Before I got pregnant, I had no idea what a meal train was. But I was around 37 weeks when I finally found out. My husband and I had just moved into our new home when fellow mamas in the neighborhood assembled together and organized a meal train for us. We were told that upon the arrival of our son, families in the neighborhood would take turns dropping off dinner at our house.

I have to say, it was truly a godsend to receive this type of external support that alleviated the additional stress of having to worry about meal planning and cooking while also adjusting to being new parents. 

Related: 7 ways to improve dinner time at your house

A meal train was something that I didn’t know I would need as a new mom, but I am so very grateful to have received the thoughtfulness of the families around us. For a few days out of each week the month after our son was born, my husband or I rarely had to worry about cooking, grocery shopping or ordering in. We had a community of parents who had “been there, done that” come to our rescue by simply leaving a home-cooked meal at our doorstep or sending a gift card for food.

So now there is no wonder why I stand by meal trains being an amazing postpartum support measure—and a great way to help parents through perhaps one of the most monumental moments of their lives. Because if you’re a parent, then surely you know how much harder everyday tasks become once you have a baby.

What is a meal train?

Meal trains are a way to support someone going through a major life change—such as having a baby, losing a loved one, or going through a difficult time. Setting up a meal train helps to ensure that they are fed through their time of need—and it takes one less thing off their list of “to-dos” that they would otherwise have to worry about.

Meal trains are usually scheduled for a certain period of time—ranging from days, to weeks and sometimes even months. During that scheduled time, contributors agree to prepare a meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner) and drop it off to the receiving family. If you’re the receiving family, your fridge will become full of meals before you know it, and the overflow of support will warm your heart.

How does a meal train work?

Meal trains are typically organized by a family, friend or associate (or in our case, gracious new neighbors). Someone will organize people to contribute to a series of meals (or monetary support if people want to contribute something aside from a cooked meal). 

The contributors will then organize specific dates and times that they will deliver their contribution. A sign-up sheet or a meal train app is a great way to make sure that no one is overlapping drop-off times or bringing the same meal. 

Related: The need for postpartum support doesn’t end after the fourth trimester

The organizer usually checks with the recipient to ensure that they mark down any allergies or other special instructions that can be relayed to everyone who plans to make a contribution. During the specified times of the meal train support, contributors will drop off a meal at the recipient’s home—sometimes along with a gift or a card as well. This is an amazing way to make sure that new parents aren’t missing out on home-cooked meals, because honestly, who has time for cooking when you’re going on two mere hours of sleep and bouncing a crying baby on your hip?

Meal train websites

A great way to organize a meal train is to use a website. The site that our neighbors used when organizing ours was Meal Train. The website has a free and a paid version. All you have to do is sign up with your email, identify a recipient, select the dates, provide the recipient’s preferences, and share with anyone who will be contributing.

One thing that I absolutely loved about this site as the recipient is that after receiving all the contributions, I was able to send a collective thank you note to everyone who contributed along with a photo of the newest addition to our family. I also had the option to message everyone individually.

Related: The mental load of feeding a family is heavy—and moms often carry it

Other sites that I have heard great things about are Take Them a Meal and Give InKind. But aside from a website or app, you can also coordinate meal trains through text message, email or a Google spreadsheet. 

Final tips for organizing a meal train

1. Know that there are alternatives

For those who don’t cook or don’t have the time to but would still like to contribute, there are certainly other ways. You can send a physical gift card or an e-gift card for a food delivery service such as Uber Eats, DoorDash or Instacart.

2. Be mindful of the new parents

I remember in the fog of new motherhood, I would fret someone ringing our doorbell al the wrong time—like when I had just put the baby to sleep or while I was breastfeeding. It happened a few times, and I frantically tried to make myself presentable to answer the door (though there was one embarrassing time where I greeted a new neighbor at the door, took the meal and chatted for a few minutes, and then closed the door only to find out that I hadn’t pulled my tank top back up all the way over my nursing bra 🥴).

A good tip is to make sure that you write down the exact time that you plan to drop off the meal, ask for preference on how the recipient would like to be notified once you arrive with their meal, and also be OK with leaving the meal on their doorstep with a nice text message confirming that you indeed dropped it off. Because sometimes they won’t be able to come to the door.

3. Label your items

If you want your containers back, label them! But my advice would be to send the meals in containers that you won’t need returned. This makes it easier on you and the new parents. My husband and I had a cabinet full of unlabeled containers and a couple neighbors ringing our doorbell weeks later asking for theirs in return. We had no idea what belonged to who!

Related: 5 easy crockpot recipes you can make tonight using pantry ingredients

As a new mom who was unaware of what a meal train was beforehand, I swear by the fact that it is one easy and very thoughtful way to support new parents! Though I haven’t yet had the chance to organize a meal train for a family, it is something that I know I can do to support them when the time comes.

While there are tons of things that you can gift to new parents, consider the gift of taking a load off of their shoulders. Consider the gift of thoughtfulness. I promise you, it’ll go much further than you’d ever imagine.