How to Organize a Meal Train

When someone you know is going through a major life event, you may want to bring a meal to them or organize a meal train to show your support. There are a lot of questions you might have about bringing food to someone. Here are some general tips for bringing meals to others in need.

chicken and wild rice casserole in a clear casserole dish
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Something that has been really important to me my entire adult life has been cooking for others. A lot of the time this means hosting someone in my house, but it also often means providing a meal for someone.

No matter what someone is going through, bringing a meal to that person can be so powerful.

Even for someone like myself who enjoys bringing food to others, it can be a daunting task to know where to begin. There are a ton of questions, like:

  • What should you bring?
  • How much of it should you cook?
  • How can you approach them?
  • How do you organize others to bring them food, too?

I'm answering it all! Keep reading for all my tips for bringing meals to others.

closeup of the texture on blueberry muffins with streusel topping

When to Bring Food to Someone

There are so many good reasons to bring a warm meal to a friend, coworker, neighbor or family member. They — and they whole family — will be so appreciative.

Big life events that might be a good reason to send a meal:

  • new family member: just had a baby, adopted a child or welcomed an exchange student
  • medical: recent surgery, sickness, tough diagnosis or any ongoing medical issue
  • grief: experienced the loss of a family member or friend, miscarriage
  • transitional time: moving (friends or a new neighbor), career change, deployment or job loss
  • mental health: going through a difficult time emotionally
  • just because: If you love someone, do you need a reason?

How Meal Trains Work

Meal trains are a great way to show support for anyone who needs it. In general, there's a point person — usually a close friend or family member — who organizes the meal planning.

The MealTrain website is an especially handy tool that makes this super easy. (I highly recommend it if you know of someone who could use a meal or two.)

Through the MealTrain site, people can sign up for different dates and times to bring meals. They can also mark what they are bringing so that the person doesn't end up with multiple pans of lasagna.

Whoever is organizing the sign-ups for this could even create a sign-up sheet or online form. A Facebook event for people to share with other friends would also work. It can also be good idea to send out an email with the information for bringing meals and a link to the MealTrain website to sign up. (Bonus, the MealTrain site sends email reminders.)

Find out if there is a meal train already going, if not, think about creating one! In my experience, it's easy to assume that someone else will take care of this, but it literally takes minutes to set this up for someone!

Black soup bowl with taco soup, ground beef, corn, beans, tomatoes, cheese and avocado.

Gift Cards for Meal Trains

Bringing homemade meal deliveries to someone is a generous thing to do. But does it have to be homemade? Absolutely not! If you are short on time, far away or the thought of doing the cooking itself is the scary part for you, then let me tell you:

You do not have to cook to be helpful.

The family may enjoy you dropping off takeout from their favorite spot or grabbing Chick-Fil-A for them. Even ordering a pizza is a great way to step up and help.

Gift cards and Venmo are fantastic ways to help if you aren't close by and can't bring food over.

You could also really splurge and set up a meal delivery service like HelloFresh or Blue Apron for a week for the family — if, and only if, they are in a position to be able to cook the food. (Ask first.)

If the person is experiencing lots of time in the hospital, a gift card to a restaurant in or near the hospital might be super helpful for those busy days. For example, lots of hospitals have a Starbucks or Panera, so a gift card to one of those might help them stay caffeinated and fed.

Food Delivery Meal Train

Here are some other kinds of food you could send to friends and family who need a pick-me-up:

  • Food delivery service apps like DoorDash and GrubHub make it super easy to send meals and gift cards via text or an email.
  • Located in many cities, Crumbl Cookies and Insomnia Cookies deliver fresh-baked cookies right to their door.
  • Spoonful of Comfort is an online delivery service that specializes in gourmet soup delivery.
  • Looking for something a little different for foodie friends? Mouth lets you curate gift boxes or you can choose from one of theirs.
  • A boozy delivery from Winc (wine) or Drizly (beer, wine and spirits) might suit in some situations. Always ask about alcohol consumption, though!
  • Grocery delivery is another great option. Offer to do their grocery shopping and drop it off at their door or have it delivered, or send a gift card or Venmo.
Looking for an easy breakfast to make for a crowd or to prep for the week ahead? This spinach veggie egg casserole is packed with veggies and can be customized to include meat or be vegetarian! This is the kitchen sink of breakfast casseroles that can be customized to use up those veggies in your fridge! Get ready for a delicious, filling breakfast for the whole family to enjoy.

What Kind of Food to Bring to Others

There are a lot of answers to this question. The first is that there truly is no right answer. However, there are a few general guidelines.

  1. Always ask about family members' food allergies, dietary restrictions and preferences.
  2. Keep the food simple and comforting.
  3. Be creative — think beyond pasta with red sauce.
  4. It's not all about dinner. Don't forget about breakfast, lunch and snacks!
  5. Be generous and thoughtful. Send extras & surprises whenever possible.

Let's dive into each of those points a little more.

1. Consider family members and preferences.

Always ask about the family, their diets and their preferences. You need to know if you should be bringing gluten-free sugar cookies or regular cookies!

Start with these questions. (If you can ask someone who isn't the person in need or in the immediate family, that is even better.)

  • How many adults are staying at the house? How many kids?
  • Does anyone in the family have food allergies?
  • Are there any dietary restrictions to consider? (e.g. vegetarian, gluten-free, instructions from the doctor, etc.)
  • Are there any preferences or aversions to consider?

That last one is really true for any "need" situation, but I especially think it's important when you're bringing a meal to a new parent with a baby.

A new mom can have very strong cravings and/or preferences for things in the first few weeks. So always ask if there are any aversions or preferences, then consider one of these easy postpartum meals to bring.

Quick soups are the best lunch or dinner option for the cooler months! Warm up with a bowl of this quick, loaded baked potato soup that is packed with veggies and toppings. This quick soup has a broth base which makes it lighter than other heavy potato soups. This lighter baked potato soup option is perfect for a hearty meal that won't weigh you down but definitely does not skimp on flavor!

2. Keep the food simple and comforting.

This isn't the time to try a new recipe you found on Pinterest. It's the time to use a tried and true family recipe, something your family enjoys eating, or something you are sure that you can make.

Comfort food is always a good answer during these times. Think Chicken Wild Rice Casserole or Loaded Baked Potato Soup.

One of my favorite blogs, Pinch of Yum, did an entire series on "Feeding a Broken Heart" after she lost her son. The recipes that people brought her were tried and true comfort food recipes that were not too exotic but also not boring.

cranberry muffins on a cooling rack next to a bowl of cranberries

3. Don't forget breakfast, lunch and snacks!

People often think about dinner when they start to plan a meal to bring.

But it's easy to forget that mornings can often be just as stressful (if not more) than dinnertime.

I've heard from a lot of new parents that they struggled most with breakfast in the first few weeks of having a newborn. All they could muster was eating a bowl of cereal but between postpartum recovery and breastfeeding, they really needed a more substantial meal.

The same is true after loss — if a person is grieving, preparing any meal is a slog. Certain foods or meals might bring back painful memories.

Breakfast: You could bake a breakfast casserole, meal prep some smoothies or bring a box of bagels from a bagel shop or grocery store, along with cream cheese and lox.

And there's nothing wrong with a box of donuts or frozen breakfast tacos either!

Lunch: Lunch is also another meal that you can bring either in addition to dinner or as the meal you're bringing. A couple of bagged salads from the grocery store or the fixings for sandwiches and some pasta salad will go a long way.

Snacks: Grab a box of granola bars or other snack bars to bring over as well. Energy bites are great for new mamas as well as anyone dealing with medical issues.

m&m cookie bars on a blue background

4. Go the Extra Mile.

Include a few "little somethings" with the meal, whenever possible. I

This isn't to say that a meal isn't enough, but it's super easy to add a little something extra to go along with the meal. Surprises and thoughtful touches can go a long way.

A few ideas:

  • Bakery rolls or package of Hawaiian sweet rolls
  • Something sweet, like chocolate chip cookies, a pint of ice cream (ask for their favorite flavor) or something from the bakery at the grocery store
  • Drinks, such as a bottle of wine, 2 liter of soda or a jug of juice or tea
  • Bag of chips and a jar of salsa
  • Box of granola barsor protein bars
  • Fruit or veggie tray to snack on
  • Dark chocolate bars or squares (here's one of our favorites!)
  • Bag of coffee (new mamas can never have enough!)

It's a little thing, but it's also nice to include something for the kids, who might be adjusting to the situation. Especially any older children. Think colorful M&M Cookie Bars or Macaroni and Cheese.

Homemade baked macaroni and cheese is a recipe every one should know how to make! If you enjoy eating mac and cheese, and who doesn't, this is a recipe you've got to try! It's perfect for weeknight dinners, bringing to a friend, or serving to the whole family! This homemade broccoli macaroni and cheese is made with corkscrew pasta, homemade cheese sauce, broccoli and finished with a bread crumb topping.?

5. Think beyond pasta and red sauce!

During our birth class with our first son, we joked about how everyone always seems to bring pasta with red sauce when they bring a meal. I get it. Baked ziti and lasagna are SO easy to make and bring.

But if the person you're bringing a meal to is getting meals from other people, there's a really good chance they're going to get more than one baked pasta dish.

In fact, with our first son, the two people who brought us meals ended up bringing us the exact same recipe. One even brought a pan for us to eat that night and a pan to freeze. So we ended up eating baked ziti for a looooong time, which was delicious but maybe not so practical.

Square baking dish with peach cobbler.

Tips for Bringing a Meal

1. Always label ingredients in the recipe and instructions.

When people are going through something, they might not remember what to do if you tell them, so always write them down instead.

Try to include a sticky note on the container itself with what ingredients are in the dish and how to prepare it, or write it in permanent marker on a disposable container.

Even if you know the allergy/preferences of the family, they could have guests stop by and stay to eat or have another situation where they need to know what's in the food. It's better to give the information than for them to wonder and not be able to eat it.

2. Bring food in disposable containers.

This is a huge one. Yes, it can be a bit wasteful, but when someone has enough going on in their life to warrant you bringing them a meal, the last thing they need is to have to bring your prized Pyrex dish back.

I asked on Instagram for people to give me their best tips for bringing meals to others and almost every mom that responded said this!

You can either purchase disposable pans with lids to bring food over or buy a set of cheap reusable plastic containers that don't need to be returned to you. Be sure to tell them they do not need to return the containers to you!

If you are making something in a large quantity, like a big batch of soup, you may not have a great container to bring it in. Consider pouring it into big ziptop bags.

Once, I made soup for a friend, and I asked her to put out her InstantPot bowl on her porch. I brought it in mine and then poured it in. I texted her to let her know to stick it in the fridge for dinner.

3. If bringing extra, divide the dish in half to freeze half for later.

One of the worst things to experience is having people bring so much food that you end up having to throw some of it out because you can't eat it all in time.

If you're planning to bring a big portion of food, separate it into two disposable pans and mention that one is to freeze for later.

If the family wants to eat both they can, but you've taken the hard work out of it for them and divided the food so they can easily freeze half for later if they want freezer meals.

4. Never ask "when." Suggest a time instead.

I'm extremely guilty of not asking for help and not accepting it easily when it's offered. But the good thing about being that kind of person is that I also know how to avoid situations where someone doesn't accept my help.

When someone you know is going through a tough time after a new baby is born, a loved one is lost, or even just a transitional time like starting a new job, they have enough decisions to make.

Don't ask "Can I bring you a meal?"

Instead say, "I'd love to bring you a meal next week. Does Monday work?"

Taking away the element of thinking through schedules to find a good time and date can make a huge difference when someone is already dealing with so much.

The MealTrain site really helps with the guesswork of this, so consider setting one up if your friends need help with more than a few meals.

If your friend has something with a scheduled date — say, they are moving to a new neighborhood soon or have a surgery coming up — you can always bring food beforehand. When the tough time comes, they'll be so happy you did.

Slow cooker pulled pork is a classic! If you're looking for a healthier, refined sugar free version to make your entire family, this is it. Made with coconut sugar, spices, chicken broth and a dash of soy sauce, this?Refined Sugar Free Slow Cooker Pulled Pork can be thrown in the slow cooker in the morning and enjoyed with the whole family for dinner. This recipe also makes tons of leftovers for enjoying a second or third time around!

5. Think Beyond Food.

If you aren't a big fan of the idea of bringing food to someone, think beyond that.

Bring over a care package with things like toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies, and dish soap. Especially for unexpected situations, the person may be running out of these essentials!

Offer to walk their dogs, take their trash cans out or even provide them with a one-time house cleaning service. Even something as simple as pulling weeds in their yard could brighten their entire week!

Meal Train Ideas

If you need some meal ideas, here are some of my top recipes that are perfect for bringing to others in need and great to make for expecting mamas ahead of time and freeze for when the baby comes.

What tips would you add to this list?

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    1. That definitely is hard and unfortunate to have to throw things away! That's why I loooove the MealTrain website, to try to avoid those things! Checking out your post ๐Ÿ™‚

  1. My absolute favorite meal to bring is stuffed peppers! It?s my favorite meal and it?s somethig different then a baked pasta dish. Everyone brought us pasta after our son too. Haha

    I love the idea of bringing breakfast, you?re so right about that being important too! I almost always bring dinner, I?ll have to change it up and start doing breakfast next time.

    1. I love bringing stuffed peppers too! Most recently I brought stuffed peppers to a friend who was vegan and couldn't eat corn, and stuffed peppers worked perfectly for them (I just used tofu!). I should make a batch of stuffed peppers for us and freeze them!