7 ways to up your meal train game: tips for being the best meal train participant you can be

Photo by Conscious Design on Unsplash

If you’ve brought someone a meal before, but you’re looking to level up your meal train participant skills, here are seven ideas of how to do it. Keep in mind that you can be an absolutely wonderful meal provider without following any of these ideas! These are suggestions to go above and beyond. So if you have some extra time and want to put that toward helping someone, try one of these seven challenges.

1. Try making the return of dishes unnecessary or easy.

Returning dishes is complicated. Recipients have to wash them, remember whose dish is whose, keep all the lids together with the containers they match (a truly miraculous event in my house), and arrange a time to meet with you to give you your dishes back. Here are some alternatives:

  • bring all the food in disposable dishes;
  • bring all the food in dishes you don’t need anymore and tell the family to keep them or pass them on (this is why we keep empty yogurt containers at my house!);
  • transfer food into their dishes immediately upon arrival and take your own dishes home;
  • or, if you really must leave dishes with them, give them a bag for your dishes, a piece of paper with a description of the dish (maybe even a picture!), and a request to return unwashed.

2. Try bringing more than one meal.

In addition to the traditional dinner, add to your gift something to keep the family fed a little while longer. Here are a few ideas:

  • Bring a pre-frozen meal for the family to enjoy later. I like making and freezing an eggbake, which can be made anytime in the next three months. Or, even easier, double a casserole recipe and bring one half frozen and one half cooked.
    • Whenever you bring something frozen, remember to tape a note to it with cooking instructions!
    • Also, it might be helpful to check with your recipient about whether they have freezer space. If they are meal preppers, or if many of their meal providers are providing them with extra meals, they may not have space for your kindness to manifest in this particular way.
  • Or, drop off a few boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese or other easily prepared meals if you know the family has a particular favorite. Things that don’t take freezer space might be especially helpful if the recipient has a small freezer.
  • Drop off a loaf of bread with sandwich supplies, or some pre-chopped salad materials, so that lunches for the next few days become a breeze.
  • Include a box of granola bars or a bag of fruit for easy snacks. (I especially suggest this idea if your recipient is a lactating parent.)

3. Try delivering food in a nice basket or a gift bag.

Providing an easy way to carry or transfer food, especially one that doesn’t need to be returned, can make the meal drop off a lot easier. A cardboard box does wonders!

But if you want to kick it up yet another notch, deliver the food in a large gift bag or a plastic/wicker basket. In addition to their convenience for carrying, and their beauty, these have the advantage of being easily reusable. (There is one basket that we bought from Walmart for $7 that has made the rounds of three families – it started with us and came back to us after shuffling between two families in the middle!)

4. Try including something special for members of the family who might be overlooked.

Sometimes, when one person is really struggling, other people (or creatures) in the family can use an extra boost too.

  • If there’s a surgery, include something to help the caretakers as well. Small gifts oriented toward self care might be a good way to go.
  • If there’s a new baby, include a little gift for older siblings. Sometimes, the number of toys in a home can overwhelm parents, so I suggest picking up a book instead. In a future post, I’ll suggest some of my favorites.
  • If there’s a pet in the home, include some treats for them. You can find pet treats at most grocery stores, so this won’t even require an extra stop.

5. Trying bringing something different.

When I was twelve years old, I gained a little sister. And I still, to this day, remember one of the meals we received through a meal train after she was born: turkey a la king. I had never had anything a la king, and it was so delicious that I made sure it was one of the meals we froze in individual portions, so that, for the next few weeks, I could heat it up and enjoy it without having to share. That dish has stuck in my mind ever since.

Meal trains often feature a lot of lasagnas, tuna casseroles, and as one of my instagram followers reminded me, “SO so many soups!” Challenge yourself to bring:

  • something the family hasn’t received yet
    • (this is easy to figure out if the meal train sign up shows you what other people are bringing);
  • a special treat
    • (my go-tos: sparkling apple juice for families with children; some nice cheese, chocolates, and a bottle of wine for a couple; or a decadent dessert for, well, anyone!);
  • or even a meal they’ve probably never tried before
    • (this is easier to do with a takeout or homemade tapas situation, so you can include multiple new things, increasing the chance that they will like at least one).

Quick digression here: a homemade meal is heartwarming, but you don’t need to bake or cook in order to be a huge support. If you want to provide food but are challenged in the kitchen, pick up groceries or order takeout/delivery for the family. Honestly, I think using restaraunts for meal trains is underrated. Benefits of takeout:

  • If you hate cooking, you are far more likely to be happier giving the gift of food than you would be making a meal. Your recipients probably know this about you.
  • If you live far away from the family, or even if you live in town but are busy, you can still provide meals to them through delivery!
  • As an added bonus, you’ll likely be able to provide something very different from the other meals the family is receiving.

Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to use restaraunts for meal trains!

6. Try topping up your act of service with another act of service.

If you’re invited into the home when you drop off the meal, I encourage you not linger. But it’s worth asking the recipient,

“Can I clean your sink?”

Kitchen sinks get so messy so easily, and this is a task that will take you ten minutes tops (probably more like two minutes) but can take the recipient much more mental energy than it will take you. The offer of a chore extends beyond just the sink. Any time-limited task – doing a few dishes, sweeping or vacuuming a room, or letting a dog outside – is a great thing to offer, particularly if you can do it quickly while the recipient is getting your dinner served.

If you feel awkward about insinuating that a sink needs to be cleaned or a floor needs to be swept, you can provide a list of options: “I’d love to take a chore off your list before I go. I’m really good at cleaning the kitchen sink, scrubbing a toilet, or folding a basket of laundry. Can I please do one of those things for you?”

7. Remember that if someone needs a meal train, they need more than just food.

If something impactful has occurred, the recipient is at the very least adjusting to a new kind of life (if not also morning, recovering, and/or learning to care for a new human). Giving food is a beautiful gift (a universal love language, really). But you can kick your meal train game up a notch by remembering and acting upon the truth that if someone’s body needs meals, their heart needs connection. Checking in with the recipient is a beautiful gift (texting every week or every other week, with the reminder that they need not reply). If they are spiritual or religious, praying with or for the recipient is a beautiful gift (offering a mass/service or a day of fasting for them, often called a “spiritual bouquet”).


What other ideas do you have for someone looking to up theirn meal train game? Share them in the comments section below!


This is the second post in a four-part series on meal trains. You can read “3 tips for organizing a meal train” here.

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