How to: Meal Train Etiquette

What to bring for a Meal Train
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There were ten babies born to women in my bookclub last year (including Skyler)—and there are more on the way this year! With nearly every new arrival, we would all sign up for nights to bring food over the family. (We used a free website called MealTrain.com that helps you organize drop-offs.) They’d list their preferences and allergies, kids’ ages, and best times to stop by. We would, in turn, coordinate to spread out the meals rather than filling their fridge for merely a week.

Once it was my turn to benefit, and friends started showing up with homemade casseroles, kale salads, and pints of ice cream, I realized I’d been a terrible meal-giver. I think I’d brought over a sort of sad tupperware of chili with hardly a side to speak of. (Sorry, Vanessa.) Luckily I was the second to have a baby, so I learned early. Another friend echoed this sentiment: “I have to rethink my go-to recipe because I always made things for others that needed to be assembled! Not until I had it done for me did I realize the joy of just opening the meal up and eating.”

So now that we’ve all (and seriously… almost all) been on the receiving end of a meal train in the past year, I thought I’d ask my friends to share their thoughts on meal train etiquette…

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On what to bring… 

“The most helpful meals we received tended to be ones that included drinks and dessert. The best meal we received was probably homemade enchiladas, some champagne, and ice cream. Anything with ice cream was much appreciated.”

“Some of our favorite meals are home-cooked ones. That said, it’s also super nice to receive takeout from your favorite restaurant and be able to order exactly what you are craving or know that your family will eat what comes.”

“As a vegetarian, it was nice to receive meals that went beyond pasta every once and a while—like one meal was a watermelon and feta salad, a curry quinoa salad, hummus and pita, along with the perfect peach cobbler.” [Here’s a couscous salad to try.]

“It is really nice when people provide kid-friendly foods like quesadillas, fresh fruit, squeezable yogurts—and, of course, treats like Popsicles, ice cream, or cookies.”

“The best meals are the ones with no assembly required! I really appreciated meals that were already hot, salad mixed, etcetera. When I was juggling the demands of a new baby, it was nice to receive a meal that I could just put on the table, sit down, and eat.”

“Although I love home-cooked meals (and we received a ton of beautifully prepared meals), I most appreciated friends bringing over a whole pizza from our favorite pizzeria along with a fresh salad. I think because I was in such a sleepy haze and starving from the amount I was nursing, eating my favorite pizza was so comforting and delicious during those first few weeks.”

“We noticed that most of the meals our friends would drop off included ice-cream. I even got a whole box of Mint Its-Its (my favorite)! Now, when I drop off meals for other mothers I always include a great pint of ice-cream. It’s such a nice touch and when you’re a new mom: ice cream tastes magical.”

“Some of the things that I clearly remember in those fuzzy, sleepless time was a friend that brought over some of our favorite recipes frozen so that we could have them at anytime. She asked for some of our go-to recipes and pre-made the meals and stocked our freezer. This was definitely above and beyond, but even on a small scale it is nice to give something that can be reheated or is great as leftovers.”

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On what to avoid…

“Any meal at all is so helpful, but once there was something homemade that our kids didn’t like—so we had to make something else instead. I would suggest making meals that everyone generally likes and nothing too ‘different.’

“While it’s tempting to provide leftovers, too-big portions can make a fridge run out of space fast!”

“I think it’s great to get creative and show your culinary skills, but when I’m nursing I’m usually very sensitive to extremely spicy flavors. So there were several dishes that arrived which I could not enjoy as much I would have liked to. Always check in with the mom, and see if it’s a dish that she wants/can eat or even if she would prefer the family’s favorite take-out.”

“Don’t expect to have your friend entertain you when you bring by your meal. Text before arriving or schedule a time to come by, and follow their lead when it comes to staying very long. Assume that you’re just there to say hello and drop off the meal—not to stay and visit. And if you are invited in, consider offering a hand where you can.”

“Give your meal in a container that can be thrown away, or doesn’t need to be given back. I ended up with a three casserole pans that sat on my counter for weeks. The givers didn’t contact me to come pick them up so I had to return them. Again not a huge deal but something to think about.” … “It can be hard to keep up with glass dishes to return—and to find time to return them.”

On go-to options… 

“I go with chicken or eggplant parmigiana a lot. It’s simple to make; most people like it; and it’s hearty.”

“Include something light and fresh like a salad as part of the meal, and some sort of treat—like a pint of ice cream.”

“I’ve been making this Tex-Mex chicken soup with veggies. I can adjust the quantity as needed. When I make the soup, I always add a nice baguette and, of course, ice cream. For our vegetarian friends I enlist my husband (who used to be a vegetarian) to make this delicious veggie curry of his. It’s seriously amazing, and you can make it as spicy as your friends would like.”

One friend made us this rich, wonderful quiche. So now I tend to make or buy a quiche and pair it with salad, fruit, ice cream, and a bottle of wine or some coconut water (sometimes both).

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And general advice? (i.e Just do it…)

“If you don’t have time to make a home cooked meal going to your local grocery store and putting together a nice salad and picking up a roast chicken (if they eat meat) is really thoughtful. The smallest gestures of help during those first few months go a long way.” [Here’s a quick salad cheat.] 

“Meal trains are so wonderful. Whether you are transitioning to a family of 3 or 4 or 5, it is so nice to not have to worry about food for a few weeks. And it’s a really tangible way for your community of friends to help.”

“Friends should always do this for friends! I was a little reluctant to have it done for me because that is my personality: I don’t want to bother others who are also very busy. But at the end of the day it was so great to one less thing to manage.”

“As new parents, everything seemed just a bit more overwhelming and not having to worry about our next meal or constantly ordering out, we felt so cared for each time the doorbell rang with a delivery of a warm, delicious meal. For any friend that I have who is expecting, I share my experience with the meal train and how the experience not only kept us fed, but also reminded us that we have a community of friends and neighbors that care for us.”

“The only thing I would say that one shouldn’t do is not take part: the gesture matters more than what you bring.”

“Each meal was special because someone took the time to make our first days as parent a little easier, and each meal was special because it made us feel part of a community.”

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This was my first experience with a meal train and I’d highly recommend setting one up on mealtrain.com if you want to help a friend, family member, or neighbor out. It was the best gift during those early weeks with Skyler. And it was fun to have friends come by and see the baby! Beyond growing families, we’ve contributed during deployments and illnesses, too.

Have you been part of a meal train? What did you think? And what do you like to give? 

P.S. My baby shower, and the baby items we really needed most.

[Photos of week-old Hudson. Bag no longer available; similar bag]

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