Cooking for Others: A Guide to Giving Sympathy Meals

Our recent Q&A on sympathy meals received a tremendous response. Thank you to all who took the time to share your experiences with either giving or receiving meals. It was very, very interesting to read your comments and I took note of all the questions. I hope to answer them in this follow-up post.

We agreed that there are people in need all around us, and a small gesture like giving a meal can be a blessing both to giver and receiver. In fact, by the sounds of things, lives were very nearly saved just because a meal -or series of meals- was received during a time of need.

It was interesting that many more readers had given a meal than accepted one. Those who had been recipients spoke passionately about how touched they were and how helpful it was to be given a practical gift, in lieu of flowers. And there was another theme – the food that was brought is the best, or very near to the best, food that they had ever eaten. I’d have to agree with that one, too.

Plenty of questions also arose, all of them extremely pertinent. When is the best time to deliver a meal? What about allergies? Should a casserole be pre-baked or not? Hot or cold? Frozen or fresh?

This post will highlight the best tips, helpful suggestions, and friendly advice on bringing meals to others. Hopefully you will be encouraged to look around and reach out to people in your community through a hot meal.

Get the recipe for Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese.

Make it a Main Meal

What is best to bring a family dealing with illness? A girlfriend on bedrest? The couple that moved in next door?  Well, cookies, muffins and other treats are all wonderful, but in most situations, what are really needed are nourishing main meals, especially if there are children in the family. Snacks can only go so far; a hearty stew, a comforting lasagna – these are the dishes that will benefit your recipient the most.

TIP 1: If you don’t enjoy cooking or think you won’t have the time, drop off a bag of groceries instead with some ready-to-eat foods such as bread & cheese, cut vegetables and fruit, or perhaps a nice meat pie from your favorite bakery.

TIP 2: Consider a dinner invitation to your home, instead of bringing over a meal. Perhaps good company and a break from the house is what some folks really need.

Get the recipe for Quebec Pork Pie

Practical advice for making & delivering meals

When I know of a family or individual who could benefit from a home cooked meal there is a natural progression of steps that I usually take to bring them food. Each home situation is unique, and my relationship with the person varies, so these are not hard and fast rules, but more suggestions to consider.

Communicating

If I feel the family can be disturbed, I’ll call directly to communicate about meals. If I don’t want to bother them, I’ll speak to a close friend or relative.

  1. First I let them know that food is on the way. I don’t give them an option, because many times people will protest that they don’t need it, even if they do. (We’ll talk about rejection below.)
  2. I inquire about allergies, strong aversions and special diets (especially if a family member is sick, or the mother is breastfeeding).
  3. I ask about timing. When will they be home? Will they eat the meal that night? Freeze it?

Cooking

It’s important to put some thought into what you bring, but don’t stress over it. Take note of what has been communicated from the family as you plan your dish.

Reader Darienne of Cook. Play. Explore shares these excellent guidelines when she brings a meal:

  • avoid common or serious allergens (never peanuts, for example) and foods people have strong opinions about (such as olives, fish)
  • pack it in containers that don’t need to be returned, and be sure to note I don’t need them back
  • make large servings of at least one thing that freezes well, in case they already have more than enough and want to save something for later
  • include a detailed menu that lists ingredients (again, a nod to dietary issues) and explains how to reheat and how to store extras, if necessary
  • include enough that would satisfy a somewhat fussy kid so the family hopefully won’t need to prepare something else for wee ones
  • focus on fresh, healthy food with a modest sweet for dessert. I know some friends have felt inundated with cakes and pies!

Thanks for sharing, Darienne! Yes, specific directions on how to heat and serve the meal are essential.

Caring

Just like any act of service, there are always small ways to show you care. Here are a few.

  1. Call ahead to let them know you are coming, then leave the food on the step. Folks may not necessarily wish you to come in a chat (and see their temporarily chaotic home). Be sensitive to that.
  2. Skip the flowers and desserts and offer babysitting services instead. A note with an offer to babysit or take the kids overnight can be a priceless gift.
  3. Reader Alissa says: “I also try to include a couple “extras” – jar of apple sauce, gallon of milk, boxed mac n’ cheese, box of crackers – to help stock the pantry/fridge.” It’s the small things that make the impact.

What are the best meals to bring?

Ideally, sympathy meals are:

  • easy to transport
  • easy to eat
  • hold well
  • freeze well

By hold well, I mean they can sit a day or two in the refrigerator without getting soggy, drying out or turning into something altogether nasty. They should require little to no assembly, shouldn’t be overly complicated to eat (think, one-handed breastfeeding mama), and at the very least, need to survive the trip over.

Types of suitable dishes include:

Soups & Stews: Chili of all types, hot nourishing soups, hearty stews and chowders.

Crockpot/Slowcooker meals: Spaghetti sauce, Pulled pork (accompanied with slaw, and buns), chicken cacciatore, chicken curry.

Savory Pies: Quebec meat pie, Chicken Pot Pie, Quiche, Steak Pie…

Casseroles: Lasagna, Macaroni & cheese, Tuna noodle casserole, Shepherd’s pie – turkey, beef or vegetarian

Sauced Meals: Chicken Parmesan, Meatballs & Sauce, Ribs, Meatloaf..

**Be sure to check out my recipe round-up: Weekend Links Cooking for Others Edition.**

Websites to help you cook for others

  • Food Tidings – A place to manage meals for your family & friends in need
  • Take Them A Meal – A free online tool for coordinating the delivery of meals to someone in need.
  • MealBaby – Meal registry made easy.

A Note about Rejection

Don’t be discouraged if your meal is occasionally turned down, nit-picked, or unappreciated. You have done your part in expressing love and caring. For whatever reason, some acts of kindness are not well received. Perhaps some folks have trouble accepting help,  and can’t see past the ingredients to appreciate the love that went into a dish.

On the flip side, please don’t ever refuse a meal! Accept it graciously, even if for some reason you can’t eat it. Accept the hug and the smile that comes with it, and appreciate that someone is thinking of you.

Still have questions? Leave them in the comments and we’ll discuss.

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites.

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Comments

  1. When my brother was born, we received nothing but beef stew for almost 2 weeks. I was 6 and my sister was 4 and beef stew wasn’t exactly well received by us. One of my mom’s friends who was suppose to bring a meal actually called and asked what we would like and when my mom said spaghetti she actually took the time to make it just like my mom did so it would taste like what my sister and I were used to. Despite that being almost 2 decades ago, I still remember being thrilled to eat something I loved. Now I always make sure, whenever possible, I check with the family to see if I can bring a family favorite, especially if young children are involved.

    Another thing to remember is that the family might need more than just dinner. This summer I discovered a good friend of mine and his father weren’t eating well due to his mom going through cancer treatment. People were bringing them dinners every few days, however they weren’t shopping and there was virtually nothing for breakfast or lunch. I whipped up a few breakfast casseroles that would keep in the fridge for a bit and could simply be popped in the microwave to be warmed and provide a hearty breakfast fast. I included some bread with cheese and lunchmeat and snacks that could be added to a lunch in case they didn’t want leftovers.

    One year when my mom was really sick a few people gave us gift certificates to places like Chili’s, Applebees, and Macaroni Grill where they have to “to go” option. It was so great to be able to call in what everyone wanted, then swing out to pick it up.

    • I love the idea of a breakfast casserole, Morgan. You’re very thoughtful. Thanks for commenting! As it happens, I’m putting together a week of meals for some friends this week.

    • Morgan…your memory made me recall when I was taking a meal to a friend’s family for a child going through leukemia cancer. I inquired to the eldest daughter…and said “Amy, level with me…what are people bringing and what should I avoid.” Her response “if I ever see another Stouffer’s lasagna…”.

    • Thank you for your comments. They have helped me to be a little more aware of the needs of a family’s recent loss. My father died recently and the church (where I attended for twenty years) brought cold sandwiches and chips for us. We were appreciative, but I just thought this was tacky. Isn’t it common knowledge that warm foods is correct etiquette for a funeral? Maybe I’m wrong. Cold being equated and a reminder of death. Warm being a kind symbol of warm hearts and kindness. Maybe I’m over thinking it. Thanks again.

      • On the contrary, when my grandfather passed away a few months ago, that is what we appreciated most! Someone from the church brought over a huge lunch tray with assorted cold cuts, cheeses, breads and other toppings. My parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all stayed with my grandmother for a few days, and under the circumstances, even with that many people staying in one house, no one felt like cooking. Many people brought over warm dishes, or crockpots of soup, etc. But mostly only the first day or two. By the third day we were tired of leftovers. The lunch tray still seemed “fresh” because it didn’t require reheating, and it was so easy to just pull out and make a sandwich whenever someone got hungry as opposed to heating up a whole casserole in the oven. I even remember my mother saying after a few days of eating off the sandwich tray “We have really enjoyed this sandwich tray. Somebody make a note of this, now we know what food to get next time someone has a death in the family!” I am sorry that you felt it was tacky. To each his own, I guess.

        • I have to agree that the deli platter was one of the things that we utilized the most. It required so little effort to eat (at times like that even dishing and heating seems too much), stayed fresh, and allowed everyone to help themselves when they wanted. It also allowed us to offer something to others who may have stopped in. I, too, have now taken to giving it to others. I am also (perhaps wrongly) of the mindset that even if something is not useful, the “worst” someone would think is that I did something to try to help. I’d never interpret the kindness on the part of someone else as tacky.

          The other items that were particularly helpful (and the article alludes to) were breakfast item groceries…bagels, breads, spreads, OJ, milk, etc. Again, they are things that are quick to eat, can provide a little nourishment, and allows people to consume on their own schedule.

          This is a wonderful article with great comments! Thank you!

  2. That was great! I am a terrible cook and we have been through many family deaths. I have an essentials list that I take immediately to a grieving family. Toilet paper, small Kleenex boxes because the cube shape fits everywhere, ice, lightbulbs because you cut on lights in rooms you never use otherwise and the bulb blows, air freshener in vanilla scent, kitchen size trash bags, gallon and quart freezer bags, and aluminum foil. These are all things I have had to run to the store for in the first days after the death of a family member. They are essentials in every house and have an indefinite shelf life.

    • By far the best thing people brought over after the sudden death of my daughter was toilet paper – I have never seen so much toilet paper get used. Also, the tissue and the food storage items were a blessing.

    • These things are very helpful. Disposable plates, cups and cutlery too.

  3. I love this article! I want to stress again to check for food allergies and aversions. I am currently on bedrest due to pregnancy and I have gestational diabetes. To complicate matters, I don’t eat red meat or pork. I can’t count how many people try to be nice by bringing meals by. But we get a lot of meatloafs, beef stews, cakes and pies. While my husband and son can enjoy the meals, I’m still left out in the cold. I never turn down the meal, but it’s not as helpful as everyone thinks.

  4. My best friend’s Dad has been in the hospital for two weeks in another city. Her husband and two boys were missing Mom and “real” dinners. We have two fantastic shops where you can purchase pre-made items. I took two white meat chicken pies from the shop and I made a kid-friendly baked pasta dish (that could be held in fridge or frozen). I included a boxed lettuce from the grocery store so Dad could make a salad for each item and also took half of a homemade pound cake. (Made my own family the same baked pasta dish for dinner….bonus!) Also, you can find aluminum casserole containers with lids of all sizes at your local dollar store. Like the author says…take things in containers that do not have to be returned. When I broke my kneecap a few years ago, we received a lot of dinners and my hubby didn’t keep up with who brought what and in what container….so return was a real chore.
    Dana’s last post: A Reason, A Season or A Lifetime

  5. David Storke says:

    Aimee,
    Great article! Food is always such a thoughtful and useful gift and what you do if your schedule and/or distance allows. Four years ago I started http://www.sympathyfood.com as a “comforting alternative to flowers.” After being a funeral director for over 25 years, I knew a persons good intentions but also knew the frustration of wanting to show your love and support with flowers being the only option. We’ve created a platform where individuals can send prepared meals nationwide with minimal preparation needed when they arrive.
    Good luck and thanks for the article,
    David Storke

  6. Such a helpful post, Aimee! Thanks for compiling all of these fantastic tips. Meals really are one of the very BEST gifts to give in any stressful situation (death of loved one, new baby, new house, loss of job, etc).

    One tip I always give (and remind myself of) is to…do something (even if it is very small). If you can’t make a full meal, a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs or a bag of snacks will do just fine.
    Stephanie’s last post: Tuesday Tours

  7. Vonda Lavway says:

    We received and appreciated many kinds of food recently when my father passed away. One thing I observed during the storing and freezing of the food was that sweets that contained sweetened condensed milk or pumpkin had a much longer shelf life than other goodies. Many squares and cookies dried out before we could finish them, but the ones that contained these two ingredients lasted and tasted fresh much longer. Loved all your tips…just thought I would share one of my own. Thank you!

  8. The absolute BEST food item I received after the sudden death of my daughter was a whole Honey Baked ham, ready to eat and delivered with a bag of crusty rolls and some mayo and mustard. It is a great choice for those first few days after a death when the family’s house fills with people who get hungry.

    Think twice before you take a lasagna though, I still had lasagnas in my freezer a year after my daughter’s death and to this day can hardly choke down lasagna just because of the sheer volume of them that arrived.

  9. Great tips and ideas. Thanks for sharing! I found you through pinterest.
    Emily’s last post: Turtleneck Refashion

  10. This is a great article that I linked to via Pinterest. I appreciate everything that was said here, including the comments. I currently head up our church’s meal ministry. I have found takethemameal.com to be “my website” to link everyone together to get someone the meals they actually can use, and avoid the usual repetitions…stew, pasta, etc… It is working very well and….it’s free! Gotta love that! :)

  11. I am so happy to have found this! My dear friend is in her last stages of her battle with breast cancer. I found out the family had no meals delivered so I started bringing dinner a few times a week. This is so very helpful!! Thank you!
    Paula@Simply Sandwich’s last post: His Last Gift

  12. I am in the Hospital right now (again) at this point I made arrangements for my Family(Roomies) to eat, butr the thing that has been so helpful is a friend going over to check on my Garden. It is the first year I planted one and I wuld be devastated if it Died while I was gone.
    The world is a better place for having all of you out there willing to help those in need.

    Thank you,
    Sammo
    Polysammo’s last post: Oven Roasted (not Dried) Tomatoes

  13. laura liebster says:

    Please don’t forget grievers and the ill who are single and without family. Because I find that most married people with kids do. When I lost my parents people brought by a lot of food during the first week but afterwards…for weeks and months…nothing. I was young so the etiquette of bringing food to the recently bereived was not in the minds of my friends who had never lost anyone before. Yet, my cousins in the life position of being married in the suburbs with kids… they showed up that week, which was nice…but then I was alone.
    I would have felt so taken care of if it occured to them to treat me as they treat their friends and mere AQUAINTENCES in their church (or even people they barely know) and brought by some food.
    SIngle people eat very little compared to a whole family. Surely making a little extra food when you are already cooking doesn’t take much (if any, in my experience) more work.
    I actually have cooked so many times for other people who were in a crisis. It just felt so horrible to be forgotten and I do believe it was because I am single.

  14. I can not stress enough how important it is to ask what the family likes to eat! After the passing of my mother everyone and their brother was bringing my family food. I’m pretty sure nobody asked what we liked to eat, because the usual standbys for sympathy meals (meatloaf, spaghetti, lasagne) are things that nobody in the house enjoyed. We had 4 meatloafs and three or four lasagnas in the freezer for months and months because nobody wanted to eat them. And honestly, we did not enjoy different people dropping off dinner every day. It was mystery dinner every night, and we would eat the same meals over and over again because everyone brought similar meals (spaghetti, lasagna, and stuffed shells are the same meal in my family’s eyes, red sauce and pasta. We don’t like red sauce and pasta).

    If you can’t talk to the family to find out what they like, find someone close to them who can give you some guidance, or be like one family that gave food and send over an order form. They had listed several meals that they were prepared to make, and let us pick what we wanted to eat.

  15. This is my go to sympathy meal. Ravioli Lasagna http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/browse-all-recipes/last-minute-lasagna-10000000610496/index.html The frozen ravioli makes for quick prep. I keep the ingredients in the freezer and pantry and it can be thrown together in literally minutes and is serious comfort food. For picky eaters just omit the spinach, but I have yet to find some one even kids who won’t eat it. They don’t even notice it. Also I take it uncooked so they can just heat it for 20-30 minutes or they can put it in the freezer for later works either way. When I make one it is just as easy to make an extra for my family.

  16. New England Flybaby says:

    Hi,
    Thanks for this posting, and for everyone’s helpful comments!
    I have a question. If I’m bringing a chicken pot pie, should I bake it first? If so, at what temp & time should they re-heat it for? Thanks much!

    • You should bake it first yes, so that the recipients only need to reheat the dish. Bake according to the recipe’s directions. They can reheat at 350F for 15 minutes.
      How kind of you. Thanks for doing this.

  17. My husband’s going through chemo for brain cancer. One of our neighbors has been really nice about popping by with leftovers from their dinner now and then, and they’re really the only people who’ve done anything like this. (So thank you to everyone above who’s helping families out during this difficult time.)

    One thing to keep in mind: if you’re delivering hot food to someone who’s ill, try to do it BEFORE they’ve gone ahead and made (and eaten) their own dinner. As grateful as I am to our neighbor, answering the door at 8 pm to find someone standing there with a couple of plates of hot food — after I’d cooked and fed my husband earlier, then spent the past hour helping him through his nausea — is a little frustrating.
    Katie B. of HousewifeHowTos.com’s last post: How To Remove Candle Wax From Carpets (Reader Questions)

  18. I also include all the utensils and dishes needed to serve and consume the meal-fairly high quality plasticware is available at most grocery stores. Adding a beverage is also a nice touch!

  19. My go-to meal is a variety of deli cold cuts, sliced cheeses, tomato and lettuce washed and cut, nice bakery rolls, salad dressing, and mustard. Sometimes a heavy casserole or hot main dish is more than a person in distress can swallow. Something cool and light is a good alternative and prepping everything ahead of time means they only have to assemble a sandwich when they are ready. I put the cold items in disposable aluminum 9×13 or 9×9 pans that can stack in the fridge.

  20. Jenny Bergman says:

    We have a friend who unexpectedly passed away at 51 years old this week. His wife is one of 17 kids, so she and their son have a lot of family support and and have had people in and out of the house all day and night. I was shocked to hear that NO ONE was bringing them food! The people who are at the house get hungry and make a fast food run for whoever wants it at that moment, but what about the people who show up 10 minutes later? My husband brought donuts, muffins, coffee, milk and orange juice over yesterday morning and I dropped off deli meats, bakery rolls, condiments, chips, cookies and paper products last night. I was surprised to read above that someone was disappointed to receive cold food rather than hot food. When my stepfather died, we never felt that sandwiches reminded us of death (?) and were happy to be able to put together a quick sandwich whenever we wanted one. I understand down the road, if bringing over dinner, a hot meal is nice, but in the first few days, appetites are usually not very good and sometimes it takes all your strength just to swallow a few bites of a sandwich. Also, all of the people on here nitpicking what other people brought them in their time of need is very disheartening. I wouldn’t care if 15 people all brought me a meatloaf (or lasagna) on the same night – I would appreciate it and never complain about it – then or later, to them or others.

  21. Having lost three parents in one year, I know that sometimes there are additional people who could use a little assistance too. The grown children sometimes get over flow company that they are little prepared financially to entertain.

    Don’t ask if you can help… they will never tell you yes. Just jump in and do something or send something!

    In addition to my main meal, I often include nice coffee and tea and creamers, napkins, toilet paper and other little niceties that I know they won’t buy for themselves, or even if they can they have little time to run out to the store!

    Also… when my mom was sick, we ate upteen lasagnas and no one made it like my mom. It was terrible! So although I think I make a mean lasagna, I never send one. Call and ask if anyone is on a restricted diet… my mom was a heart patient and couldn’t eat many things that well-meaning people sent over. It’s silly to be well-meaning and yet thoughtless at the same time!

    I read once, about a thoughtful gift for a mom that was having chronic health problems; home-made cookie dough that was scooped and frozen so the mom could provide some nice treat for her children with minimal effort on her part.

    Lastly, I think this is one of the most lovely things that women still do for each other. Include your daughters in this, no matter how young! Today a friend of mine lost her father in law. At lunch, my 16 year old daughter read my mind and said… I really think we should send some dinner and treats over to them. Mission accomplished!

  22. Jularcher says:

    This is a fantastic article – so practical. Will be following up the various you included as well. Thank you!

  23. I love all the tips and ideas! However, all the complaints about meals IS very disheartening. I was looking for ideas on what to bring a grieving friend, but after reading the comments here, I’m actually too scared to do anything at all! :(

  24. I belong to a group Take in Meals . I am apalled at the responses of some people so ungrateful! It is not was taken to the family but How. It was from the heart, the thought of doing for another in need.. Thanks for all the tips of advice which we sometimes forget. Blessings,

  25. When my mom had cancer, we literally ate lasagna 3-4 times a week for a year. It has been over a decade since then and I have only eaten lasagna once since then. Now that doesn’t mean I was not extremely grateful, just want to give some suggestions because trust me no one likes eating the same thing over and over again. I still remember the two meals that weren’t Italian food and it has been over 10 years.

    Suggestion 1: Give them options, call ahead and give them 3-4 options of different styles of food. For example Italian, Mexican, Grill and Baked Option.

    Suggestion 2: Don’t be afraid to pick them up carry out from a restaurant. One family did this for us and we still go to that place because we had never had it and love it.

    Suggestion 3: If possible try to coordinate with others who may be bringing them food. I know this may not be possible, but it took great stress off my family of trying to remember when people asked what was a good day to bring food in addition to remembering the kids schedules, doctors appointments and work.

    Suggestion 4: If possible make it so they don’t have return dishes

    Suggestion 5: Try to think outside the box, after a month of receiving meals I could usually guess what we were having

    Suggestion 6: If you are making food for a family with cancer if you have time, ask if there is something separate you should/could bring for the person sick. They have very different appetite

    As I said before, I was extremely grateful of everyone who brought food for my family as my dad was trying to raise three children, go to work and take care of my mom and it was a great help to us. Just trying to make you a hit with the family! But seriously…skip the lasagna

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