Life happens—maybe a coworker just had a baby (translation: they're exhausted). Maybe a neighbor is grieving the loss of a loved one, or is going through an illness. Whatever the challenge, by organizing or participating in a meal train, you can make sure they're well fed.
Here's a step-by-step guide to coordinating meals for friends and family.
See what meals your friend can use
Find out when they would like meals, and if they have preferences, aversions, or allergies. Also, get a sense of their capacity to keep food—do they want to stock their freezer? Have a spare fridge in the garage?
Susannah Ludwig, a life coach in Brooklyn, N.Y., helped organize a meal train for a friend with cancer. "She had a six-month treatment schedule," Ludwig says. "I asked her priorities, and she asked for meals for the days immediately after treatment."
If there are kids, factor in their appetites as well. When Katherine Bell Butler of Sharpsburg, Ga., lost her husband, she had two young kids. "While my parents and I loved the meals our friends delivered, my children couldn't eat them," Bell Butler recalls. "It would have been amazing for someone to have brought some kid-friendly items—mac 'n' cheese, sliced veggies."
It doesn't have to be all meals, either—some recipients might appreciate snacks. "Having healthy nibbles like veggies and dip when you are going through sickness, death, or a new baby is wonderful," Bell Butler adds.
Choose a website to help you coordinate meals
It takes a village to get a food train going, and it can get a little complicated. Thankfully, there are several free websites—like mealtrain.com and takethemameal.com—that can help you build and organize your group.
These sites consolidate information so the organizer, participants, and recipients don't need to repeatedly ask and answer the same logistical questions (like where to leave the meal if no one is home).
"If you are coordinating three meals or more, it's definitely worth creating a schedule online," says Adina Bailey, co-founder of Take Them a Meal. "That way, all of the details are in one place, even for the recipient. Some love to know what's coming for dinner."
You also get to see what other people are bringing, so you can prevent your recipient from getting lasagna five nights in a row. There are also automated reminder emails—perfect for any forgetful types.
Reach out to participants
Typically, getting people to sign up is never an issue. "When someone is going through a challenging time, it is in our DNA to want to help that person out," says Meal Train co-founder Michael Laramee. The number of participants depends on the situation—and there is no magic number.
"A New Baby Meal Train may have 10 to 15 people sign up to deliver meals over a few weeks," Laramee says. "A cancer diagnosis, meanwhile, could draw support that lasts a year or more."
Let participants know that the recipient may not be up for socializing, and whether they should drop and go (set up a cooler outside by the door for such deliveries).
Still, some recipients might welcome the company. "I yearned for friendship," Bell Butler says. "When folks brought meals over, I usually invited them to stay."
Make or buy the meals
When you cook, this isn't the time to test a new recipe, and it's not the time to show off your Iron Chef creativity. You can't go wrong with comfort food—it really is comforting. "I loved casseroles that I could just pop in the oven but were easy to freeze," Bell Butler says. "It was always a great surprise when folks included a gallon of sweet tea and or lemonade."
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And be sure to package the food properly—labeled, dated, and with clear reheating instructions. (Regular Scotch tape or masking tape with a permanent marker will do the job.) Also, the recipient probably has enough worries—don't make returning your oblong casserole dish one of them: Pack meals in containers you don't need back.
Bailey recommends packing cold items in plastic, and foods you eat hot placed in glass or foil pans—though avoid foil for microwave reheatable meals. (You can portion a lasagna, say, into six smaller containers, so the recipient can mix and match meals from the freezer.)
And if your favorite thing to make for dinner is reservations, you can still help: A Grubhub, restaurant, or grocery gift card is a great way to participate if you don't cook or live within delivery distance. No matter what, including a note or a handwritten card is a nice finishing touch.
Check in to see how it's going
Assessing how things are going is key—because things can change. Online sites are helpful here, too. "Participants can check the meal schedule at any point," says Bailey. "The person coordinating the meal schedule can make updates and send them out to the group. The meal schedule is easily shared via text, email or Facebook."
Of course, you can also assess what you might do differently next time. "Out of love, a lot of people made soup, so I wish I had provided more meal suggestions," says Ludwig.