I've been lucky in life to be surrounded by people who—in my milestone moments of needing help—have surrounded me with support, intuited what I needed, and stepped in make it all happen.
When my son burst onto the scene nearly six weeks early, our friend Amy rallied the entire neighborhood to finish painting our first floor—while Jon and I spent nights in the NICU. After we brought baby home, Maria—who worked from home—stopped by every day at lunch to walk with us. With baby number two, she served me wine at her apartment, bouncing my colicky kid while I watched The Bachelor. My mom and sister have spent countless of their vacation days taking care of my kids. Lucky. So lucky.
Given all that, it pains me that I'm not the friend who can pinch-hit—grab kids, run errands, hold hands— midday when a sticky situation strikes. I still feel guilty that—working full-time in an office two towns away—I wasn't around for Maria every day when her son was born.
But I try to do what I can. And what I can do is cook. Or cut fruit. It doesn't matter that I work full-time because you can make a nourishing meal for a friend at any time of the day. Quite often, supporting someone else by erasing the need for them to deal with dinner requires nothing more double-batching your own meal: one for us, one for you. And that's why I love me the Meal Train, an online service that allows you to organize meals drop-offs easily for someone else who could use a stretch without thinking about sourcing supper. (As it turns out, the service was started by a friend of the Amy who pulled together the army of people who painted my living room when I went into early labor. Good people.)
As the recipient of post-partum gift-meals twice over, and the maker of meals for trains taking off after a bunches of babies, illnesses and other tough stuff, I have some helpful insights to share for those wondering "what should I make?"
Lasagnas, Enchiladas, Mac 'n Cheese
These are a traditional, obvious choice—comfort-food in a container, typically a foil one that the recipient can simply toss. You can't go wrong. Unless your peeps don't do dairy. And if that's the case, man, did you do wrong. Luckily, Meal Train lets the organizer specify dietary restrictions and preferences.
Most anyone in my world who had a baby in the fall or winter of 2010 or 2011 will tell you that I made them Beet & Barley Soup with Pumpernickel Croutons. Because I was on a kick. Or a jag. Call it what you will. I was obsessed with this stuff, and I thought everyone should be eating it. Now I'm more likely to pick a soup that I think the recipients will like. Sometimes it's Curried Carrot, sometimes it's Chicken Noodle. (If it's Chicken Noodle, it's likely that Jon made it—because I'm not much for dealing with carcasses and broth bubbling for hours.) Always, it's in a Mason jar—that the receiver can use for pay-it-forward soup, or to hold flowers or a bunch of pens.
Salads of All Sorts
I, for one, can eat only so much buttery, cheesy noodle-y things before I start to feel to feel anxious, so I always appreciate the friends who pack prepared salads—or greens plus chopped veggies (peppers, carrots, cherry tomatoes) presented separately, to eat however we liked. When our second son was born, my friend Lisa sent over a simple fruit salad—strawberries, blueberries and grapes. We've since worked it into our weekly repertoire and many of our Meal Train drop-offs. If I'm sending over a supper for you in summer, it's likely to be tabbouleh—with City Market Salad Bar Tofu on the side.
"Happy Hour" Provisions
Hummus, good bread, cheese, olives, fruit, and drinks—alcoholic or non: pull together a delicious buffet, pack it up and call it Picnic Dinner. Or French Dinner. Or order and pick up a pizza. Mmm...
A Little Something Sweet
I never much thought about rounding out a meal made for loved ones with dessert—until, post-my-baby, Eliza popped some chocolate-covered almonds in her drop-off bag and Michelle stopped by with homemade chocolate-dipped macaroons. Now, if I have it, I'll include some dark chocolate or make some muffins for the next morning's breakfast (or the freezer). Today, I had nothing good to add, so I mixed together some chocolate chips, raisins, cashews and almonds in a jar. Just in case my friends needed a little something sweet. And salty.
Flowers, a trashy magazine, a card, something fun for a kid. These are some things people gave to me, and I loved them. I don't always add the accoutrements but I always aspire to.
Your turn: What do you make when make a meal for a friend or family member who could use a little help?