots of canned goods (mostly meats), dried fruit (raisins), fruit preserves, powdered milk and egg, sugar, honey, margarine, lard and coffee. Non-food items included sunglasses, water bottle, Bible and journal. These 20-pound, “standard” packages helped many people get through several weeks or more of dietary needs. They also provided much needed emotional support, to let those in need know that others were thinking of them and cared very much about their well-being.

While support through packages continues worldwide to this day, a similar sort of support exists to assist young people venturing out on their own in the world for the first time — the recent high school graduates! Now ready to embark on a new chapter of their lives, away from home and at college, these recent graduates have a lot on their plate, but that seldom includes a good home-cooked meal. This is where a lovingly prepared “care package” is appropriate, much appreciated, and warmly welcomed at the doorstep of a student burning the candle at both ends.

'You’re On Your Own!'

Remember those first days and weeks, just out of the nest, ready to take on the world? A little confidence could go a long ways. At that age, did you think, “What could possibly go wrong?” or “What could be so difficult about living on my own?” It was party time. Freedom. Come and go as you wish. Stay up all night. Sleep all day. Make your own schedule. Livin’ on cereal and pizza. Sound familiar? And if this wasn’t you, you surely knew this person. You might know this person now. This person might just about be ready to find out the answers to these questions in the next few months.

But what happens when reality sets in? … When the cereal boxes are empty? … And the part-time job can’t keep up with the pizzas? Well, it would be nice if some sort of lesson starts to sink in. But to cushion the blow, a surprise package with memories of a recently forgotten life might come to the rescue — with hopes for a long-term rescue, not just immediate gratification. 

Teach a Man to Fish

A care package from family is a welcome gift to a student living away from home. Even if this student does have a grip on reality and is actually living a “normal” life with three meals a day, they most certainly would welcome a box full of treats to embrace the life remembered “back home.” The definition of “needs” widely varies, however, an unanticipated care package from loved ones can easily satisfy many different needs, whether the recipient is actually “in need” or not. Everyone loves a package from home. It’s a bundle of love on the doorstep.

If the contents of the package satisfy an urgent need to eat, that’s wonderful, but an understandable concern might be that this box of relief is adding fuel to the fire. This is where a careful consideration must be made. Supporting a true dependency can become an issue, causing frustrations and resentment toward an abuse of the basis for sending the care package. It is important that your carefully-and-thoughtfully-prepared package arrives to support a true need and encourages growth and understanding for the recipient to learn and appreciate.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Just as the Chinese proverb goes, it is important to understand that care package support should come in more ways than just saving a trip to the grocery store for a short while. While cookies from home are important, there are many things to include that actually “teach a man to fish” without including a textbook — something your new college student has plenty of, no doubt! 

Ration and Enhance

There’s no question that every trace of the favorite treat from home — homemade cookies, a bag of chips, candy — will disappear from all existence before the full contents of a care package will be unpacked. This is expected and an appreciative gesture to acknowledge your thoughtfulness. But the satisfaction is short-lived. Your thoughtfulness needs to extend to a variety of items that will actually divide into weeks of dining enjoyment.

This is a perfect opportunity to get young people to think about cooking, the kitchen and what is needed to turn boxes and bags of ordinary ingredients into an extraordinary meal. Just like the original CARE Package, include ingredients that are easily utilized for many different meals, or for many different dining occasions. The idea is to encourage your recipient to spread out the supplies, ration the portions, and to make it last — maybe until the next care package arrives!

Items to include in the package consist mainly of foods you’ll find in the center aisles of the grocery stores. This is the opposite message of what I suggest for home cooking: shopping the perimeter of the grocery for perishables and fresh ingredients. But this is where subtle “teaching” begins to apply. A package filled with dried pasta, rice, canned goods, vacuum-packed meats, sauces and condiments can go a long way with suggestions of easy-to-do recipes from home. Include simple instructions for preparation and a short list of fresh ingredients for the recipient to purchase locally. They can choose favorite flavors in the produce section or at the farmer’s market, in the dairy case, at the bread bakery and at the meat and seafood counter. This will provide the necessary fresh items to complement the supplied care package pantry items. Through repeated preparations, these basic ingredients can last for quite a while, while also encouraging creativity in the kitchen. 

Think Out of the Box

What about those who barely know which end of a stirring utensil to hold? Or in less severe cases, those who might not know the difference between a sweet pepper and a hot pepper? Well, they’re on their own, so it’s about time to learn! If they can open a box, then there is hope. Learning to cook food begins by learning to heat food. Start with “helper” meals. There are lots to choose from, with many flavors, textures and food combinations to consider. And in just about every instance, the instructions are simply to “dump and stir.” Open the box, empty contents into a pan, add some water, turn on the heat and in just a few minutes …voilà! A gourmet chef is born! Well, at least that’s what the processed food manufacturers want you to believe. It’s a start. And often, not a bad start. But the trick is to start thinking “out of the box.”

Encourage new cooks to use “meals in a box” as a basis for something much better. With a sharp knife, cutting board and a tasty supply of fresh ingredients from the grocery, adding chopped fresh vegetables to the standard prepackaged meals will enhance the flavors and encourage the growth of “real cooking” in the kitchen. For example, for less than five dollars (and likely, with enough ingredients to last for several servings), spice up the standard collegiate fare of plain ramen with my Ramen with Vegetables and Egg (see recipe). This is just one of dozens of ideas a young, fresh college mind could put to the taste test when using various ingredients — such as quick-cooking dried egg noodles — that are great and easy to include in a care package. 

This End Up

Once you’ve assembled an array of foods favorable for shipping — in boxes, cans, jars and bags — take care to pack the care package. It goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyways — wrap cans and (especially) jars very well in bubble wrap, and pack these at the center of the sturdy shipping box. If the package isn’t too large, packing a box within another box (surrounded by packing materials) is always a good idea to protect fragile contents. All of your good intentions are easily spoiled if the packaged goods don’t arrive intact.

Make sure to include other special items in the box that might help during preparations of the enclosed ingredients, such as kitchen utensils or cookbooks. Perhaps toiletries or other common household items would be useful and thoughtful to include. And don’t forget special tokens, notes (maybe a family recipe?) and messages to warm the heart of the recipient. The care package is the school-days lunch bag all grown up. 

Love At The Doorstep

When a loved one is living away from home — especially for the first time — nothing warms the heart more than a package from home. Extra snacks and food for a few dinners is a much-appreciated gift for anyone. But the message can mean a lot more. Someone cares. A box on the doorstep is a treasure chest full of flavors from home …with love. 

Ramen with Vegetables and Egg

Serves 1
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 egg
2 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 (3-ounce) package ramen noodle soup (seasoning packet not needed)
1/2 cup snow peas
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
1 jalapeño, thinly sliced (to taste)
1 green onion, thinly sliced
Sriracha sauce to taste

In a nonstick skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Crack the egg into the pan. Add 2 tablespoons water and cover pan. Cook egg for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the white is set and the yolk is cooked to the desired doneness. Remove from heat; reserve. Combine the chicken broth, soy sauce, and sesame oil in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the ramen noodles (no seasoning packet necessary) and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add snow peas, carrots, and mushrooms. Cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally. To serve, ladle noodles, vegetables, and broth into a serving bowl, place the reserved cooked egg on top, and garnish with slices of fresh jalapeño, sliced green onion, and Sriracha sauce to taste.


This recipe is intended for a single serving—for a single hungry student looking for a quick and economical home-cooked meal; however, it is easy to scale for additional servings.

Rather than a cooked egg (and save using another pan), lightly beat the egg in a small bowl and pour into the simmering soup (after the noodles have cooked). Let the egg cook for 10 seconds, then stir slowly to create “egg flowers”—shreds of cooked egg, like you’d see in egg drop soup.

I suggest using chicken broth for more flavor, but in a pinch, certainly use the seasoning packet and cook the ramen as directed on the package (then add the ingredients as suggested in this recipe). Another cost-saving tip: since the amount needed is so small, save soy sauce packets from Chinese take-out to use in this recipe.

To prepare the snow peas before cooking, break off the ends to remove the “strings” along the edge of the pods. Or use sugar snap peas or English peas (peas without pods), if desired. Don’t care for peas, carrots, or mushrooms? Substitute any chopped fresh vegetables of your choice.

Sriracha sauce is a popular Thai hot chile sauce condiment. Diner discretion advised.

For more Asian flair and additional nutritional value, add nori (dried seaweed) or tofu (soybean curd). Sesame seeds and/or peanuts are also great for garnish to add flavor and kick it up a notch.

Written by Carol Ritchie

Read More

Web Extra Make a Southwest Turkey Wrap at Home - Jul 18 2015 0154PM

Web Extra: Make a Southwest Turkey Wrap at Home

Cookin' With Carol provides a bonus recipe!


Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Mansfield Magazine's free newsletter to get regular updates

Embed this content on your website