What is a meal train?
A meal train is a system where a network of family members or friends band together to schedule, prepare, and deliver meals for somebody who needs a little extra help. They can run for a week or two, or longer if the recipient needs more sustained assistance.
Organizing a meal train, or taking part in one, is a good way of supporting a friend or family member and making sure they are eating well. So, who needs a meal train, and how does a meal train work?
Who might need a meal train?
Anyone who is experiencing a busy or difficult time might benefit from a meal train. A meal train might be useful for people going through major life events like having a child or experiencing bereavement. Somebody who lives alone might appreciate a meal train, especially if they are older or have issues with mobility. But there are times when all of us could use the support of a meal train, if only for a short time. Illness, injury, unemployment, and many other circumstances can be preoccupying and stressful. This can disrupt a person’s normal routine, including their mealtimes.
How to know if somebody needs a meal train
Below are a few questions that might help you decide if a meal train would help somebody you know.
- Are they finding it hard to make time to go to the grocery store?
- Is something physically preventing or limiting their ability to go to the grocery store?
- Are they struggling to cook for themselves?
- Are they missing meals or not getting enough to eat?
- Could they use help getting more meals that are rich in nutritious food like fresh fruit and vegetables?
How does a meal train work?
To get a meal train started, one person usually has to take the lead. Since you’re reading this, perhaps that means you! However, be realistic about your own ability to commit. Before you get involved, make sure you are confident that you have the time and energy to coordinate with the other people who are helping out. If you feel like the task is daunting, don’t despair. Chances are, somebody you know will relish the opportunity to help you coordinate or to take the reins entirely.
Find people to help make your meal train work
If you have identified a friend or family member who needs a meal train, the next step is to find other people who can help you. Who is in the meal train recipient’s social circle? You might ask:
- Family members
Create a meal train schedule
Use a calendar or spreadsheet to create a schedule for the meal train. Decide how many meals you want to cover each day. If your meal train recipient is very ill, for example, you may need to cover three meals a day. In less serious cases, the meal train may only need to provide one meal a day.
Your calendar or spreadsheet should include a day-by-day breakdown of:
- Meals to be provided
- Delivery times (people can deliver earlier if they choose to)
- Who is responsible for each meal
- What each meal is
Decide what meals everyone is providing
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That last bullet on the list above is important. You and the other participants need to be specific about what will be prepared for each meal. If this isn’t agreed upon in advance, you risk multiple people preparing the same meal, which will become repetitive and boring for the recipient. You don’t want your recipient having to eat mac and cheese for dinner every day!
It’s vital to do all you can to ensure that the meal train recipient will enjoy the food you’re providing. Here are a few things to think about:
- What does the recipient like to eat?
- What don’t they like to eat?
- Do they have any allergies or any ingredients that they have to avoid or limit?
Of course, if you’re uncertain about any of the above, the best way is to ask the recipient themselves.
Remember to be flexible about what kinds of meals your meal train provides. Work with what is feasible for the other participants. Not every meal needs to be an entree with sides. A batch of soup or a salad will be just as welcome, and you could have one participant prepare a large portion of vegetables to use across multiple meals.
Similarly, the meal train doesn’t need to deliver every meal hot. You could deliver several meals refrigerated and ready to heat, or even frozen, which allows for multiple meals to be delivered together.
Coordinate ahead of time with other participants to agree on who will deliver meals and when. It may be convenient for some participants to deliver meals directly to the recipient’s door. However, it may be easier for some participants, and less disruptive for the recipient themselves, if you arrange for several meals to be collected and delivered in one batch.
What equipment and tools do you need for a meal train?
Your meal train will run more smoothly if you’re well prepared. The following items can all be helpful for organizing and coordinating with other participants.
- A spreadsheet or calendar that can be easily shared with other participants.
- A cooler for delivering meals.
- Stock up on food storage containers. Remember that you may not get these back, so don’t use things like casserole dishes that you want to use in the future.
- Other packaging materials, like food storage bags, aluminum foil, and plastic wrap.
How to start a meal train with Instacart
Once you’ve got your meal train all planned out, it’s time to get started! Instacart is always here to help you make your meal train run smoothly. Instacart has you covered if you need to have ingredients delivered to your house to prepare your meal train meals. Or, if you want to place an order to be sent directly to your meal train recipient, you may also want to check out our convenience and ready meals to have your food delivered right to your recipient’s door!