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.
They are such a wonderful way to help a family—while sharing the load with a small group of others to make sure that the effort is doable. They’re often run through church groups or moms groups, but really, anyone can pull one together with just a few simple steps.
Ready to hop on board? Here’s what you need to know to organize or participate in one.
What is a meal train and how does it work?
A meal train is a coordinated effort to prepare meals for a family in need. It is often used after the birth of a baby as a way to support the family with prepared food.
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).
TIP: Our best Make-Ahead Dinners are great options to consider!
How to Start Planning
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.)
How long should a meal train last?
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.
And how much time the family you’re supporting actually wants.
You can also start with a week or two and then extend it if more people want to join in.
How to Invite Participants
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.
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!
Best Meal Train Websites
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
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. These work for families welcoming a first child, or ones with older kids too.
With just 5 simple ingredients, you can bake Pizza Rolls with delicious flavor from pesto. These are versatile, perfect for any age, and a great make-ahead lunch or dinner option.
These meat buns have all of the components of a cheeseburger, but are much easier for little kids to eat! Plus: They store well in the fridge and freezer so can be made ahead of time.
With plant-based protein, veggies, and cheese, this soup is a wonderful way to serve up healthy comfort food to the whole family. (Adapted from FamilyFun magazine.)
This easy recipe makes a big pot of comforting soup to feed the whole family—babies, toddlers, and big kids included. The leftovers store nicely so you can enjoy it for a few days!
When serving this to a little one, I like to drain off much of the broth. This makes it a little easier (and less messy) for them to eat. If your family likes spice, add in a dash or two of cayenne pepper.
Learn how to make quick and easy Mac and Cheese Bites for an easy kids lunch or dinner. These bites are fun and a nutritious kids meal that can easily double as an appetizer! You can even add in veggies like broccoli for the most delicious mac and cheese cups.
This will make at least two dinners worth of meatballs, depending on how many people are in your family. I like to freeze half of the batch to use in a future meal.
These work well to make ahead and warm up for an easy lunch or dinner. These taste best served warm.
These healthy muffins taste like a delicious banana muffin, but with the added nutrition of a big handful of spinach. These store well, so you can make them ahead of time and pull them out of the fridge or freezer to serve.
I prefer to grate my own carrots to ensure that the texture is finer and isn’t very noticeable in the baked muffins. See the Notes for allergy substitutions.
Use Sunbutter to make these nut-free. You can cut these into smaller bars if desired. If you want them a little softer, serve them at room temperature rather than chilled.
These should chill for 30 minutes before serving to allow the oats to soften up a bit. (You can eat them immediately, they’ll just be a little chewy.)
Classic loaded Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies with lower sugar for the whole family. Choose your add-ins based on the kinds you like!
Easy Sides and Snacks to Add
It can be helpful for the family if they also get some easy snacks and sides to round out a meal—or to eat in between meals. These are some of the easiest options to consider adding:
- Salad kits
- Precut fruit
- Sliced cheese and crackers
- Fruit cups
- Granola bars
- Trail mix
- Dried fruit
- Fruit leather
- Instant ramen or other noodles
- Fresh bread
Best Tips for 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, like an easy Freezer Meals.
- Consider providing a main dish and some easy sides like a salad kit, crackers and cheese, a veggie plate with dip, and/or cut up fruit.
- Consider adding a snack for mom if the meal train occurs after the birth of a baby, like Lactation Cookies or Graham Cracker Peanut Butter Balls.
- You may also like Master List of Healthy Family Meals, Shortcut Toddler Dinners, and How to Meal Prep Toddler Meals.
I’d love to hear your experience or any questions you have, so please comment below to share!
This post was first published March 2021.