Meal Train How To

If you think back to a particularly challenging time of your life, the sort of life event where your community and your village needs to rally around you and provide support, what things do you remember? I remember the food.

I’m fortunate to not have experienced much tragedy or turmoil in my life, so my difficult periods are also happy life events, namely: having children. But this meal train how to will apply to any sort of life event where there are people who need help, and feeding them well might be the answer!

If you have ever been a new parent, or know any new parents, you might recognize the deer-in-headlights look and perpetually tired eyes. My kids are long past the newborn stage (thank goodness!) but I remember the constant sleep deprivation, the feeling of not being able to accomplish anything, the desperation for quality time with other adults, combined with a reluctance to ask for help.

I was probably unable to recognize what help I needed to feel like a functioning human.

So, if you know someone about to add a child to their family, but aren’t sure what to get them, read on.  Food helps.

I first experienced the joy of a meal train with my first child. I didn’t live close to family, but my military family stepped up. Women I barely knew stocked my freezer for me.

While this was awesome and much appreciated, I was also lucky to have my mom come and take care of us for three weeks post-birth, followed by a steady stream of helpful visitors. By the time the visitors left I felt pretty in control of life (relatively speaking!).

Then I participated in hot meal train deliveries, and realized that this was a giant step up, and how it really was the best thing ever. 

What is a meal train?

A hot meal train is a schedule, however long, that has the family receiving a ready-for-the-table (or oven) meal delivered to their door at a pre-set time. The schedule can be flexible but I’m a fan of every other day deliveries, with enough food to include any visiting helpers like grammas and grampas. Feeding the grandparents too means they’re now free to do other household things, like look after older children, do laundry, or whatever else is needed in the house. 

The hot meal comes in containers that do not have to be returned, and takes into account any dietary needs such as allergies or sensitivities. The food is dropped off to the kitchen table or counter, and then the deliverer leaves. It is not a visit. You should not expect to cuddle the baby. No one needs to entertain you. It is, very simply, the best thing ever.

We moved, and when a few women on my new street were due to give birth, I decided to introduce the concept to them. I didn’t know them well, but well enough to put this idea forward. It was a raging success. And when I had my second child they returned the favour, and I enjoyed hot meals delivered to my table every other day for two weeks. 

I’ve organized hot meal trains for many other families with babies. It’s amazing, whether it’s for the first baby, the 2nd, or more. You don’t have to know the family super well to participate. Respect any dietary needs, aim for things that hold up during transport, cook enough for leftovers, and don’t be shy with extras like dessert, salad, soup on the side, or a nice crusty bread. Not having to remember who owns what dishes is a necessary detail, and I always delivered in inexpensive Ziploc-type containers, or aluminum foil baking dishes. These could be kept and reused by the family, but didn’t have to be returned to me.

How many meals do you need to make?

Participants can choose to cook and deliver one each, or several. You may wish to stretch the schedule to every three days, or condense it to every day, or mix it up as needed. Make sure you can honour any day you commit to so the family isn’t waiting for a meal that isn’t coming. Five participants each making two meals, delivered every other day, is about three weeks of food! Imagine – not having to cook for three weeks, but still having a steady stream of tasty, nutritious food on your table.

How do you organize all of this?

You can be as high tech or as simple as you like. If you know everyone involved a simple message thread might suffice, or an email, or shared document everyone can type into. There is also a website that seems to do it all for you now but I’ve never tried it. It’s ideal to have one person be the lead, and make sure everyone knows when and where to take their food. It’s not a major undertaking to organize.

All you really need to manage is what days are spoken for, and if you know ahead of time, what you’re making to avoid duplicates. It’s a good idea to confirm allergies or major dietary restrictions more than once, just so no one forgets. 

What should you cook?

Anything! It doesn’t even need to be a traditional sit-down meal of meat and side dishes, unless you want it to be. It could be a casserole, or soup/salad/bread. Think of things that transport well, and that you can make easily and deliver on time. If you use a slow cooker or Instant Pot for your own meals it may make sense to do so here too. When I am delivering a meal I just make double for that day – we eat half, and the other half gets packaged up and delivered. 

snap meal planning burrito bowl

I’ve delivered pulled pork with the BBQ sauce on the side, buns, coleslaw, and muffins for dessert and snacking. Another favourite is enchiladas, or the fixings for burrito bowls. Maybe some cookies for dessert. There’s the old standby lasagna of course, with salad and bread. Salad transports quite nicely in a large Ziploc bag. I received Hawaiian meatballs once, later tracked down the recipe, and still make them. 

What if you don’t live close enough to deliver?

Think creatively. If you’re in town but your work schedule just won’t cooperate during the week, consider a take-out gift card or pizza delivery for mid-week, and bring a meal by on the weekend. Or deliver one meal on the weekend and bring a second one frozen. Or just stick to the weekend!

Do you have a friend who does live nearby? Ask them to swap favours and have them cook and deliver a meal, and later make it up to them.

Once a friend and I stocked a large cooler with prepped and frozen, but easy-to-thaw things for a mutual friend with a toddler, a new baby, and both parents in school. They lived a few hours away but we were able to arrange the transfer of the cooler contents, instructing them to send an empty cooler with another friend. They were so grateful, and it gave them the push they needed to get through those incredibly tough months when everything was hard.

When my second was born, after a stiflingly hot summer, my sister arrived with a cooler full of homemade yogurt, homemade granola, and a basket of peaches. She’d met up with a mutual friend on the highway on the way to see me, and made the transfer. I still make that granola, and my own yogurt to go with it. Topped with fresh peaches, it takes me instantly back to September 2010, and I think of those friends as I enjoy it!

A meal train isn’t going to work – what else can you do to help out?

For many reasons a meal train might not be practical. What else can you do? Lots of things. But don’t just say “let me know if you need anything!” because sometimes the people who need the help won’t feel comfortable asking, or won’t know what they need. Be specific and be clear, but definitely ask first. Not everyone would be cool with a neighbour folding the family’s knickers.

Try this: “I’m available on Saturday afternoon – which of these three things would you like me to do for you?”

  • Mow the lawn/shovel the driveway
  • Grocery shop
  • Vacuum
  • Clean up the kitchen
  • Fold laundry
  • Hang out with older siblings and/or the baby
  • Walk the dog

However you manage your meal train, keep these rules in mind:

  • Respect dietary restrictions.
  • The food drop-off is not a visit and don’t expect to be entertained: drop and run.
  • Deliver in dishes that don’t need to be returned to you.
  • Show up on time on the day(s) you’ve signed up for.
  • Pour love and caring into your food.

A family I delivered to recently, that I didn’t know well and were possibly a little hesitant to accept the help, were overwhelmed with appreciation after the meal train finished.

borscht

They didn’t know how much impact it would make on their little family until it was happening. The meal train, they said, gave them the gift of time to be together, and that was the most wonderful thank you I could have received.

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Jen Shapka

A mom of two, military spouse, domestic engineer, and former teacher (B.Sc., B.Ed.), she has always found herself in the education field but rarely in the classroom.

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