Explainer: Everything You Need to Know About Meal Trains

updated Sep 30, 2020
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(Image credit: Bethany Robertson)

There was a year or two of my life where it felt like every week I was being added to a meal train for friends welcoming new babies, or moving, or losing loved ones.

If you’re not familar, meal trains are calendars that coordinate meals for our loved ones, usually when they’re going through a life change. Maybe they’ve just had a baby and are busy with diapers and new sleep routines. Maybe they’re grieving over the loss of a parent so they can’t cook for themselves. Whatever they’re going through, by setting up or contributing to a meal train, you can make sure they are being well-fed during their time of need or transition.

These are meal train basics I wish I had known when my friends and family first started organizing them — everything from how to set one up (don’t worry, it’s easy) and what type of meals work best for them.

Meal Trains 101

You can organize a meal train the old-fashioned way (coordinating via email, text message, or in person) to pull together a group of individuals to provide meals to someone in need — perhaps someone who is recovering from an illness, or who just had a baby.

There’s also the widely used, tech-friendly way to organize one: the (aptly named) Meal Train. It works the same way; it’s a calendar or spreadsheet that a small community (i.e., your friend group or family) can use to coordinate meals and care. Many similar services also allow you to have food or restaurant gift cards delivered if cooking is not your thing.

Meal Train Services

Meal Train is the most commonly used service and has both a paid and free version. Most just require an email and the email of participants to sign up. But as mentioned, if you’d rather skip a service, setting up a simple Google spreadsheet can make coordinating meals easier.

A Few Meal Train-Like Services

How to Coordinate a Meal Train

If possible, it helps to split the coordinating responsibilities between two people because it helps when your schedule might not line up with the recipient’s schedule. Talk to the recipients first and determine what meals they need food for, any dietary restrictions for the whole family, or any other requests. Let them tell you the best time for drop off, because it might not always be at a mealtime.

Set up the meal train using one of the services and be sure to note the length of time for the meal train. For most new parents, a month is a generous amount of meal coverage. Invite all the friends and family who can contribute via email and stand by to answer questions and occasional help with drop-off or pick-up of food.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

Meal Train Tips

  • Use containers you don’t need back. Whenever possible, send your meal in recyclable or disposable containers (or, at the very least, containers you don’t care about getting back). This keeps the recipients from having to keep track of and return a bunch of containers when they are recovering or adjusting to life with a new baby.
  • Label everything. Make sure any reheating or baking instructions are included! Please label and date whatever you send so it’s easier for the recipient to determine how long leftovers have been around.
  • Be courteous at drop-off. Last year, my brother and his wife delivered their first baby a full six weeks early! Setting up their meal train taught me a lot about how to support friends through big life changes. They had an especially challenging schedule because they were splitting their time between home and the hospital while my nephew was in the NICU. While lots of friends and family signed up to make food, a family friend and I also coordinated dropping off food and delivery. We asked participants to message us directly — instead of the new parents — to minimize intrusions. It’s a good idea to remind helpful friends and family that recipients might not be up for hosting. Offer to leave a cooler on the front porch so that both recipients and participants can drop food off without interrupting, say, a much-needed nap.

Meal Train Meal Ideas