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February 12, 2024
Riding the Meal Train

Why a gift of homemade food during times of recovery is more than just a meal

When I gave birth to my son late last year, I had recently moved into a new co-op building complex in a new neighborhood in Upper Manhattan. In leveling up to a space more suitable for child-rearing, I had sequestered myself some 15 miles—and a long subway ride—from my friends, most of whom were scattered throughout Brooklyn, where I had lived for the last 20 years. So I didn’t expect to receive the procession of lovingly prepared chicken soups, ragùs, and enchiladas that sprang into production whenever one of us was recovering from birth or a surgery, or while a whole household was quarantining with COVID. Instead, I was stunned by the generosity of my new neighbors, and I was soon up to my elbows in three-bean chili, lobster ravioli, and oatmeal cookies.

It turns out my building complex has an active parents’ committee that takes meal trains, as these charitable Tupperware dinners were often called, very seriously. Soon after I met one member of the group at a complex-wide Halloween party, she created a page on MealTrain.com for me and my husband, and 12 new neighbors (erstwhile strangers) signed up to cook for us over the next couple months—during the busy holiday season, no less. A few days after we brought home our baby, we were greeted at our apartment door by a neighbor toting a large FreshDirect bag packed with a Provençal-style soup with cubed zucchini and eggplant, grilled chicken, a demi baguette, and half of a homemade plum torte, still warm in its foil. The next night, we scored a quart of meaty Bolognese and a pack of dried pappardelle. Another night, beef stew with cornbread.

We had the option to indicate dietary restrictions or preferences, and we had selected none. Still, we were impressed with the variety and nuance of each meal we received, and the way these meals helped introduce us to our neighbors, whose faces we often saw only in brief glances, in a blur of sleep deprivation, in our hallway. From the working mother of teenagers, for instance, there was the efficient, nutrient-dense meal of baked chicken thighs, sweet potatoes, and steamed broccoli. From the older couple with no kids, an adventurous dish of chicken blanketed in a thick, burgundy sauce of ancho chile and ground pecans. From the retired historians upstairs, beef goulash with brown rice. From the single mom next door, roasted pork loin and rosemary potatoes. A giant lasagna with spinach and mushrooms arrived from another family with kids, along with a menu designed with reindeer and printed on a home color printer.

During those wild weeks of figuring out motherhood for the first time, the rustling of bags at the door and a handwritten note with reheating instructions became a constant source of comfort. As an obsessive home cook and cookbook author, meal trains really spoke my love language—but I had yet to experience the receiving end of one. I found myself looking forward to the mystery meals far more than I did exploring the restaurants in my new neighborhood. Unlike ordering in from your standard-issue Tex-Mex or sushi place, a meal train is more personal, even intimate, like peeking into someone’s cupboards. Sitting down to a homemade dinner that I didn’t cook, cleaning my plate and going for seconds each night, I imagined my neighbors in their kitchens (invariably laid out in the same galley structure as ours), tasting and nodding, packing up these dishes and thinking, Now that’s a good meal.

We were greeted at our apartment door by a neighbor toting a large FreshDirect bag packed with a Provençal-style soup with cubed zucchini and eggplant, grilled chicken, a demi baguette, and half of a homemade plum torte, still warm in its foil.

“There’s an innate desire people have to support others, whether they’re a friend or a neighbor,” says Michael Laramee of Meal Train, a website he cofounded in 2010 that helps people streamline their meal giving. Despite our takeout-heavy lives, home cooking is the predominant practice on the site. “When you take the time to create something and then share your creation with someone else, it feels good.”

Meal Train is headquartered in Burlington, Vermont, where its cofounders, Laramee and Stephen DePasquale Jr., are based. Before founding the company, Laramee was working in oncology physical therapy, helping those undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. He had the inspiration for MealTrain.com after his wife, Kathleen, organized a meal train for a neighborhood family’s new baby in 2009; he wanted to reduce the email back-and-forth and make the recipient’s delivery and food preferences transparent for everyone in the group. So he called his friend, DePasquale Jr., a software developer, and one year later, they launched the site.

Laramee, who grew up in rural Vermont, recognized the impact of meal giving when he and Kathleen had their first child 17 years ago in Burlington. They didn’t have family in the area, but they were members of a natural food co-op that had a strong sense of community. In those first few frantic weeks of parenting, seeing friends and neighbors show up on their porch with aluminum-foil-wrapped mac and cheese, commiserating with them over the challenges and the joys, was a staggering relief. “You think making it through birth is going to be the most difficult part, and then they let you take this baby home, and you’re kind of surprised they do, and you have to figure it out,” he recalls.

Today Meal Train employs about ten people and organizes close to half a million meal trains per month in 40 to 50 countries.

“It’s done in urban and rural areas—in every state at almost equal proportion, so this act of giving is not unique to one community or one religious group,” says Laramee, who notes that the term “meal train” far preceded the website, but it’s unclear when and where it was coined. Roughly half of the meal trains hosted on the site are in support of new parents, while the rest are for other experiences such as illness and bereavement. Eighty percent of the site’s users are women.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the arrival of a baby accounts for so many meal trains. For the roughly 3.5 million births that take place in the United States each year, caring for an infant is an all-consuming task for new parents. And it’s one that we don’t adequately support in much of modern society, argues Heng Ou, author of books on postpartum care and the founder of MotherBees, an online resource for mothers. Currently, only about one in four American workers in the private sector have access to paid family leave, making it a luxury to rest after childbirth. And fewer Americans are living with extended, intergenerational family members than in the past, leaving many parents to fend for themselves—and a hungry baby.

In her book, The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother, Ou shares postpartum caretaking traditions from around the world—including the Chinese custom of zuo yuezi, where a mother is pampered with nourishing foods and is asked (required, in fact) to not lift a finger in cooking during the 40 days immediately following birth. Ou recalls having received this loving treatment from an auntie during her first postpartum experience. After her third child, Ou set out to provide it for other women. She mastered a few classic zuo yuezi dishes, like chicken soup with jujubes and goji berries, and offered it to women in her social circle in Los Angeles. One of her first recipients was a friend who’d just had her second child. Ou heated up the soup in her friend’s home and sat down with her as she ate.

“I watched her melt into her seat—her shoulders went lax,” Ou recalls. “The feeling of knowing someone made this for you, who sees how tiring this time of life is—it’s so much more empowering than the food itself.”

Word spread quickly, and Ou soon began delivering postpartum soups and stews outside of her own friend group, launching a business, MotherBees, and leaving behind her career in graphic design. While her services cater to postpartum needs, people experiencing loss, miscarriage, and illness have found support from them, too.

Yet there’s something culturally incongruous about taking free food from others nowadays, both Ou and Laramee note. Many people are instinctually almost too proud to ask for help at times when they can use it.

“In America, we’re sort of all about independence… We don’t want to show our vulnerability, and it can be really messy and chaotic, but on the outside we don’t really want to display it,” says Ou.

In other countries, the notion of a community or extended family participating in something like postpartum care is much stronger. But often, all it takes is participating in a meal train for the first time to realize how heartwarming and worthwhile it can be—whether you’re the giver or the recipient.

“I watched her melt into her seat—her shoulders went lax.”

Julia Turshen, a cookbook author and cooking teacher, says she has participated in more meal trains than she can remember, for people near and far, for babies and for bereavement. She’s a fan of giving soups and stews, like a chunky minestrone with cabbage and white beans or a pureed roasted cauliflower soup, with a side of foil-wrapped garlic bread that can be reheated in the toaster oven. Her dishes skew toward those that can be frozen easily, in case someone has too much at once. Another tip? Skip lasagna—not because she doesn’t love it but because she thinks too many others are going to make it. (Her hunch is backed up by a word cloud provided by Meal Train, which illustrates the most common dishes that appear on the platform.)

“It’s an act of tangible, practical care,” says Turshen of meal trains. When someone is going through a difficult time, words of support are nice, she adds. “But it’s so nice to have an option of something so real you can do to help.”

There are ancient postpartum food rituals around the world, and there are modern forms of mutual aid like soup kitchens and community fridges, offering free food to those who need it. There are also nonprofits like World Central Kitchen that provide healthy meals on a global scale. Meal trains are instead a grassroots tradition of a much smaller scope, addressing a certain need at a certain time in one’s life.

And it’s a social activity and creative outlet as much as a dinner delivery service. We have fun doing it, otherwise we wouldn’t volunteer for it. As I’ve found, making a meal for someone can be a way of getting to know each other. Or know each other better. For longtime friends, a signature dish might resurface along with fond memories. Ostensibly cooking for the sole benefit of someone else, we shed something of ourselves into our to-go boxes—our beliefs, our cultures, our cravings—with that other person, too.

Now, fortified by weeks of free meals, I find myself brainstorming what I’ll make for the next hungry patron to be wandering through the fog of a disorienting experience like childbirth. Would chicken congee hit the spot? Spicy gumbo with shrimp? Beef bourguignon? I look forward to cooking for the next meal train. But first, to getting through everything in my freezer.

Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway is the author of the cookbooks The Food of Taiwan and Sheet Pan Chicken, and the memoir The Art of Eating In. She co-wrote Win Son Presents: A Taiwanese American Cookbook. She hosts the podcast Self Evident, exploring Asian American stories. She has won a James Beard Award and IACP award for her writing at TASTE.