A meal train is one of the best ways to support families in need—or to set up a support system for yourself during a challenging phase of life. Here’s exactly what they are, how they work, which recipes work best, and our top tips for success.
Simply put, a meal train is when a group of people get together to coordinate bringing food to a family who needs a little extra help. It can be used after a new baby, when a family has a loved one in the hospital, when someone is sick, or really any period that’s challenging.
Ready to hop on board? Here’s what you need to know to organize or participate in one.
Why Everyone Loves Meal Trains
We all know there are times in life when the last thing we want (or have time) to do is cook a homemade dinner. And having a friend or family member bring over a healthy and comforting meal just makes all the difference. Starting a meal train for new parents, people who are grieving, or even someone who is sick or recovering for surgery or an injury, is a really kind gesture and also a tangible way to help out (everyone needs to eat, after all).
How to Start
If you want to organize a meal train for someone, the first thing you should do is talk to your friend or family member. You’ll want to find out information including:
- What meals do they need help with?
- What are their dietary restrictions?
- When’s a good time to drop food off?
- Do they want meals daily or just a few times a week?
- What’s the duration that they’d like to receive meals?
- Do they have a cooler they could leave in front of their door for easy drop offs?
Some people might feel awkward asking for exactly what they want or need, but encourage them to be as specific as possible. (After all, meal trains are only helpful if they end up with food they’ll actually eat.)
Fine Tune the Timing
You’ll want to figure out how long the meal train should run so you can plan it well from the start. Anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks is common, and you can decide based either on how long someone might need help for or based on how many people you think will want to participate. (You can also start with a week or two and then extend it if more people want to join in.)
In order to get the meal train going, you’ll need to recruit people to join in (an email, text, or even social media post works) and give them a spot to sign up. You can easily create a shared Google Doc with dates in it and have people sign up there, making sure to include any special instructions like dietary restrictions and delivery notes at the top.
Or, you can use a website that caters to meal trains. Mealtrain.com and takethemameal.com make it easy to set up a calendar where people can sign up and share it with your network. The sites also include extra bonuses, like automatic reminders when people’s dates are coming up and spots to fill in what you’re bringing to avoid overlap.
TIP: Invite faraway friends and family to join in, too. They can order food from a local restaurant or send the family a gift card to delivery sites like Seamless or UberEats.
How to Participate in a Meal Train Step-by-Step
If you’re invited to join a meal train for someone else, there are definitely a few things to keep in mind.
- Look for and pay attention to any specific instructions the organizer notes. This might include allergies, drop off times, number of people a meal should feed, etc.
- Pick your recipe. It’s a good idea to go with something you’ve made before, so you know it’ll be good. Choosing a dish that travels and reheats well—like these make-ahead meals or even some of our favorite freezer friendly meals—is also important.
- Once you’ve made your food, try to pack it in something that’s recyclable or you at least don’t need back. (It can be hard for people to keep track of what dishes belong to everyone.)
TIP: Keep in mind that if someone is in need of a meal train, they’re probably *not* in need of houseguests. Plan to just leave the food on the front porch and go—or give a quick wave from the door.
The websites that help people set up meal trains also keep them private. If you know a meal train is happening, and want to participate, you’ll have to ask the organizer to send you an invitation via e-mail or text message. If you don’t know who the organizer is, but do know someone else who is participating, that person should also be able to send you a link.
It’s simple, and deliciously (get it?) old school. A bunch of friends get together to schedule and bring meals to a family who needs some extra help. To avoid overlap, someone usually organizes a signup calendar either in a shared document or through a website like mealtrain.com or takethemameal.com.
This really depends on what the family likes to eat and if they have any dietary restrictions. (If these notes aren’t included in the meal train invitation, feel free to ask the organizer.) However, there are a few rules of thumb. You’ll want to make something that reheats well (like these make-ahead meals, for example), is easy to transport to someone else’s home, and that you’ve made before so you know it’s a good recipe.
Best Recipes for Meal Trains
Here are some of our go-to recipes to gift through a meal train.
TIP: See our favorite Freezer Meals here for more ideas. Also consider adding easy sides like salad kits, precut fruit, sliced cheese, crackers, and/or a dessert.
Best Tips for Running and Participating in Meal Trains
- Consider planning one for a friend or loved one after a new baby, during an injury or illness, or just during a particularly challenging time.
- When planning, get as many specific details about meal preferences, allergies, drop off times, and more to make it as easy as possible for everyone to give and receive meals.
- Plan out how long the meal train will run and how often meals will be delivered.
- Use a Google doc or a site like Mealtrain.com or Yakethemameal.com to make things straight forward and easy to track.
- Pack food in containers you don’t need back to keep things simple.
- Choose a recipe that works well to be reheated.
- Consider providing a main dish and some easy sides like a salad kit and cut up fruit.
I’d love to hear your experience or any questions you have, so please comment below to share!