Want to know how to start a meal train? It's a special way to show a loved one or friend and their family that you care for them during a time of transition or sickness. By providing them with meals, you know they will be well-fed and won’t have to worry about cooking, meal planning, or grocery shopping.
What is a Meal Train?
The purpose of a meal train serves to help friends or family going through a time of transition or a difficult time due to sickness. Not needing to worry about meals helps ease the burden and is a great blessing for the family.
Usually, a friend or family member organizes a meal train to feed meals for a period of time, several days to a few weeks, to someone in need.
These meal train meals are generally delivered along with instructions for reheating and serving to the person in need.
A meal train is a bright and caring gift that friends and family give to make sure that a person and their family are well-fed and don’t have to worry about cooking, meal planning, or grocery shopping for a period of time.
When to Organize a Meal Train
While you can organize a meal train for a variety of different reasons, here are some of the most common situations.
- The arrival of a new baby
- Death of a loved
- Financial difficulty
- Recovery from an illness or injury
- Cancer Treatments
How to Set Up a Meal Train
Meal train setup is super easy but does require a little planning from the person organizing it.
Step 1: Meet with the Recipient
This can be by email, phone, or in person, but is an essential place to start. Talk with the person who will be receiving the meals and gather the following information from them:
- When would they like meals to start?
- How often would it be helpful to get a meal?
- Find out about any food preferences or allergies their family might have.
- Find out their preference for communication when the train starts.
- Get their phone number, email, and physical address.
Be sure and download a free printable questionnaire to have your recipients fill it out.
Information to Collect for the Person Receiving Meals
- Basic Details and Contact Information:
- Address: Including landmarks and color/identifying features of the house.
- Home and cell phone numbers: Which one is better to use?
- Email address: An easy no-hassle way to organize communication.
- Contact from meal provider: What's the best way? Is it better to email, call, or text? Do you want them to call before delivering?
- Number of people for meals: Be sure to note how many adults, kids, and ages of the children.
- Food Allergies and Preferences:
- Food allergies: Wheat/Gluten, Dairy, Soy, Egg, Tree Nut, Peanut, Fish, Shellfish, Other
- Are there any foods you can’t get your kids to eat?
- Do you like spicy foods?
- Favorite foods/meals
- Special diet requests: (may include): Vegetarian, low fat, low salt, low carb, sugar-free, no desserts desired, vegan, organic, other
- Do you like ethnic foods? Asian, Mexican, Mediterranean, Italian or any other?
- Are there any meats or foods you do not eat?
- Do you enjoy fish /seafood?
- Restaurant or Takeout: Sometimes people may want to help but don't have time to cook or they may be located out of town and want to help out and restaurant delivery makes the perfect solution.
- Does your family have a favorite take-out restaurant? Please list the name, location, and phone number, as well as some menu items your family enjoys.
- Do you have a favorite restaurant that delivers? Please list the name, location, and phone number, as well as some menu items.
Step 2: Request Assistance from Other Family and Friends
Once you've identified the needs of the family you're ready to start finding folks to help. Consider friends or acquaintances from church, work, or neighborhood circles to assist as well as any family members the recipient may want to include for meal train sign up.
How to Send a Meal Train Invitation
Here are some ideas for how to word the invitation to the group you are asking to help out.
- NEW BABY: (Name) and (name) are excited to welcome a new baby into their family. Baby (name) was born (date) (time) and weighed ( #). We all know how exciting and challenging the first few weeks are when a new baby joins the family. Let's help them out by participating in their meal train.
- SURGERY: (Name) is having surgery on (date) and will be recovering for (how long). Please join us in providing meals for (name) and the family. This will help ease the burden of meal preparations and allow the family to focus on recovery.
- ILLNESS: (Name) is not feeling well. Please join us in preparing meals for (name) and the family to help make meal preparations something they do not have to worry about.
How to Communicate with Participants
- Email: You can do it the old fashion way via email. Email works great because you can always refer back to previous communications. The participants can also make a reply-all and communicate with the whole group at one time.
- Group text message: The nice part about this way is you can add text reminders on meal days and double-check any last-minute details.
- Signup sheet: Pass a signup sheet around when everyone is together. This one is a little more labor-intensive for the coordinator in charge, having to call and remind people when it's their turn.
- Use a service: Such as Take Them A Meal or Meal Train. I have personally used this for many years and found it very helpful for everyone involved. The services are free, and you can customize the dates and times the meals are needed and specify any food preferences, allergies, and more.
Step 3: Organize a Meal Train Schedule
Once the meal train is created you're ready to share information with all the participants and the recipient.
- Invite everyone participating to a text or email group. Any communication needed for the whole group should be sent to everyone; this way, there is no miscommunication. Facebook groups, Whatsapp or Telegram, and Instagram are all easy ways to communicate with people in groups but everyone would need to be using those platforms.
- Send reminders. The organizer should then text or email an individual reminder to each participant 2 days before their meal is to be delivered. It would also be good to text or email the morning of the delivery if any complications have arisen.
- Use technology. These days there are lots of other ways you can communicate and share information with everyone who decides to participate. Tools such as Google Docs/Sheets or Air Table are easy ways to share an online schedule and what each person is bringing. They are handy because they also allow everyone to edit them to drop their information in place.
- Communicate with the recipient. Decide if they would like a text or email on the delivery day to plan accordingly. The organizer should notify them who will be bringing them a meal and what time it will be delivered. It would be good to do this the evening before or the morning of the delivery.
Step 4: Inform Participants of Guidelines
If you are the organizer then make sure you inform everyone of all the information to make sure the meal train works easily for everyone.
- Details you collected. Make sure to communicate all the information you requested from the family receiving the meals about the types of meals they require.
- Deliver your meal ready for the table. Have everyone participating bring the meal warm and ready for the table at the requested time whenever possible.
- Don’t stay long. Make sure everyone understands the goal when taking the meal is to deliver the food and then be on their way. This is not the time for an extended visit with the recipient. It might help to stay, do a little cleaning, or do a load of laundry in some cases. However, it could be exhausting instead of helpful as a general rule if everyone bringing a meal stayed for a visit each day.
- Add a personal note. It would be nice to add a note in your basket, letting the recipient know you are praying for them and giving them contact info if they need your help in the future in any way.
Get Your Free Planner For Organizing a Food Delivery Train
Be sure and download the free meal train planner in my member's printables library. It includes sign-up sheets for participants, a questionnaire for the recipient, meal tags for the containers, allergy alert tags, and a special call tag to give with your name and number if they need anything.
How to Pack Food for a Meal Train
Packing the meal for delivery: After preparing your meal and packaging the items, put everything you need to deliver in a box or basket. This will make it easy to carry into the home and have a lesser chance of spills.
Use containers you don’t need back: Whenever possible, use disposable containers. Cold foods work well in disposable plastic containers with lids; for hot items, use aluminum pans and foil to cover the tops. This makes cleanup easier for the recipient and they don't need to deal with returning the containers.
Label everything: Place the name of the food on each container. Make sure any reheating or baking instructions are included on the container. Be sure and date whatever you send, so it’s easier for the recipient to determine how long leftovers are good.
9 Tips for Meal Day Preparation
- Plan for the day you signed up. Be sure and look at your own calendar before you signup to be sure you have time to prepare a meal. Decide on your meal ahead of time and do your grocery shopping before the day you need to cook the meal. Be sure and add nonreturnable food containers to your grocery list.
- Be sure to pay special attention to the recipient's delivery request. Note the time they requested their delivery and whether they care if the meal is delivered warm and ready to serve cold so it can be heated up at a later time.
- Pack the meal in non-returnable containers. Using disposable containers whenever possible makes it easier for the recipient. They will not have to worry about washing and returning containers.
- Package your items carefully. Make sure the lids close tightly, and the containers are not too big or small. This will ensure a spill-proof delivery.
- Include preparation instructions. If your dish needs to be reheated or toppings and dressings need to be added, be sure to include instructions to avoid any confusion.
- Double the recipe. It's just as easy to cook one meal as it is two when you double the recipe. You can serve it to your own family or freeze it and give the recipient the freezer meals.
- Keep your visit short. Unless you have previously arranged a visit with the family or are providing additional care, such as cleaning, it’s best to be in and out as quick as possible.
- Add in some breakfast foods: It might be nice to provide a few breakfast items for the following day. Something as simple as muffins or quick bread and some fruit might be a welcomed meal.
- Don't stress. Life happens. If last-minute circumstances cause you not to cook, order some takeout and drop it off. Or you could even have a meal delivered to their home.
Recipes and Ideas for a Food Train
There are lots of meal train ideas so think outside the box if possible and don't just send a casserole dish. They are probably already getting lots of them and may feel tired of eating casserole.
Make Your Own Food Bars
When possible try something different. I love creating a food bar where the recipient or family members can set everything out and each family member can custom-make their own meal.
They make easy group meals and are super flexible for families with a wide variety of allergies or different types of diets.
- Sub Sandwich Bar: For large families, send them all the fixings to set up a sub sandwich bar. Start with various sub rolls, then in individual disposable containers, place items like shredded lettuce, sliced cheese, tomatoes, pickles, and peppers. For condiments, buy small mayo and mustards, then top it all off with some bags of chips.
- Salad Bar: A salad bar is nice for the health-conscious recipient. You can chop vegetables like cucumber, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, and peppers, then put them in individual disposable containers. You could add on shredded chicken, ham, salami, or any other sliced meats for protein. Top it off with croutons and a few varieties of salad dressing.
- Taco Bar: The perfect idea for families with kids! Everyone seems to really enjoy the flavors of tacos and Mexican food. And there are lots of different options to make it unique and different. Consider including some Mexican appetizers, taco meat, salsa, and Mexican salad. Don't forget a Mexican-themed dessert.
- Baked Potato Bar: It's easy to bake large potatoes and then fill containers with toppings. This option can also be a great option for a health-conscious meal. Try some of these topping ideas for a baked potato bar.
Looking for more food bar ideas you can take to a meal train recipient?
Meal Ideas for Cancer Patients
Cancer patients are generally not feeling well, and many foods upset their stomachs, or they are just not hungry. If you can, ask them what sounds good to eat. You can fix something special for the patient and then send a different meal for the rest of the family.
When I was taking chemo, nothing sounded good. I really lived on juices and smoothies. Try making a batch of my Green Juice Recipe To Kick Nausea. Take it in pint-size jars so they can sip on it over a 24-hour period. You also might want to try sending one of these 25 Drinks That Help With Nausea.
Also, cancer can be a long and emotional journey, but you can make a difference in someone’s life by giving encouragement, sharing sorrows and joys, and understanding their needs
Want a FREE Meal Train Planner?
It has everything you need to get organized!! There are sign-up sheets for participants, a questionnaire for the recipient, meal tags for the containers, allergy alert tags, and a special call tag to give with your name and number if they need anything.
Get your planner in my members-only printable library.
Main Dish Ideas for Meal Delivery
Here are some of my favorite simple meals that I find everyone loves and are easy to make for dinner delivery. Keep in mind that you want to send food that is easy to reheat, holds up well sitting and reheating, and tastes great too.
Soups are perfect for meal delivery for a meal train. For you, they are easy to make in double or triple batches giving the family lunch meals or even another dinner meal later in the week.
For the recipient, they are easy to reheat and perfect to store in the freezer if they don't need them right away.
Freezer Meal Ideas
One very thoughtful way to help extend the meal train is to provide freezer meals for the recipient and their family ahead of time or for a longer period of time.
For example, this can be done before a baby is born, cancer treatments start, or a surgery. This frees the person from worrying about meal details in the days to come.
An organized meal train makes it easier for the participants to know what kind of meal and when to take it to someone in need. A meal train helps avoid two dinners delivered to someone on the same day or three Mexican casseroles three days in a row.
If someone is recuperating from an illness, a week or two of meals might be sufficient. However, an entire month would be thoughtful and helpful for new parents since they are probably sleep-deprived.