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The Etiquette of Bringing Meals for Friends

When someone you know is caring for a new baby, recovering from surgery or an accident, suffering from a death in the family, preparing for moving day, experiencing a financial hardship, or consumed with tending to a sick child, you might want to ease your friend’s burden by gifting him or her with a meal. 

Doing so can be just what the doctor ordered, and not just because the food provides for their physical needs. 

Your meal, planned with care, made with love, and hand-delivered at a time when your friend is in the midst of stress, change, pain, or uncertainty, is an emotional salve of friendship more healing than most prescription drugs.

Before loading the car with your goodies, there are a few things you should know. Problems and disappointments arise and feelings can be hurt when the person making the food and the person receiving the food have differing expectations. 

 So what are your best choices? 

  • Costco vs. homemade?
  • A three-course meal vs. a single entrée?
  • Haute cuisine vs. always reliable and tasty-if maybe boring-chicken casserole?
Drop the food by at 11:00 a.m. so they can reheat it that evening? Bring it piping hot at 6:00 p.m. just in time for dinner?

Oh, the questions! Oh, the possibilities for your potential good deed to go undone. 

The solution? A common list of expectations.

Follow the savvy, sincere, and simple tips below, and when you volunteer to prepare a meal you’ll know the full extent of your obligation. Also when you’re on the receiving end of the meal, you’ll know what’s coming your way and what additional plans you might need or want to make.

Add these tips to your repertoire and the only thing that will be remembered and appreciated longer than your meal is the love and friendship that you so obviously put into creating it! 

1.What time? Ask your friend what she prefers. Usually, dropping food off piping hot from the oven just in time for dinner is the best, even if it cools off a little in the car on the ride over and needs to spend a minute or two reheating in the microwave. 

2.Special kindness: Ask your friend on the phone in advance if you can serve them the meal. Make it clear you don’t want to join them, you want to serve them. Make yourself the headwaiter and chief bottle washer. This means setting the table, getting the kids ready for dinner, serving the food, then clearing the table, putting the leftovers in the fridge, loading the dishwasher, and cleaning the kitchen. 
As soon as you finish, leave so your friend doesn’t feel like she needs to entertain you. 

Mannerly Caution: only do this if your friend has given you the green light. If she feels awkward about being served, this isn’t the time for you to try and change her mind. In the months ahead, she’ll remember the awkwardness more than she’ll appreciate the meal. 

3.Costco or homemade? There’s a joke that says frozen food is the homemade food of the twenty-first Century! So, which to bring? Homemade is usually the better option (you pour more of yourself into it) for the entrée.

Now, if you’re truly not a good cook or just really busy, then frozen or packaged food is OK, as long as you set your friend’s expectations when you volunteer. “Liz, I want to bring you a meal one evening this week. I wish I was kidding, but cooking isn’t a particular talent of mine. The London broil they sell at Costco is really good and I’d like to bring that if it sounds like something you all would like.”

4.If you do bring frozen or packaged foods, make sure you completely prepare them before you arrive. Keep in mind, you’re bringing a meal, not groceries.

A minute or so to reheat and spoon food onto their plates is the only task your friend’s family should have to handle prior to eating. So, prepare the frozen peas, pop open and bake the can of crescent rolls, and defrost the frozen cake pie before you leave your house.

5.Haute Cuisine or tried-and-true? In times of sadness or illness, we’re most comforted by the familiar. Even if you’re friend is a foodie, she’ll probably appreciate the standards of her childhood: casseroles, roasts, pot pies, soups and stews, meatloaf, etc. 

6.When planning the meal, take into account who will be eating it. Ask your friend how many will be at dinner and whether or not there are any special dietary needs or food allergies. Keep in mind that spicy food is bad for breastfeeding moms and those recovering from certain surgeries. (Also ask about: caffeine, milk products, and chocolate.) 

7.Ask what their children will eat. Mom and Dad won’t enjoy their meal half as much knowing they have to make one for the kids as soon as you leave because there is no way their five-year-old twins are going to be convinced to take a bite of your spinach lasagna and Caesar salad even though your own little ones gobble up every bite.

8.Bring as much of the food as you possibly can in disposable pans. It doesn’t look as pretty, but it saves your friend from dishwashing duties and from hearing empty casserole dishes rattle around in the back of her van for three months until she gives them back to you.

9.Make it clear when you volunteer to bring food whether you’re bringing just a particular dish or a whole meal. When many people are bringing food at one time (like after a death in the family), it’s fine to bring just one type of item: an entrée, side dish, or dessert. 

However, when signing up to bring food one evening for a family, you are volunteering to bring the whole meal. This might be more food than you typically consider for a weeknight dinner. Think more along the lines of an old-fashioned Southern Sunday meal. 

You’ll want to provide: a salad (fruit salad is a good choice if there are children in the family, because many young ones won’t touch a garden green; I know mine won’t!), an entrée, a vegetable, a starch, bread, drink (ginger ale and iced tea are nice choices), and dessert (homemade or bakery fresh). 

I also like to bring something special just for the kids-a box of savory snacks and a box of sweet ones or cookies for the days ahead.If your budget allows, bring a little extra something when you come. A friend of mine who brought dinner after my first son was born included a CD of Michael McDonald Lullabies. (She had already given me a baby gift at my shower.) I still have the CD. It reminds me of the special first days with my baby and of how special of a friend she is! 

10. One last thing: don’t cancel the day of and don’t show up late. If so, apologize profusely and make up for it soon by providing a meal they can keep in their freezer for future use. 

Special Note: If you’re on the receiving end of the food make sure you call your friend that evening to say how tasty everything was and how much you appreciate their kindness. Within a week drop them a thank you note in the mail so that they have a permanent reminder of your thankfulness!