How to Set Up a Food/Meal Train for a Grieving Family


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When a family’s facing a loss, everyday tasks become harder than ever. This is why meal train ideas make such a difference. Having friends and family come by to deliver easy-to-prepare or pre-cooked meals often makes the difference between having access to a warm meal and not eating at all.

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We all need help from time to time. There’s no shame in asking for help, but it’s also important to help those in need. If there’s someone in your life who recently experienced a loss, here’s how to set up a food meal train. This is more than just a way to express condolences. It’s also a form of self-care, kindness, and compassion. 

What Is a Food or Meal Train?

To begin, what is a food or meal train? This is something that’s organized by a friend or family member after a loss or major life event. During a meal train, fresh meals are cooked and delivered to someone in need. It can last a few days or even longer, with different people delivering meals on an ongoing schedule. 

Why do people set up food or meal trains? There are a lot of reasons, most related to life events:

  • A death in the family
  • Recovery from an illness or injury
  • Moving homes
  • The birth of a new child
  • A divorce or separation

During any of these major life events above, it’s hard to do basic things. The person or family experiencing the loss or change is busy dealing with their grief and taking care of their basic needs. They don’t have the energy or capacity to think about meal planning, grocery shopping, or cooking. 

A food or meal train is an impactful way to be there for someone when they need it the most. When it comes to sympathy gift ideas, this is one that stands out. However, because it involves a bit of coordination amongst multiple people, it’s not always easy to set up a meal train. 

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Tips for Setting Up a Great Food or Meal Train

Are you planning to set up a food train or meal train for a loved one or family in need? Before you begin, there are a few tips to keep in mind. Since you want this to be as useful as possible, be mindful of these points below. 

Be mindful of dietary restrictions

First, it’s important to always keep in mind dietary restrictions. If you’re not sure, it’s always okay to ask. For example, if your recipient is vegetarian, it wouldn’t be helpful to deliver a beef stew. With that in mind, always ask about food preferences, restrictions, and allergies. 

Keep kids in mind

If the family you’re delivering your meal train to has young kids, you might want to keep kid-friendly meals in mind. Some things like mac and cheese, pizza, and lasagna are universal favorites, but some kids are pickier than ever. 

When in doubt, ask the kids what type of food they’d like. After a big life change, many kids don’t feel heard, and this is a chance to put their needs first. Dropping off a meal for adults and a separate meal for kids can make all the difference. 

Label all of your food

Next, don’t drop anything else off without labeling it. It’s easy to assume they know how to reheat dishes or serve them, but they might not be familiar with what you brought. Similarly, you want to make things as easy for them as possible. 

Label and date anything you send over so they can determine how to keep track of everything. This is also necessary for food safety when it comes to leftovers. 

Use containers you don’t expect back

When possible, use containers you don’t need back. Your recipient already has enough on their plate. They might not have the time or energy to clean containers, keep track of what belongs to who, and return them. Instead, send your meal in recyclable or disposable containers. You can also use containers you don’t mind them keeping, like thrifted dishes. 

Be courteous during drop-offs

One mistake people make when organizing meal trains happens during drop-offs. They might feel as though they need to hang around, offer support in-person, or spend a lot of time with the family. In reality, the family most likely needs their space and privacy at this time. 

You never know what someone’s schedule looks like. It’s best to minimize intrusions when you can. Recognize that people might not be up for hosting, so be courteous of their time during meal drop-offs. 

Cook both frozen and fresh meals

When you can, provide both frozen and fresh meals. While a hot, ready-to-go meal is great, it’s not always convenient. A freezer-friendly sympathy meal can be reheated at the best time, making the most of your recipient’s time. If you’re not sure what meal they’d prefer, provide something frozen that’s easy to reheat. 

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Don’t forget snacks

Most people focus on casseroles and big meals when planning a meal train but forget about snacks, breakfast foods, and other fixings that are easy to prepare. Nobody wants to get trapped in a casserole rut. Including a mix of things like fresh fruit, snacks, sandwich fixings, and salad can be a much-needed relief. 

Coordinate toiletries 

Finally, many people don’t have the time or energy to purchase their own toiletries or generic goods while facing a life change. Coordinating a drop-off for things like toothpaste, toilet paper, and soap can make all the difference. Though small, this means one less trip to the store for the family in need. 

Steps for Setting Up a Meal Train Online

When setting up a meal train for a family in need, it can seem really complicated. This is especially true if you organize it the old-fashioned way without the help of one of the meal train apps or programs in the section below. No matter what method you choose, follow the steps below. 

1. Spread the word

As soon as someone announces a life change, it’s time to start spreading the word. Typically, a close friend or family member takes the lead on this. Reach out to people who might be willing to contribute, including coworkers, friends, family, and neighbors. Remember that many meal trains last several days or weeks, so make sure you have enough people to contribute for the full time. 

2. Create a list of food ideas

With that in mind, create a list of food ideas. Consider any allergies, restrictions, or kid-friendly options. Having a list to choose from makes it easier for those who signed up for the meal train to participate. You can also recruit their help making your food train menu.

3. Make a digital spreadsheet or calendar

The easiest way to coordinate who delivers what meals when is to create a digital spreadsheet or calendar. This can be done on Google Sheets, Google Calendar, or another online tool. Share your spreadsheet with others and encourage them to sign up for the days or meals that work best for them. 

4. Follow up

From there, follow up with the family and the members of the meal train to make sure everything is running smoothly. Let the family know to expect meals, and ask them how they’d like to receive their meals. Being persistent is the best way to serve the family in need. 

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Popular Online Meal Train Apps or Programs to Use

To streamline the process, there are a lot of free and paid meal train apps or programs that do the hard work for you. These are a reliable way to organize each meal delivery without the stress or confusion that often comes with this process. 

Meal Train

Meal Train is all about reducing the information gap between those in need and those trying to help. By simplifying the organization of giving meals after life events, it’s easier to build long-term relationships. 

This tool has a free version, but a small upgrade fee ($10) will give you more features. With interactive online calendars, email reminders, and digital gift cards, it makes a world of a difference. 

Take Them a Meal

Next, Take Them a Meal is a basic meal calendar that’s easy to use. You can include any food allergies or notes, and share meals collaboratively. By sharing specific meals people are taking, you avoid bringing the same thing several times in a row. Though simple, this is best if you want something more basic. 

Give in Kind

Another option is Give in Kind. This is a website for organizing meals and beyond. You can schedule meals, create a wishlist, and even raise money directly through the platform. It’s like a registry for meals, and it’s great for last-minute organizing. 

Care Calendar

If you’re interested in a free option that goes beyond meal planning, Care Calendar is a web-based system for scheduling meals, visits, and support. It’s a way to boost communication between family members during difficult times. Volunteers have the opportunity to pick up scheduled tasks to coordinate care for those in need. 

Be There for a Family in Need

Ultimately, it’s important to be there for families when they need your help the most. When you create a meal train, you take something difficult off their plate. Everyone needs fresh, warm meals in times of crisis. By preparing this care, you’re putting them first. 

This guide prepares you to create a meal train with confidence. When you’re organized, it’s much easier to be there for those in need.

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