When a loved one passes, taking time to go shopping and prepare meals is a major burden for families. To alleviate this burden, loved ones of the grieving family often provide sympathy meals. These meals can be eaten immediately or reheated later, freeing families from the extra strain of cooking after a loss.
The guide below will give you all the information you need to prepare and deliver top-quality sympathy meals to families.
Sympathy meals are meals provided to grieving families as an expression of sympathy. These meals can relieve families of the burden of shopping and cooking during a difficult time. Instead of worrying about meals, grieving families are freed up to spend more time together in the aftermath of a loss.
A sympathy meal can be a meal you make and deliver yourself or part of a coordinated effort. Coordinated efforts to provide meals over a period of time are often called “meal trains.”
Anyone can get involved in sympathy meals. Close family friends, extended family members, neighbors, church family, co-workers, and community support groups can all provide meals for grieving families. Ultimately, anyone who cares about the family of the deceased can get involved.
Although this is typically limited to local individuals, people who live far away can get involved by providing donations. Monetary donations and restaurant gift cards allow families to eat out or order delivery.
Whether you’re creating a sympathy meal on your own or as part of a meal train, there are several things you should consider. Below are eight things to consider during your sympathy meal planning.
Carefully consider the preferences of the family receiving the meals. Ask them if there’s anything to avoid, such as spicy food or onions. While these things may not be allergies, everyone has ingredients or dishes they’d prefer not to eat.
If there are young children in the family, you should also consider what they’d like to eat. Some dishes are more family-friendly than others.
If you’re preparing meals for a family, find out what time they’d like the meal to be delivered. Sticking to their regular mealtimes can help provide a sense of normalcy in an otherwise tumultuous time.
Sometimes a family will prefer to receive frozen or cool meals that can be reheated at meal times. It’s important to find out what the family would prefer and cater to those preferences. The goal is to make things easier for them, not harder.
This is a very important one. You need to find out if there are any food allergies or intolerances, since including an allergen can cause serious harm to the family. Research recipes that exclude that allergen and make sure to list all ingredients used on delivered meals to provide peace of mind to recipients.
If the family has a difficult or long list of allergies, research what options are available for sympathy meals. Certain allergens like wheat, eggs, and dairy can be difficult to avoid.
You should also work within special diets, especially if the person is vegetarian or vegan. There are plenty of online resources to help you find recipes that fit certain dietary needs.
You need to find out how often the family wants meals and how long they should be provided. This is more important for planning a meal train, since it provides volunteers with dates and times needed to delivery sympathy meals.
Most meal trains last between two and four weeks and provide three meals a day to the family. However, some families may prefer to have fewer meals delivered for a shorter period of time. It’s important to find out what the family needs and wants before planning a meal train.
It’s important to know how many people the meal needs to feed. Find out how many people are going to be staying in the household during the bereavement period. You may also choose to provide a larger meal for small family gatherings before or after the funeral.
You should make enough food for the whole family to eat, plus have a little extra as leftovers. The extra portions can also provide space for the family to feed unexpected guests.
When possible, provide an entire meal. Include sides, drinks, and desserts. Even if the family doesn’t eat the dessert immediately, they can be enjoyed later. The meal should be easy for the family to heat and serve.
If family members prefer certain soft drinks, providing cans or bottles of their favorite drink can be a nice touch. When coordinating a meal train, find out about beverage preferences to provide information to people delivering meals.
You should have a good idea of what’s desired or expected during the drop-off process. Determine whether you’ll ring the doorbell and hand-deliver the meal or leave it in a cooler outside. In some cases, a third party may pick up the meal from the volunteer and deliver it to the home of the family.
Sometimes the family will want to have company when meals are delivered. Because every family handles grief differently, it’s important to find out their preferences.
If you’re part of a meal train for a family, make sure you know who is coordinating those efforts. That person should be in close contact with the family and volunteers to make sure all needs are met for the duration of the meal train.
Make sure everyone involved knows who that person is and how to contact them. If something comes up and an individual isn’t able to provide a promised meal, the meal train coordinator needs to be prepared to make alternative arrangements.
Once you’ve gathered the necessary information to provide sympathy meals, you’re ready to prepare and deliver the meals. Below are twelve additional tips to help you provide sympathy meals to grieving families.
If you’re planning a meal train, make sure there’s one person who is designated to be in contact with the family and all volunteers who plan to bring meals. This will keep the family from getting bombarded with questions about sympathy meals.
This also helps ensure everything is organized. A contact person can make sure the family is getting a steady stream of meals and that all volunteers have vital information like drop-off address and times.
This also makes it easier to communicate last-minute changes with volunteers. For example, if the grieving family needs to leave home to attend to something, they can let the coordinator know instead of trying to figure out contact information for the person delivering the meal.
Casseroles are common sympathy meal fare because they’re easy to make, easy to store, and easy to reheat and serve. However, plan for a variety of different meals so the family isn’t stuck eating a dozen different variations of the same dish.
If you’re working as part of a coordinated meal train, make sure volunteers indicate what they plan to make. This can help volunteers provide a variety of different meals.
Consider providing lighter meals and snacks like salad, cheese, and fruit. If you’re providing another meal, consider bringing a snack or dessert for family to enjoy between meals.
There should be enough food for all family members to eat and feel full. It’s good if there’s enough food for unexpected guests or leftovers, as well. Although most people wouldn’t dare complain, leaving a family with a meal that’s too small can be a big inconvenience. Make sure you’re providing good sized portions.
You may even consider making enough food for two whole meals. If you’re making something like a casserole, you could make one to serve immediately and another to freeze and reheat later.
This offers flexibility for families to enjoy your meal even after the meal train has ended.
Sometimes families get more meals than they can immediately eat. Because of this, it’s important that your provided meal can be frozen and reheated as needed.
Although you can provide meals that aren’t freezer friendly, freezer friendly meals are preferred.
When searching for recipes, find out whether the meal freezes and reheats well. Most casserole dishes can be frozen and reheated, which is why they’re a common staple for sympathy meals.
Make sure you include instructions about how to reheat the meal. Indicate the temperature and the reheat time for each part of the meal provided
Sympathy meals shouldn’t be overly complicated, but you should be sure to include any additional details needed for serving the meal.
For example, a tossed salad may need to have the shredded cheese and dressing mixed in when it’s time to serve the meal. Make sure the instructions are simple, printed legibly, and easy to understand.
The sympathy note you provide with a meal doesn’t have to be complicated. Just let the family know you’re thinking of them. This doesn’t just let the family know you care, but provides them with information about who provided the meal they’re enjoying.
In some cases, you may choose to include a sympathy gift. Flowers, succulents, and other plants are often given as sympathy gifts.
However, you may also choose to include a small tube of scented lotion for adults or small toys for children. Personalized memorial items also make great sympathy gifts for grieving families.
Even if you’ve carefully avoided allergens, it’s helpful to provide a list of all ingredients used in your dish. This can help give families peace of mind that their meals won’t contain harmful ingredients.
Don’t forget to list all seasonings and spices used, as well. Some seasonings can contain hidden allergens, making them a danger to people with those allergies.
Listing the ingredients, even if you’ve made sure there aren’t allergens, will allow the family to know you’ve taken the time to meet their dietary needs.
There are lots of disposable container options, so make sure to package the food in a container that won’t need to be returned. Most supermarkets have disposable casserole dishes available, many of which cost less than a dollar.
When a family is grieving, the last thing they need is the added responsibility of washing and returning dishes. If you’re using non-disposable containers that you don’t need returned, be sure to include that information in the note. It will give them one less thing to worry about during their time of bereavement.
When you provide disposable plates, bowls, and cutlery, the family won’t have as much to clean up after meals. This can take the pressure off of them, since grief can often leave people without much energy to handle daily tasks like dishes.
If you’re working as part of a meal train, the contact person may choose to purchase large packages of plates, bowls, and cutlery. This way, volunteers making meals only need to provide the meal and families have the disposable dishes they need.
Some families won’t want contact with people delivering meals. If this is the case, leave the meal in the designated spot. If the instructions involve calling or texting them to let them know the meal is there, make sure to do so.
Delivery instructions will vary between families, so it’s important to follow any directions provided by the meal train coordinator. If you’re providing a sympathy meal outside of a meal train, contact the family to find out how they’d like the meal delivered.
Some people don’t like to cook, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get involved with sympathy meals. If you don’t cook, order the family’s favorite takeout and deliver it to their doorstep. You can also provide gift cards to local restaurants or food delivery services.
If you commit to taking a meal to a family, make sure you follow through on your commitment. Forgetting to take a meal can leave the family in a lurch, especially if they were counting on that meal.
Set reminders on your phone and write the date and time on your calendar. Do whatever you need to do to make sure you deliver the meal as scheduled.
Emergencies happen, though. If something comes up and you’re no longer able to provide a meal, contact the meal train coordinator to make alternate arrangements.
One of the best ways to provide sympathy meals is through a coordinated effort called a meal train. Meal trains are organized efforts to provide a certain number of meals for a certain period of time. A meal train coordinator makes sure meals are delivered to families throughout the bereavement period.
The first thing you need to do to organize a meal train is talk to those who want to get involved in providing meals for a grieving family. This may be a group of extended family and friends. In some cases, a church group or community group may choose to take up the task of creating a meal train.
Before you start setting things up, talk to people who want to get involved. This gives you a good idea of how many people you can expect to provide meals. During this initial stage, you should also contact the family to find out their needs and desires.
Once you’ve determined who will be involved, create a calendar to schedule meals. Make sure each person selects a day and time to deliver meals. When possible, have people include their planned meals to prevent duplicate meals.
Most meal trains last between two and four weeks and include meal deliveries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Talk to the family to find out how long they’d like meals and what meals they’d like delivered. In some cases, families may only want one meal delivered each day.
There are lots of online tools that can help you plan a meal train. Create a Google Sheets document to email to meal train volunteers. Volunteers can enter their information on the spreadsheet.
There are also lots of websites for planning a meal train. Sites like Meal Train, Take Them A Meal, Food Tidings, and Care Calendar all provide resources for creating a meal train. These tools can be helpful for getting needed information to friends and family who want to make sympathy meals.
Every person providing a meal should have the contact information of the meal train coordinator. Similarly, the meal train coordinator needs the contact information of each person provided a meal to the grieving family. This will help keep things running smoothly, especially if something comes up and a person can no longer provide a meal.
If you’re running a meal train, keep the contact information for everyone in one place. Add each person as a contact in your phone so it’s quick and easy to get in contact with them when necessary. As the meal train coordinator, you should also have access to the meal train calendar at all times to ensure smooth delivery of meals.
Make sure people know how they can get involved if they can’t cook or don’t live close enough to deliver a meal. Find out what takeout options are favorites of the family. Favorite locations and favorite dishes can help someone provide a meal, even if they don’t cook.
It’s also good to include information about where to send gift cards for restaurants and food delivery services. Many places offer digital gift cards that can be sent to the family’s email address. These gift cards can help a family purchase meals, even after the meal train ends.
No matter how dependable the volunteers, things happen that make a volunteer unable to deliver a meal as planned. Make sure you have a contingency plan in place to provide meals for a family if something comes up or someone cannot follow through on their commitment.
There are several ways you can do this. You can have someone designated as a “backup cook” to provide a last-minute meal. You may also choose to use donated funds to provide takeout during empty meal slots. No matter how you fill the gap, it’s best to be prepared for emergency situations.
Part of your emergency plan should involve channels to communicate needs concerning the meal train. You can use a group chat on Facebook Messenger, a group text, email, or any other method that allows you to get information out quickly.
You can use this communication to let people know about days that still need to be filled or any changes in the schedule. Clear communication throughout the process is the key to organizing a successful meal train.
Sometimes people want to help with a meal train but cannot cook and deliver meals. In some cases, people just don’t like cooking or don’t feel confident enough to cook food for other people. There are three great options for these people to get involved in a meal train without needing to cook.
Volunteers can offer monetary donations to the meal train effort or directly to the grieving family. These funds can be used to purchase ingredients or delivered meals. Include information about where people can donate money to help support a grieving family.
Most meal train websites have an option to donate funds to the family. If you’re using an online fundraising tool, keep in mind that a portion of donated funds will be deducted to cover processing fees and website costs. For most fundraising sites, this amount is about 5% of all donations.
People can also contribute gift cards to restaurants and food delivery services like GrubHub and DoorDash. Find out what restaurants the family enjoys and provide volunteers with that information. This allows people to buy gift cards the family for places the family likes.
Fast food gift cards make a good option for families who don’t have time off during bereavement. Choose gift cards to a few local fast food places to provide them with options for on-the-go meals.
You don’t have to cook a meal yourself to drop it off as a sympathy meal. Takeout from local restaurants, pizza, and other pre-made options will still feed a grieving family. The meal train coordinator can find out what places the family likes to eat and what menu items fit their tastes.
Most people like pizza, making it a favorite for takeout or delivered meals. Just make sure that anything you order fits the guidelines and avoids any family allergens. When in doubt, contact the family or meal train coordinator to find out how you can have a meal delivered.
Committing to make a sympathy meal is only the first step. Once you have information about the family’s dietary needs and preferences, you’re ready to choose a recipe. Below are twelve good dishes to make for sympathy meals. These items will freeze and reheat well, making them ideal choices.
This comfort food is one of the best options for a sympathy meal, especially if the grieving family has young children. It’s quick and easy to make, plus it reheats well. Whether you serve it with a protein, vegetable side, or alone, it’s a great sympathy meal option.
Mom on Timeout has a great mac and cheese recipe, which can be found here. Frozen macaroni and cheese casseroles (like Stouffer’s) are also a good option to provide families with something they can quickly make at their own convenience.
Almost everyone loves lasagna. It’s an easy recipe to make, especially if you need to feed a large family. Taste of Home has a lasagna recipe that claims to be the best, which can be found here.
Meatloaf is the ultimate comfort food. It’s both comforting and filling, making it a great option for sympathy meals. Since it’s simple and easy to make, it’s a great option if you’re feeding a family with young children.
You can also provide a wide variety of different sides with meatloaf. Mashed potatoes, vegetables, and even macaroni and cheese all pair well with meatloaf. If you plan to provide meatloaf as a meal, make sure to include at least one side.
If you’re providing breakfast or snacks for a family, fruit salad is a great option. Since fruit salad can be scooped and served, it’s a great option for feeding grieving families. Plus, this lighter dish can provide some variety not offered by more traditional sympathy meal dishes.
Cooking Classy has a good fruit salad recipe, which can be found here.
Baked ziti is similar to lasagna and is easy to bake in a single pot or pan. You can make this dish heartier by adding ground beef or meatballs. You can provide fresh bread or salad as a side. The Pioneer Woman has an easy baked ziti recipe, which can be found here.
If you need a vegetarian meal, spaghetti in tomato sauce makes a great option. Noodles and a tomato sauce can be combined to make a delicious meal. If you’re preparing this dish for a vegetarian family, make sure any store-bought sauce doesn’t have meat added for flavor.
Chili is another recipe that can be easily adjusted based on dietary needs. Ingredients can be included or left out to meet a variety of different diets, including vegetarian diets. Combine meat, beans, tomatoes, onions, and other ingredients to make a comforting and hearty meal.
The Wholesome Dish has a classic chili recipe, although there are hundreds of chili variations available online.
Potatoes are a classic dish for sympathy meals. These cheesy potato casseroles are easy to make, easy to freeze, and easy to reheat. Food Network has a great recipe to make funeral potatoes, which can be found here.
Few things are as comforting as warm chicken pot pie. This is a great option if you’re feeding a large family. As an added bonus, it can be served alone as a complete meal. It can be easily frozen and reheated, making it a great choice for sympathy meals.
Taste of Home has a classic chicken pot pie recipe, which can be found here.
Pasta salad is another good option for meals or snacks. Since it doesn’t need to be reheated, it’s easy to serve it for a quick snack or meal. Noodles, dressing, and mix-ins like vegetables can be combined to make a delicious pasta salad. Add meat like bacon or chicken for additional flavor and protein.
Inspired Taste has a quick and easy pasta salad recipe, which can be found here.
Enchiladas are easy to make and full of flavor. Fill tortillas with a combination of beans, meat, cheese, and vegetables and coat them in enchilada sauce and bake until ready. If the family likes spicy foods, you may even choose to include diced jalapenos.
Betty Crocker has a great recipe for easy beef enchiladas. You can find that recipe here.
This comforting dish is great for grieving families. Combine broth, chicken, veggies, and noodles to create a hearty and comforting meal. Best of all, this meal can be frozen and reheated. Tasty has a classic chicken noodle soup recipe that’s perfect for sympathy meals. Find that recipe here.
If you’re cooking for a grieving family, there are plenty of options available. It’s important to cook a meal that fits any dietary restrictions like allergies. You don’t want to make something that will make them sick!
It’s also important to make a meal that can be frozen and reheated. Since families may receive multiple sympathy meals, it’s helpful to provide something that can be eaten at a later date if needed.
Since you can’t send a home cooked meal in the mail, you may need to look at other options for delivery a sympathy meal to a family. Websites like Harry & David offer sympathy meals options that can be delivered to your loved one’s doorstep.
You may also choose to send gift cards for local restaurants or food delivery services. Gift cards give the grieving family flexibility to choose what they want to eat and when.
Online meal train sites allow people to offer financial contributions to a family. However, like most online fundraising sites, they take a percentage of the donations to cover processing fees and website maintenance.
The percentage taken out of donations varies between sites, although most sites take around 5% of all donations.
The exact length of a meal train should be determined by the family and meal train coordinator. However, most meal trains last between two and four weeks. In some cases, a meal train may last longer, especially if the family faces additional needs (such as loss of a homemaker, financial hardship, etc.).
Most people can find recipes to work around one allergy. However, if a family has a long list of food allergies, finding a good recipe may seem like an insurmountable task. In these cases, the meal train coordinator should ask the family what sort of meals work best.
Often, the family can provide information about what foods they can consume. This will give volunteers a good idea of where to look to get recipes to fit the dietary needs of the family.
There are lots of ways for people to get involved with meal trains, even if they don’t like to cook. Gift cards, cash donations, and takeout are all great options to let people provide meals during the bereavement period.
Some people have a natural gift for organizing things and rallying support. If you don’t like to cook but have good organizational skills, you may be a good person to manage a meal train for a grieving family.
Sympathy notes are simple in theory, but all too often they’re difficult to write. Most people want to write more than “I’m sorry for your loss,” but don’t know what to add. If you knew the deceased, you might mention how much you cared for them or how much they meant to you. Many families like to hear good memories you have of their loved one.
If you and the recipient are both religious, you may also write about how you intend to pray for them during this time. Offer words of comfort rooted in your religious convictions, when appropriate.
Sympathy meals are a great way to show care for a family facing the loss of a loved one. Meal trains are organized efforts to provide regular meals to a family over a period of time, often two to four weeks.
It’s important to carefully organize and thoroughly communicate when putting together a meal train. Sympathy meals can provide for a family’s needs while allowing the community to express their sympathy.
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December 26, 2021 by Frances Kay