So much of the newborn days with the Peanut are a giant blur, but I distinctly remember standing at the kitchen counter, devouring the contents inside a cardboard takeaway box that someone delivered to me. It was the most delicious meal I’d ever eaten. Admittedly, that chicken salad at the Boathouse is excellent, but I think it was even better because someone cared enough to bring it to me.
I’d never been a recipient of a meal train before having a child, although I was familiar with the concept.
The idea of a meal train is simple: participants simply organize themselves to bring food to an individual or family facing a life-changing or challenging event. Often it means bringing food to a family welcoming a new baby, or to someone facing a health crisis or recovering from surgery. Adoption, fostering kids, grieving the death of a loved one, or even moving or losing a job are all great reasons to start a meal train for someone. Sites like Meal Train and Take Them a Meal have made it convenient to both share and coordinate who is bringing what food and when. The sites also offer great tips, etiquette and even recipes.
Eating is a basic function of humankind, but meal prep on the best of days can be a chore. Add in a crisis, and it’s sometimes impossible to get dinner on the table.
This summer, my mother was hospitalized for several weeks. The Sailor had only just left for a two-month stint at sea, so in between trips to the ER and ICU, I was scrambling to find babysitters for our son, let alone time to get groceries and make meals. I am usually reluctant to accept help, but when a friend asked if she could start a meal train for me, I agreed to it. Realizing that my child had eaten ice cream for dinner the night before probably solidified my decision.
Food solves a lot of issues, but sometimes you also need people to simply ‘show up’ if you will.
My lifelong friend from childhood, Andrea did just that. She took off of work and drove 600 miles to come to stay with me for a week as soon as she heard my predicament. Without batting an eye, she installed the spare car seat, hauled my child to the park every day, kept the house clean, the yard tidy, and washed and folded all of the laundry. She brought bagels for breakfast, food I missed from Pennsylvania, treats from Trader Joe’s in Knoxville, and a cooler of beverages. She also made sure I actually exercised and provided a much-needed listening ear as I processed everything happening in my world while we walked miles along the river.
I didn’t know I needed Andrea’s help that week, but she did. She didn’t simply say, ‘Let me know how I can help…’ like many people did. Those people meant well, but realistically I never got back to a single person who said those words to me. The people I did get back to were the ones who said specific things like:
‘I can watch your son this afternoon.’
‘I’m bringing you a meal tomorrow. What time should I drop it off?’
‘I’m going to Aldi — send me your shopping list.’
When you’re going through something major in life, you don’t always know what you need. You may not need a friend to stay with you for a whole week. You may not even need an organized meal train. Usually though, you need someone to show up in your life.
Not long after I miscarried twins, one lady told me she was bringing me dinner. She simply asked me for my address and which day that week worked better. Even though there was no hospital stay involved, or new babies to care for, she knew I needed to not think about cooking for at least an evening. I don’t remember a lot of what people said in the wake of my loss, but I remember that beautiful lady’s dinner and dessert, down to the casserole dish she brought it in. That meal, and the flowers another friend sent me from afar, served as small reminders that others acknowledged my grief. They showed up for me.
There is something sacred about offering food to people in any situation — whether they are cooing over a new baby, mourning the loss of one, or they are simply frazzled caring for both an elderly parent and a rambunctious preschooler. Delivering food and helping someone out in a life-changing event might seem daunting if you’ve never done it, but I’ve gone ahead and dispelled a few myths for you.
I can’t cook.
You don’t have to be a good cook. Simply pick up ready-to-eat groceries — grab a rotisserie chicken, a pre-made salad, something from the deli or even a pizza. Get something from a restaurant or pay for Dinner Delivered.
I’m an introvert.
You don’t have to socialize. In fact, don’t expect to be invited in. Families on the receiving end of meal trains generally have a lot going on behind the scenes, and while they will most likely appreciate your food delivery, they may not want to chat much. Simply drop off your meal and run.
I live 1,000 miles away.
You don’t have to be in the same city. One of my closest friends sent me an instantaneous Panera Bread gift card online from across the country.
I can’t afford it.
You don’t have to spend a fortune. Look for ways to save. Stock up on ingredients when they’re on sale. Cash in credit card points for gift cards. And don’t underestimate the power of a real card or letter with words of encouragement. Stamps are still fairly cheap.
The recipient doesn’t need food at this time.
You don’t have to deliver only food. Offer other services, like cleaning or mowing the yard. Send flowers, or gift cards to restaurants, grocery stores or online retailers. Deliver a bag of goodies for children to keep them occupied in waiting rooms or with babysitters. If you know someone going through cancer, Lucent Gift is a wonderful local enterprise offering thoughtful and beautifully curated gift boxes.
Chances are you know someone (or several people) who could use a meal or some other form of encouragement. Don’t simply say, ‘Let me know what you need.’ Be proactive, follow-up and tell them what you have to offer. Even if you’re not in a position to help immediately — and let’s face it, sometimes there’s such a huge need that we can’t be there for everyone — then share the need with friends. This summer, while I was facing my own family crisis, another mom blogger gave birth to her fourth baby, prematurely. I noticed that someone started a meal train for her in another mom group, and I felt a little guilty that I wasn’t in a position to help at the time. I shared the post with fellow Chattanooga Mom Bloggers and they rallied together to collect donations and to bring her food and gift cards. They showed up.