In the winter of my son’s first year, my husband spent two weeks in the hospital after suffering a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in his lung). After a harrowing first few days in the ICU, we knew he was in no danger; and after that it was just a waiting game, until his blood levels got back to normal. I shuttled back and forth between the hospital and home, cobbling together care for my son and trying to keep his life as stable as possible. I knew everything would be fine eventually, but in the meantime I was worn out.
One day my friend Susanne came over to keep me company, and she brought me dinner. I didn’t actually need food — on the contrary, I was doing plenty of comfort eating — but the care and concern she showed by cooking for me was incredibly touching. It was a simple meal, just pasta and red sauce, but it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. To this day, I remember how loved I felt.
I was thinking about this a few months back, when I ended up bringing dinner to several mom friends in the span of about six weeks. Some of them were experiencing happy life changes, some of them were grief-stricken. But for all of them, I wanted to do what I could; and what I could do was bring them food. I couldn’t make the baby sleep better; I couldn’t bring that loved one back. But by golly, I could cook; and so that’s what I did.
The first time you make a meal for someone else can be intimidating — Will she like my food? Am I making enough? Do I go inside or just drop it off? But as with many things, the more you do it, the easier it is. Here are some tips to make things go smoothly when you’re bringing a meal to a friend.
If you want to round up the troops and have several meals brought to your friend, try a meal-organizing website like MealTrain, Food Tidings or Take Them a Meal. You and your fellow cooks can sign up for specific dates, specify what you’re bringing (great for making sure your friend doesn’t get 9 trays of lasagna) and share information about allergies and food preferences. And your friend can see who’s bringing what on what day, so she can plan ahead.
Stick to nourishing, nutritious classics
This is not the time to try out an exotic new recipe, unless you are very, very sure that your friend will like it. Even if it’s a happy time, she’s probably exhausted; don’t make her deal with unfamiliar tastes and textures on top of that. That goes double if there are young kids in the picture. (I learned this one the hard way; I tried out a new soup recipe with quinoa and kale, and brought it to a new mom without ever having tried it myself. She was perfectly pleasant when I brought it, but I could tell by the way she eyed the containers that she wasn’t thrilled. It may have been delicious, but it probably wasn’t a good choice. M, I am so sorry!)
Your friend may be too busy or too overwhelmed to eat much, so try to choose healthy, hearty fare that will pack maximum nutrients into minimal bites. This is no time for diet food. And this goes without saying, but bring food that you’d serve to your family. You don’t have to break the bank, but this is not a time for that box of Hamburger Helper that’s been living in the back of the pantry for five years. Give your friend the good stuff.
Make it a meal
Whenever I can, I bring sides to go along with a main dish. If I’m making lasagna, I bring Parmesan cheese and garlic bread; if I’m making chicken breasts, I bring rice pilaf and steamed broccoli. And I always bring dessert, even if it’s just brownies from a mix. These little extras can make the meal go farther (helpful if your friend has family visiting) and they help the meal feel special and complete.
If you’re thinking, “Sheesh, lady, I can barely boil water and you’re telling me I have to provide side dishes?” I have two words for you: supermarket deli. Entree, sides, bread, dessert, all in one place, and for not a bad price.
Think beyond dinner
People need to eat the rest of the day, too. If you can’t deliver a meal at dinnertime, or if none of your dinner recipes are appropriate for your friend, no worries: They’ll appreciate breakfast and lunch foods, too. A deli tray and several loaves of bread = easy lunches. Muffins, juice and fresh fruit = a breakfast that will start the day off right. Plus, these foods are often easier to eat one-handed — remember those postpartum days when you couldn’t do anything without a baby in your arms?
The last thing a new mom wants to do is wash your casserole dish and hold onto it until she sees you again. I know, I know, you’re trying to be eco-friendly — I am, too. But your goal is to make your friend’s life easier, right? Get a pack of aluminum food containers at a warehouse club or a restaurant supply store; if you’re bringing food hot, they’ll help insulate it, and it’s one less thing for you and your friends to worry about. Paper plates and plastic silverware wouldn’t hurt either — if your friend doesn’t need them, she’ll save them until the next picnic. I promise they won’t go to waste.
If you (or your friend) really can’t handle disposables, bring food in your own dish and transfer it to plates when you arrive. Or leave your dish but be very firm: You don’t need to wash this. I can come get it on Friday if that works for you; just leave it on your porch and I will take care of it.
Pay attention to their needs
Ask about allergies, food preferences and schedules. If you know your friend has a child who’s allergic to tomatoes or won’t eat noodles, then pasta marinara is not a great choice. If the family eats at 7 o’clock, then don’t bring hot food at 5 o’clock, unless it reheats well. When I can swing it, my favorite meal to bring is something that I’ve cooked partway; then it can be heated in the oven for 20-30 minutes later on. The recipients don’t have to cook, but they get a hot meal on their timetable. We joke about lasagna being the ultimate new-baby meal, but it’s become that for a reason: It works!
Even if you think you know your friend’s preferences, ask! Routines may be up in the air during a time of upheaval, or a nursing mom may have given up a certain food that her baby can’t tolerate. And be sensitive to a family’s need for privacy, particularly if they’ve suffered a loss. I usually say something like, “I’ll come by at 5; I’ll leave the dishes on the porch if you’re not up for company.” If they’d like visitors, they can invite me in when they hear the car door; if not, they can retrieve the meal after I’ve left.
Stick to the plan
If you’re part of a large meal-bringing effort, it can feel like your friend won’t notice your one little offering. But she’ll for sure notice if you fail to follow through. If you’ve signed up to bring a meal on a specific day and something comes up, do your friend the courtesy of letting her know. I can imagine my son’s reaction if I told him we were going to have his grandmother’s pasta and we ended up with slapped-together sandwiches; don’t to that to your friend or her kids. Even if you’re pretty sure she won’t mind a switch in meals or a delay of 30 minutes, text her and keep her in the loop.
(Thanks to the many friends who gave me advice for this piece: Amanda, Ashleigh, Lori, Sheri, Rachael, Kristi, Kelly, Emily, Tiffany, Carrie, Kari, Katie, Kathleen, Heather, Jodi, Jennifer and Genevieve.)
Have you received meals as a new mom or at another time of change? What was most helpful to you? Share your tips in the comments.