Everything You Need to Know About Meal Sign-Ups (aka Meal Trains)

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For decades it has been a tradition that when someone goes through a period of transition or crisis, friends from their community show up with food to care for the person/family. When the right words can’t be found to console a friend, a tangible act of care, such as providing a meal, is a helpful and meaningful way to show support. As a young girl I remember when my Grandfather passed away and people from my grandparent’s church showed up with Corningware dishes full of pot roast, platters of cold cuts, trays of cookies and every casserole you can imagine. The process of bringing meals has come a long way since the days of Corningware dishes and casseroles. Now, instead of showing up with a random meal at a random time, there is usually a person or website coordinating and organizing the meals to stagger the delivery and help ensure a variety in the meals to avoid repeats of Poppyseed Chicken Casserole every single night. As an enneagram 2 (the helper), I am basically an expert of coordinating and participating in meal sign-ups for everyone I come in contact with, so here’s a bit of what I’ve learned over the years …

The two most commonly used websites for meal sign-ups are signupgenius.com and mealtrain.com. Both websites are free for the basic package, or have a higher tier offering more options but coming with a minimal cost. I have used both sites easily, but tend to prefer mealtrain because it seems to be more widely used and understood. Meal sign-ups are generally set up by a friend of the person being served, or a staff member from their faith community (if they are a part of one) for a person/family who is going through a hard time.

The most common reasons to set up a meal sign-up for someone are: death, sickness, surgery, new baby, moving, receiving a foster placement, a spouse being away or separation/ divorce. If you know someone going through a hard time and would like to set-up a meal sign-up for them all you need is their name, address, phone number, days of the week they would like meals, (optional) picture and some basic information on what type of food they do or don’t like along with any allergies. Once you have created the meal sign-up you can text it, email it, or share on social media to get the word out to others who know the individual/family and may want to help.

Each participant signs up to bring a specific meal (usually dinner) of their choosing, on a specific day of their choosing. The website will then inform the person receiving the meal of what is coming, from whom, and when, and can also be set to send a reminder to the person who signed up to deliver the meal.

Recently I was sitting around a table with a bunch of moms who had been the recipient of a meal sign-up when they had birthed a child. To my surprise, several of the moms said they would not want a meal sign-up when they had future children due to some of the problems they encountered the first time around.

As a result, I have compiled this list of basic meal sign-up etiquette to ensure that when you bring a meal, you really are providing help and not adding stress for those in need.

1. Communicate clearly and proactively the day of your assigned meal delivery to confirm you are bringing the meal and make arrangements to drop it off.

This can usually be done by text. The person receiving the meal will be sitting around hoping you are actually coming, haven’t forgotten and wondering when their food will arrive, but it would feel tacky for them to text you and ask about it so they won’t want to, which means the person providing the meal is responsible for the communication.

2. Once you sign-up the meal is your responsibility, unless you delete the sign-up.

A friend shared a story with me that the day a friend had signed up to bring a meal, they texted her asking if she still needed them to bring dinner. This created an awkward situation for the recipient. Only sign-up if you intend to actually provide the meal. Once you have signed up you own the situation. If for some reason you can no longer provide the meal communicate that clearly and timely.

3. Read all the details and follow them.

Most meal sign-ups will list allergies and preferences. If the individual requests healthy food and you bring them a bunch of fried food it is not serving anyone—they will either feel obligated to eat food they don’t like, or will end up throwing it away and wasting your money and effort. If you aren’t comfortable meeting the restrictions then find another way to help; perhaps offering to pickup groceries, watch a child, clean the house etc.

4. Whenever possible, use disposable packaging.

If someone has a lot on their plate it can seem overwhelming to keep track of and return multiple pots, pans and dishes. I keep rinsed plastic hummus, cold cut, yogurt and sour cream containers on hand to use as disposable packaging when delivering meals. If you don’t have a stockpile of throw away containers on hand like I do you can buy disposable foil pans and plastic containers at the store for delivering the meal.

5. Take-out is great.

Lots of people feel overwhelmed by the pressure of cooking for others. In this instance, takeout can be a great option. You can call in an order to one of their favorite spots and hand deliver, or have delivery arranged (and paid for) via apps like Ubereats. You can also give a giftcard for Ubereats or a restaurant you believe the recipient would like. Zoe’s is a popular spot that offers healthy and affordable catering packages that work great for meal delivery. A few friends expressed to me that some of their favorite meals they received were as simple as a store-bought rotisserie chicken, a bag of salad and maybe a side dish from the deli counter of a grocery store.

6. Consider the food you bring.

Not all meals lend themselves easily to being transported. Try to pick meals that are easily packaged up, travel well and reheat easily. Choose meals that are generally great crowd-pleasers unless you know the meal recipient’s preference and are confident in what to serve them. (See the list below for ideas of what to bring). When signing up, make sure that you aren’t bringing a dish someone else has already signed up to provide, try to choose something that adds variety. The women I talked to all mentioned appreciating it when fresh vegetables or fruits were provided. If the recipient isn’t getting to the store for groceries fresh items are a great addition to whatever pantry staples they are surviving on.

7. Extras are nice.

In general people will be thankful for whatever you bring them, but everyone I talked to really appreciated when a meal was delivered with extras. When I had my most recent baby a friend delivered a meal with a bottle of wine, and I found that extremely thoughtful and enjoyable. When delivering food to new foster parents I always like to add a variety of snacks with the meal (fresh fruits, vegetables, granola bars, apple sauce pouches, raisins, bags of goldfish…) because you never know what the kid is accustomed to eating and having a variety of options for them to find something that is comforting can be very meaningful. Also, when delivering food to families with toddlers I usually include muffins. Muffins are a great option for if the toddler refuses to eat the dinner or they can stand in as a snack, breakfast or dessert. Speaking of dessert, it is nice to offer some type of treat with the meal. Usually that would consist of brownies, cookies, ice cream or fresh fruit if the recipient doesn’t eat things with added sugar. When providing meals for someone in the process of moving I like to send paper plates and plastic utensils with the meal knowing they may not have dishes accessible. One time someone brought my meal with a bouquet of flowers, while totally unnecessary, this gesture was greatly appreciated. Think of little additions that can make the meal extra special.

8. Be sensitive to personal space.

Some people going through a rough season prefer not to constantly interact with others, in these cases they might want to leave a cooler on the porch for meals to be dropped off. If you are delivering the meal face to face be brief, unless invited to stay longer.

One note to the meal recipients:

Obviously if you are receiving a meal you are going through a hard time, in which case having extra energy to send thank you notes isn’t always reasonable, but from the friends I talked to I got the sense that people like to receive at least a text confirming you received the meal and expressing some form of appreciation for it.

Now that we have all the do’s and don’ts covered, here are a few of my favorite recipes to bring when providing a meal (all of these dishes package up easily, reheat well and tend to please most palates):

White Chicken Chili (I usually bring this with cornbread and salad)
Chicken Enchiladas (Bring with beans or corn and a salad)
Slow Cooker Indian Curry (with chicken added and rice to serve with it)
Four Cheese Lasagna with Turkey Sausage (with a salad)
Pressure Cooker Beef Stew (with crusty bread and a salad)
Beef Ragu (with mashed white beans or polenta and a salad)
Shepherd’s Pie (with a salad)
Pulled BBQ Chicken (with buns and cole slaw)
Slow Cooker Maple Balsamic Pork (with white beans and sautéed spinach)
Tacos (with shells and toppings)
Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

Now that your crash course in meal sign-ups is complete you should have all the information you need to start setting up and participating in meal-sign ups to care for the people in your tribe.

Have you been the recipient of a meal sign-up? If so, what types of items did you most enjoy?

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Shannon lives in Central City, New Orleans with her husband, Jeremy, and three sons, Noah, Eli and Zeke. She left a career in Human Resources to take on her dream of being a stay-at-home mom. During this time, she and her husband founded a non-profit called Bastion Resources with the purpose of inspiring others to live a life of intimacy with God. Shannon is passionate about creating community and engaging in meaningful conversation around the dinner table. Recently, she created The Intentional Daily Journal to help people live with more purpose and clarity, which is available for purchase on Amazon. In her free time, Shannon enjoys all types of fitness, trying new restaurants, reading and discussing books with her book club, coffee dates with friends and hanging at the park with her family. Shannon is constantly creating new healthy recipes and sharing them on her blog Dinner Done by 9am.

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