Lotsa Helping Hands Aboard the Meal Train

The son of some good friends of ours was seriously injured in a skiing accident a few weeks ago. Thankfully, after a harrowing week,  he was released from the hospital and is now recuperating at home. Just as I was contemplating what I could do to help, I received an email: “You have been invited to join the meal train…” it began. Perfect! I thought. It offered instructions on how I could sign up to bring the family meals, and listed required quantities and preferences (simple, kid-friendly foods, delivered between 5 and 6 pm). It  also included a link to carepages.com for updates on the young man’s condition.

Being the queen of procrastination, I didn’t exactly click on the Meal Train link right away. By the time I got around to it sometime the next day–while weighing the virtues of  island pork tenderloin over glazed salmon–82 people had already signed up! I calculated that at that rate, I would be supplying the family’s Memorial Day barbecue, by which point the kid would be able to skateboard down to my house and pick it up himself. I clicked on the scheduled menus and immediately began fantasizing about getting hit by a bus so that I, too, might reap such delectable kindness from friends and neighbors: chicken alfredo, pasta and meatballs, baked haddock, steak and roasted potatoes, chili, cornbread and chicken fajitas…

Irritated at being frozen out of the help effort, I took matters into my own hands: I baked brownies, which I left on their doorstep along with some Mad Libs and People magazines. A few days later, I saw an even bigger opening: I ran into the father, who informed me that he was home alone for a few days with his rapidly healing son. “Why don’t you guys come over for dinner?” I suggested. If I couldn’t get on the Meal Train, I was going to steer that locomotive right up to my front door. They showed up a few hours later, carrying a Caesar salad and some brownies (not the ones I made) lifted right off the rails! So now not only was I not contributing to the Meal Train, I was actually stealing from it. No matter; the train showed no signs of slowing. “That is some seriously good food coming our way,” the father wrote in a thank-you email to the Meal Train organizers, speculating about other injuries he might engineer to “keep it coming.”

It’s hard to imagine how people organized help efforts for ailing neighbors before the internet. Did they post a sign-up sheet on the front door? Set up a telephone chain? These sites make the process painless and incredibly efficient. After a friend of mine suffered a serious car accident two years ago, another friend set up a schedule on a site called “Lotsa Helping Hands,” where people could sign up to assist not only with meals but also with things like laundry and weeding the garden. I know it meant the world to her family, and it helped my friend endure a long and grueling recovery.

As a Jewish mother, I completely understand the impulse to supply food to the suffering (or even to the hale and hearty). It’s a way to provide comfort when circumstances lie beyond your control. Yet there is something cloying about these sites, beyond the use of the word “Lotsa” in the title. Perhaps it’s the public nature of the offerings, but it all feels a tad … competitive: I’m bringing salad and dessert! Well, I’m bringing Lobster Newburg. Stand back: I’ve got caviar and a whole beef tenderloin! I suppose it’s in keeping with the rest of 21st century life: My kid’s playing hockey, lacrosse and soccer! Mine’s taking AP Physics, English and Calculus! It’s hard to keep up with the Meal Train. But of course, if I’d just clicked on the site right away, I’d be feeling helpful and self-satisfied, instead of guilty and useless. And my own family could look forward to a double batch of Island Pork Tenderloin, even without my getting hit by a bus.P.S. Just as I was about to click “Publish,” I received an email from Meal Train, informing me that the friends in question “are doing great on their own and no longer need meals delivered.” No thanks to me, they’ve got enough to last through Memorial Day.

About Susan H. Greenberg

Susan H. Greenberg spent 22 years as a journalist for Newsweek Magazine. She now works as a writer, editor, teacher, and parent of three children, with whom she strives always to maintain a varnish-free relationship.
This entry was posted in Family life, Neighbors, Parenting and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Lotsa Helping Hands Aboard the Meal Train

  1. Hi Susan, thanks for the entertaining post about mealTrain.com! Glad to hear your friend’s son is doing well and that support of their community was plentiful. Would it be OK if I posted this to our facebook page/twitter account?

    Michael Laramee
    co-founder of mealTrain.com
    michael@mealtrain.com

  2. Loved this! PERFECTLY captured modern angst over the complications of what used to be a tuna casserole.

  3. Jennifer Burch says:

    Being the recently lavished recipient of wonderful meals provided after emergency surgery, I found myself wringing my hands over the empty pots on my stove wondering why can’t I feed my family like that every night? I then realized, most people set out to pamper and please when they bring food over, but I, when it comes to the end of the day and it’s time to feed those grumbling stomachs, I just want something fast and easy, to have time to get to the next activity. It was really nice to slow down, visit with the bearers of bounty and taste what friendship and family are all about- sharing time together.

  4. marn says:

    love this, g-berg. it takes me back to when nephew andrew was sick and how many helping cooks flooded the doorstep with yummy, thoughtful, several-coarse meals. so nice. so much love packed in those casserole dishes. and even though it was before all the internet-facebook-website-meal-train-esque tools…the food and thoughtfulness was perfectly choreographed via the sharpie and notebook paper. thanks for all your stories. love reading this. xo m

  5. mominnj says:

    I have never posted anywhere ever but I found your blog while I was searching for grumbling about these new helping-hands sites. (Time on my hands at work…) I, too, think they are totally cloying and competitive, and I would add that they serve mostly to make the entree-provider feel really warm feelings about themselves. Also, in my experience, it can provide an excuse for gossiping about the sick family. Is that too harsh? Maybe. Of the three ‘trains’ organized in my neighborhood, all three resulted in fridges stuffed with uneaten food. It unfortunately gives someone who is having a rough time other things to be burdened by: being wasteful and having an overcrowded fridge to clear out. Not to mention returning any dishes. Anyway, there was a local mom who wrote for patch.com about how when she went to alcohol rehab her family got no help, but when she later got breast cancer, the support was overwhelming. She was a bit annoyed. I will leave you with a delicately-put meal train email I just received from one meal recipient:

    Holy Cow!!
    Wow! This is amazing–you are all so wonderful!! Thank you so much for the wonderful meals. Feeding my family is one of the biggest worries and you have all taken that worry from me. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate it!! There is SO much food! Really, we can’t possibly eat so much!! I know that the numbers say 2 adults and 4 kids but really, please don’t feel like you need to feed a whole army! We can’t eat that much, a couple of the kids are little! Thank you all so much-you are wonderful beyond words!! Love xxx

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