Many of us have been involved in what's known as a “meal train” – when meals are planned and delivered to a family in need. Usually, meal trains involve good intentions and lots of back-and-forth, reply-to-all email messages or sign-up sheets that get passed around and filled out at work or at worship. This often results in an organizational nightmare for the person coordinating the meals.
Approximately four years ago, Michael Laramee of Burlington, VT, brainstormed a better way for thoughtful neighbors and do-gooders alike to share meals. In January 2009, he launched MealTrain.com with the help of a partner. This free-service site harnesses social media and melds it with people's desire to help those in need by making and delivering meals when a family may be too overwhelmed to do it for themselves. The site quickly grew via word of mouth. "Eighty to 90 percent of people who find out about us find out from a friend," says Laramee. "When we first started we were helping people to organize about 30 meals a night. Now we're organizing 1,700 meals a night or more than 45,000 meals a month."
Andrea Harman of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, discovered Meal Train in 2011 through her church's meal programs leader, who had started using the site to organize dinners for new parents in the congregation. Harman, a married mother of two young children, usually ended up dealing with "sign up sheets and phone calls to get meals organized, and Meal Train, by far, is so much easier," she says. She liked that she could see if recipients had any food restrictions as well as what others planned on cooking in the nights before her meal was scheduled to arrive. "I noticed at one point that most everyone was bringing Italian," she recalls, "so I decided to bring them nachos and quesadillas."
Most of the families Harman cooked meals for were dealing with new babies. In fact, Meal Train's founder Laramee says that 50 percent of meal trains on the site are for new parents who are too overwhelmed to cook for themselves; 20 percent are for those dealing with a chronic illness; 20 percent are for those recovering from surgery, and the remaining 10 percent is scattered among condolences and welcoming new neighbors.
It was in January 2012 that Andrea Harman ended up on the receiving end of Meal Train after using the service for over a year to help her fellow congregants. "I had not been feeling well for several months, and had been to the doctor a number of times, and told I had a virus," Harman recalls. When she wasn't getting better, the doctor ordered blood work and discovered that Harman had kidney autoimmune disease, which meant immediate hospitalization and then 3 to 6 months of chemotherapy.
Once Harman was released from the hospital, her sister-in-law attempted to start a meal train but didn't know about MealTrain.com. "I felt like a burden because she seemed a little overwhelmed with calling people, setting dates and then calling our family to coordinate everything," says Harman, who pointed out to her sister-in-law how MealTrain.com could help. All her sister-in-law had to do was set up Harman's page on the site, add in any dietary restrictions – her doctor wanted Harman on a low-sodium diet – and then post a link on Facebook. "Now if anyone was interested in helping out, they could go directly to my page, and sign up to bring a meal," says Harman, who loves being able to check her page so she can see who is coming by that night with food.
Even though Harman had made meals for others, she was overwhelmed by the generosity of the 17 friends, family and church members who signed up for her meal train. Since Harman was sick on Valentine's Day, the person who had signed up to bring the meal for February 14th not only brought lasagna, garlic bread and salad, but she baked a cake, too. In fact, meal portions were so large that Harman eventually switched to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday delivery only on MealTrain.com; the family eats leftovers on the days new meals aren't coming.
Clearly, there is a convenience of not having to cook a meal when under the weather. But the Harman family has discovered how else Meal Train has benefitted them. "By the end of the day, my son and daughter desperately want playtime with daddy when he gets home," says Harman of her husband Kevin, a teacher. "With meals being delivered, he doesn't need to put time or energy into preparing a meal. He can give his attention to the kids."
Harman is now done with chemo and feeling better, and her meal train ended in late March. She's not sure how she and her husband would have made it through those three difficult months without the help of family, friends and Meal Train. "It made my family's life so much more relaxed," she adds, "not needing to worry about preparing dinner."
Leah Ingram is the author of 14 non-fiction books, including "Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less." That book grew out of her popular frugal-living blog called Suddenly Frugal.