Meal Train Set Up Guide and Etiquette Tips

Published June 4, 2021
woman delivering food

When someone goes through a significant life event, cooking can be the furthest thing from their minds. Friends and family often lend a hand in any way they can, and this often includes a meal train set up. Meal trains are a wonderful way to help out families in need and show that you are thinking of them.

What Is a Meal Train?

A meal train is the organization of selected meals for a person or family going through a challenging time. Calendars are created, highlighting open dates that meals are needed. Volunteers then choose the date, create the meal and donate it to the family the train was created for.

Reasons a Meal Train Set Up Takes Place

Meal trains are created for all sorts of reasons, but typically they are set up when someone is going through a challenging or life-changing time, making it difficult or inconvenient for them to cook each day. Common life events that might require the assistance of a meal train include:

  • The birth of a child
  • Pregnancy and bedrest
  • Death in the family
  • Major surgery
  • Military deployment
  • Serious illness

When considering setting up a meal train for a person in need, it is always best to reach out to them first, seeing if they would be open to provided meals. If they agree, then the next step in the meal train process is setting up a schedule for the meals.

How to Set Up a Meal Train

Setting up a meal train for a person in need isn't complicated and can be achieved in various ways.

meal packed delivered to the front door


If you want to create a meal train for a close friend or person in your community, email is one way to organize it. Email a group of people who you have identified as meal train participants. Let the group of volunteers know how long the meal train will be occurring and the number of meals that each volunteer will be responsible for. If the person or family you are cooking for has any specific dietary needs, communicate those as well.

When working through email, remind the volunteers always to use the "reply to all" function on their email. This will ensure that dates and dishes that are selected by meal train participants get communicated to all members of the meal train, not just to the person sending out the original email.

Text Message

Texting is a quick and easy way to get in touch with meal train volunteers. You can text the members of your meal train, letting them know the situation, updates on the person you are providing for, the dates meals are needed, and other information. While texting is fast and normally allows for nearly instant feedback, a large group of volunteers means numerous back-and-forth replies and responses. Sometimes details can become muddled, and information can get lost in long text threads.

Google Spreadsheet or Calendar

A spreadsheet or a calendar is an organized means to keep participants, dates, and meals in order. The host creates the spreadsheet and invites meal train participants to add to the spreadsheet. Everyone involved can go into the document and add their name and meal to the available dates. A spreadsheet or calendar is ideal because members of the group can add their meals into the document and go into the spreadsheet or calendar and change information easily or include pertinent notes. All members of the meal train can then go into the spreadsheet and see changes instantly.

Meal Train Program

Meal trains have become such a popular way of supporting a person going through a hard time that there is now a formal Meal Train website that hosts and participants can access. The program utilizes the spreadsheet-calendar option and provides a few more perks to the meal train process. Those using this site can also use a share function so that others can make financial contributions to the person the train is being scheduled for. Participants can also give gift cards for meals, which is especially helpful if volunteers live far away from the person in need.

Other companies have jumped on the meal train bandwagon, making it easy and efficient for organizers to help loved ones with food.

  • Take Them a Meal- A meal service site that allows participants to donate gift cards or select meals that are pre-cooked and sent on their behalf.
  • Care Calendar - Eliminates phone tag and email overload woes for hosts, provided email reminders, driving directions, and maps for volunteers delivering meals.

Communicating Needs With the Recipient

Different families have different dietary needs. Some cultural groups avoid certain food groups, other families are plant-based or vegetarian eaters, and some might avoid gluten. If you are hosting a meal train, be sure to know any dietary specifics that recipients of meals might have.

Furthermore, get specifics on when the best time for meal drop-off is. Food is a gift that does expire, so those delivering meals won't want to leave items on doorsteps. The persons dropping meals should have a time frame to abide by, and the recipients should also have a specific time frame so that they can be home and available to receive meals. If meals must be dropped off and not handed directly to people, coordinate so a cooler can be left out on the front porch for the interim.

Lastly, let the family know a long-term timeframe for the meal train. How far out the meal train extends may depend on the circumstances of the recipient. Remember, you don't have to have a meal delivered on each day of the week. Three meals per week are often considered being plenty, especially if dishes yield leftovers.

Meal Train Do's and Don'ts

When hosting or participating in a meal train, there are several do's and don'ts to be aware of.

Don't provide meals in containers you'll miss - If someone is receiving meals via food train, they likely don't have the time or ability to run around town returning well-loved casserole dishes. Assume that any dish you send away on a meal train is not coming home. Consider only using Tupperware or disposable tins and pans to use for meal train dishes.

Label everything - Not everyone has a magic touch in the kitchen, so assume nothing. All preparation and storage directions should be included with the dish.

Drop and go - Not everyone wants to make small talk on the front porch during drop-off every day. Those leaving meals will likely want updates or want to offer words of love and encouragement, but remember that those receiving dishes might not be up for it. Keep food deliveries short and sweet.

Consider all family members - If a family receiving the meals contains six members, make sure to cook for six people. There is nothing worse than receiving a meal for two and still having to feed the rest of the family.

woman holding a stack of delivery food boxes

Common Dishes to Prepare for a Meal Train

Any food dishes will probably be accepted with open arms and plenty of warm thank-you's. That said, there are a few easy go-to meal train meals that always seem to be crowd-pleasers.

  • Tater Tot Casserole- Tater tot casserole is cheap and easy to make, and for families with kids, it's a hit with even the pickiest of eaters. You can cook it beforehand and include instructions on how to heat it or prepare the dish with cooking instructions for the recipient.
  • Tacos - Taco meat is simple to prepare and doesn't take long to cook. Chop up lettuce, tomato, onions, and cilantro and include those toppings in Tupperware containers. Be sure to provide tortillas, salsa, and shredded cheese along with chips and guacamole.
  • Chili - There is nothing easier than a one-pot dish! Make a giant batch of chili for a family in need of comfort food. There are so many creative variations of chili to give away in a meal train. Try a chicken chili or a vegetarian chili out. Pair with bread and toppings and a green salad on the side.
  • Chicken Noodle Soup - Everyone loves chicken noodle soup. It's warm, hearty, and fixes just about anything.
  • Pulled Pork Sandwiches - If you have a slow cooker, you can whip up a batch of pulled pork. Send the meat along with rolls or sandwich bread and a side of coleslaw and sweet corn.

Food Is the Way to a Person's Heart

If a person is going through a challenging time, offering food can be a true comfort. Participating in a meal train shows the people you are feeding that they are on your mind and thinking of them. Your meal contribution makes them feel loved and supported while taking one more responsibility off their plate. Food truly is the way to a person's heart.

Meal Train Set Up Guide and Etiquette Tips