Food & DrinkLiving

A new recipe for helping your neighbour: Start a Meal Train

Betsy Mann


I remember my mother’s freezer filling up after my father died, 40 years ago. Her friends, her neighbours, the ladies’ group from her church — they all brought enough casseroles, pies, and muffins to feed the family for weeks. It’s an age-old tradition to bring food to a family going through a challenging time, whether due to sickness, bereavement, or a new baby. Though the nature of community connections has changed, the desire to show support with food is still strong. Now technology is there to help build a wider and more efficient web of community than was possible in 1982.

It was a good thing my mother had a freezer then, because the meals and baking all came in at once. The contributions were much appreciated and generous, but not coordinated. Even with family members arriving for the funeral, without the freezer, food would have spoiled. And how many tuna casseroles could we eat in a week anyway? Today, free apps like Meal Train help solve this coordination problem.

Once a Meal Train page is created for the person or family who could use support, people can sign up to bring a meal on a specified date. They can also describe the dishes that they will bring; by letting other cooks see what was sent recently, the family avoids getting three tuna casseroles in a row! The Meal Train page also has room to note preferences and dietary restrictions, so no one provides food that the recipients won’t enjoy. The app also sends reminder emails in advance, one to the cook in case they’ve forgotten what they promised, and one to the recipients to let them know what’s coming. The whole process is smooth and easy for all involved.

Former Action Sandy Hill president Susan Young used the Meal Train platform a couple of years ago to set in motion regular meal deliveries to Jane Waterston and François Bregha during François’ long illness. Names quickly appeared beside dates for this couple who were well-known from their years as active volunteers in the community. If the process was easy from the contributors’ side, Jane confirms that it was wonderful for her and François. “It made a huge difference,” she says, “and not only because it was a night off from cooking. We could consult the Meal Train page and know what to look forward to each week. The variety was very welcome.”

Jane and François opted for a Monday night dinner, making sure there would be someone home to receive the hot meal between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m. “It made Monday a special day,” remembers Jane. “Porch drop-off turned into an opportunity to socialize a bit. Then returning pans and dishes to people was an outing for me and another chance to see them.” In this way, she points out, using Meal Train actually increased personal contact, contrary to the usual view of technology’s effect on social relationships. “I got to know people better through what came out of their kitchen,” reflects Jane.

Another Sandy Hill resident also used technology to organize support for a family dealing with medical challenges a number of years ago. Preferring to remain anonymous, she explains, “I really didn’t do much, just set up something like an Excel spreadsheet which I shared through Google Docs with people in the family’s networks: neighbours, work colleagues, their children’s friends’ parents.” The shared schedule included information about quantities, food preferences, and best times for drop-off to suit the family’s schedule. She found lots of people who wanted to help, but who hadn’t been sure how to do it. In addition, these people, coming from different milieux, weren’t necessarily in touch with each other so coordination was difficult. Providing a structure for meal delivery centralized their efforts and channelled their good intentions into something that was helpful without being overwhelming. “Since the meals were coming from different kitchens, there was lots of variety to stimulate the appetite, which is often affected by illness,” this community-minded person observes, then continues, “But it’s about much more than the food. It’s concrete evidence that people are thinking of you.”

This part hasn’t changed since my mother’s community filled her freezer with food. With each bite prepared by someone who cares about you, you know you are not alone in your troubles. Or as Jane put it, “It was a very real help. It felt like a big hug!”

For more information about the Meal Train app, visit