One of the kindest things you can do for someone in need? Take meal prep off their plate.

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Last Winter, when Nadya Ramos got an email from a friend asking her to join a meal train for parents in their community who'd just had a baby, she was stumped. "I had no idea what a meal train was," says Ramos, a Honduran mom of a 3-year-old son in Phoenix. But when she found out it was a way to help others by signing up to provide a home-cooked meal, she couldn't say no. "I hadn't known the family for long, but I could empathize—new parenthood can be isolating."

So one Sunday, Ramos recruited her Dominican mother-in-law, and the two spent the entire morning cooking the most comforting dish they could think of: pollo guisado con arroz blanco. It was a hit. The second Ramos got home from dropping off the meal, she got a text from the family—a photo of the empty containers. "It felt so good to spread a little joy and culture," says Ramos.

When people are adjusting to life with a new baby or enduring an illness, a hospital stay, or another stressful situation, making dinner can seem like a Herculean task. And yet it can be hard for them to accept help, especially when it's a coordinated and "official" effort to deliver food on the regular. That's when a meal train, like the one Ramos participated in, can save the day. Use these tips and tricks to join or organize one this holiday season.

lasagna food meal prep comfort
It's all comfort food for a reason.
| Credit: Greg DuPree

Get Off to a Good Start

  • Instead of asking a friend whether they'd like help with meals, say, "We'd like to support you with a meal train," suggests Megan Tucker of Arvada, Colorado, who has organized more than 50. It's harder to say no when it's not a question.
  • Send a quick survey to the family to learn about the favorite dishes, food allergies, and dietary restrictions. Ask when meals should be dropped off and whether a cooler can be put by the front door for nonintrusive deliveries.
  • Then use this information to create a meal train at a site like TakeThemAMeal.com or MealTrain.com, which Ramos used. Schedule a few meals a week for three weeks. More dates can be added if the calendar fills up, but too many empty slots can be a bummer for the family to see.
  • Invite dozens of others to participate if your friend is a long-term crisis, and don't forget to include a clickable alternative such as an Uber Eats gift card for noncooks and out-of-town friends.

Cook the Right Stuff

  • Consider meals with separate elements that can be assembled (or not), so picky eaters can enjoy them too.
  • While casseroles are make-and-take classics, there are so many other options. "We specified that we love breakfast for dinner and received pancakes, sausages, hash browns, French toast, and baked apples," says Eliza Neary, of Pella, Iowa. Also consider packing extras like snacks, coloring books for the kids, or a favorite drink.

Ensure a Smooth Delivery

  • No matter what you make, pack it in inexpensive storage containers—and be clear that you don't need them back. Label the containers with the recipe name and the heating instructions so a new (or stressed) parent won't have to think about it too much.
  • Remember, food is love, and meal trains make a real impact. Lauren Morrill-Ragusea, of Macon, Georgia, recalls, "I was on the receiving end of a meal train when my son broke his leg the day after we brought his new brother home from the hospital. Six weeks with a toddler in a body cast and a newborn... that meal train saved us!"

Enough With the Lasagna, Already!

These heat-and-eat crowd-pleasers freeze just as well.

  • Burritos
  • Chicken soup
  • Blueberry muffin
  • Chili
  • Baked ziti
  • Meatball's in sauce
  • Pancakes or waffles
  • Veggie frittata
  • Enchiladas
  • Beef or veggie stew
  • Mac 'n' cheese
  • Stuffed shells
  • Pesto
  • Bolognese sauce
  • Empanadas

This article originally appeared in Parents Latina magazine's December/January 2022 issue as "Dish Out Some Amor."

Parents Latina