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.


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?


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.


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. Her first book, Brown Eggs and Jam Jars - Family Recipes from the Kitchen of Simple Bites, was published in February 2015.

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  1. I think the tip about buying groceries is a good one. When someone we knew had just come home from the hospital after surgery, my husband and I bought her all her groceries for the week so she could have all her favorite foods while she was recovering and not worry about getting to the store.

  2. Aimee, this is such a helpful post. Not only is it packed with practical information, but it encourages us to look for ways to help our neighbors by doing what we all love to do — cook!

  3. Fantastic advice! The babysitting tip is a great idea! When I had abdominal surgery my girls where 3 & 6 yrs old, it would have been so nice to have help with them outside the family!

  4. So informative! This makes all the scary bits of making meals for others seem like a snap!

  5. I really appreciate this post!!! SO many great tips and links… thank you for doing such a great job of getting GOOD advice and info out there on how to be more giving! 🙂

  6. This is a GREAT, great post.
    I have been the blessed recipient of meals for 4 MONTHS –my church people are amazing–and all your tips are right on!
    I am so eager to kick this cancer so I can bless others through meals, it just has been such a great help for our family.
    I will be bookmarking this post, for sure!!

    • Dear Amy,
      We are believing with you! Stay strong. Thank God for kind church people who are helping to keep you and your family fed. What an amazing testimony.

  7. Great info and tips. I love the idea of bringing groceries. As a mom, I agree, babysitting really goes a long way in helping a family. When my husband was sick and in the hospital I needed that more than the meals, so I could go be with him.

  8. This is spot on. A few years ago, I had to do a mad dash home (to another country), to be with a family member who was battling for their life in the ICU. We were in a waiting room for about 2 weeks. With the love and care of friends, who brought us things we didn’t have to heat or chill, we were able to stay where we were and never leave the bedside. It was a godsend.

    Also, while I was back home, my husband was still here. His cooking leaves a lot to be desired (he has the chinese delivery guy on speed dial and says “hey, it’s me, I’ll have the usual”). A good friend here cooked for a day and brought him meals that he could pull out of the freezer and cook each night, so that I wouldn’t worry about him and could focus on what I needed to.

    I am truly grateful for all that we received. It made a very very tough time a lot more bearable. Food is love!

    I had always given meals to friends who were having babies, or were ill. I always wondered if I was helping them at all – and now I know that I was, and in such a good way.

    Great post!

  9. This post is excellent! Although this is something I grew up around, since my mom was great with this sort of thing, I just never grabbed onto doing this myself. Until our 2nd child was born, and my family was treated so wonderfully from a group of MOPS moms. It made a personal impact on me. And now I know the difference these gestures can make. Thanks for all your great tips – I’m keeping this post on file!

  10. I love the suggestion about groceries or extras. When my grandmother died a few years ago many people brought over food that was very much appreciated, but I will never forget the woman who dropped off a cake and a grocery bag filled with paper towels, toilet paper and tissues. Not only did it lighten the mood a bit when my cousin opened the bag expecting to find more treats and pulled out toilet paper but it also meant no one had to run out to get the basic supplies and we had plenty on hand as guests came through the house.

  11. These are great tips! Our church just offered a “drive through” night for families to pick up soup because so many have been sick. We were richly blessed (both body and soul) by that simple gesture!

    We often think to cook for families with a new baby or hospital illness/surgery. If you like giving the gift of food, here are other ideas:
    A family that’s been hit hard by colds this winter
    Someone that’s looking for work

    Finally, this may seem obvious, but I’ve heard many people say it seems hard to cook a separate meal for another family. I always cook something that our own family can eat at the same time, so the only real “work” is delivering the food!
    Your child’s teacher the week of crazy school events

  12. I think we get so caught up with our own lives that we forget that such a simple gesture is so powerful. Lydia is right – it is even easier for some of us, because we love to cook! It is also a fantastic message to teach our kids… xo

  13. Amber | Bluebonnets & Brownies says:

    These are some wonderful suggestions, Aimee. I love how you broke it down.

  14. I loved getting groceries just after I had my first daughter! I have never forgotten that kindness. I had no idea how hungry I would be breastfeeding, so to have someone bring all these great snacks (granola bars, fruit leather) that I could grab in the middle of the night was so helpful.

    I’ve never forgotten the great meal we had delivered that came with candles, pretty napkins and a wee bottle of wine in the week following a new baby. It was like a mini-date.

  15. I have never posted before but, I just love, love that you took the time to put this together and had to thank-you for the wonderful ideas you have shared! Our family benefited beyond expression with some generous gifts of food at a very stressful and sad time in our life…we have taken this kind gesture and done the same many times since and have found it a wonderful way to connect and help out and support others the way we were supported. In this crazy world we live in sometimes, your post gives me hope that there is still a lot of good out there and it is multiplying 🙂

  16. I used to head up the meals committee at our church… we’d give meals to new moms, people with family in hospitals, etc. It was always so well received.

    Such a great, important post, Aimee!! Love the comments almost as much as the post itself.

  17. I have enjoyed being on both ends of this gift of giving. It truly is a blessing to all involved. There are several sites which can help coordinate meals and all kinds of help. One small thing that may seem like a “brilliant flash of the obvious” would be to check in with what they have already received. After our second child was born, we got lots of meals and they were great, but I’d say 75% of them were some type of baked pasta with red sauce/lasagna dish with a salad. These are so easy to make, inexpensive and freeze well, so they are popular. I used to bring the same thing as well, but now I try to find something different from that meal idea.

  18. Excellent post! I love the suggestion about including some extras aside from a main meal. I had one friend who gave us a big bowl of chili, and then filled a bag with healthy snacks for us once – hummus, whole wheat cracker, etc. just so I’d have something to munch on. It was so thoughtful!

  19. A terrific guide: Thanks so much for organizing all these tips! An invitation to dinner is a great idea too. I think people are often afraid to offer, fearing to intrude, but there’s no harm in asking — and it may be the perfect gift.

  20. Love this, Aimee. What a very helpful, practical post. It really takes the mystery and worry about what to bring, how to do it, will they like it, etc. out of the picture.

    As someone who has been on the receiving end of meals during difficult seasons of life, I just have to say what a blessing it is when we serve each other in this way. Even more than the food itself, the gesture and care go so far in speaking love to the recipients. 🙂

  21. Up until recently, I’d only been the bearer of such meals, never the receiver. When I had the chance to be on the receiving end, however, I felt so cared for. It’s definitely something that people will notice and be grateful for.

    Thanks for the excellent post, Aimee!

  22. Great tips! Thanks so much for the ideas ! I will certainly bookmark this!

  23. This is a great post, but one important thing I have learned is this. A stew and lasagna is great for a one time given meal. But, if someone is in need of meals for a longer time period than the few weeks, such as a pregnant woman on bed-rest for the last 10 weeks of her pregnancy, the lasagna’s get to be too much. A woman in my group has gotten meals for the last 3 months and she desires a basic meat, starch and veggie. Her kids eat better when things are separate.
    I had never thought of this until she had a heart to heart with me. Believe me she was so thankful for the food, whatever it may be, but after that much time, they wanted a lighter meal. Just a suggestion!

  24. A frozen pizza along with a meal is another great thing that someone can keep and use when they need. Then you are bringing 2 meals in 1.

    Bringing disposable silverware and paper napkins and plates is also helpful because then people don’t have to worry about dishes.

    If you don’t have time or patience for cooking you can still serve someone by picking up their favorite fast food. After a week or 2 of receiving homemade meals each night a good ol’ burger and fries may really hit the spot and feel like a bit of normalcy for someone who can’t leave the house.

    My favorite extra to include when I being someone a meal (usually new moms who have a fe weeks of meals to come) is little stickers that they can put on dishes so they are easier to return. I usually try to use dishes I don’t need back, but for those who don’t think of it it’ s nice to have a way to keep track.

    I also usually try to insist that I get no thank you note. I know that after my little one was born I never got around to writing any, so I appreciated when people didn’t expect them. I know that is poor etiquette and I always appreciate it when someone takes the time to write a note, but my life is not that together and I don’t expect other peoples to be either.

    • I agree about the Thank You notes!! I do the same thing and didn’t even think to mention it on my comment. It also saves me from feeling guilty about throwing them away as soon as I read them, knowing how pressed that person is for time anyway.

  25. Brooke - in Oregon says:

    Great post and thanks for the links to some ideas for what to make. My In-Laws are now needing meals cooked for them. We all work full time usually 6 days a week so we are busy. Ideas of things to make that are easy to take are totally what I am needing 🙂

  26. Wonderful post with great tips. When my daughter unexpectedly had to stay in the hospital for 4 days when her baby was born, she said it was a huge blessing to come home to clean sheets and a refrigerator stocked with the foods she prefers (fresh, organic, not processed).

    It’s also helpful if someone can be in charge of organizing the meals so that there aren’t 7 meals delivered on the same day. MealBaby is great for that.

  27. I’ve rarely cooked a meal I’ve given away. It’s 95% of the time – a rottisserie chicken from the grocery store, a bag of salad, a bottle of salad dressing, a pack of rolls and maybe a liter of soda and a thing of ice cream. All fits in one bag and everyone who has ever gotten it loves it.

  28. Fantastic article, Aimee! I’ve both given and received many meals through the years, and I know it is such a blessing to families. I love the way you have made this so practical, accessible, and helpful. Thank you, mama!

  29. great post! Esp about graciously accepting. My neighbor shovels my walk and drive. We are gluten free here…so I went to a bakery and got him some ‘real’ treats. A few days later he was shoveling again. I happened to be baking a GF treat right then. I stuck my head out and asked if he wanted some but, “it is gluten free.” He says..”I didn’t have the heart to tell you but i have celiac!” Now I know what to make him! People don’t often offer meals to us because they are afraid…..very afraid LOL. But when they do I say, ‘That would be great!” A week ago we were all sick and i had started going to a new church. I had shot out a prayer request and within 24 hours a woman dropped over chicken noodle soup..i can’t eat it but hubby could. I said THANKS! as she dropped it at the door and ran.

    lovely post. i have to remember to repeat post this on FB.

  30. is another website that can be used for tracking meals, along with other types of help needed.

    I’ve been in the position of both giving and receiving quite a few meals in the past two years. I have a few more points to add to the discussion. We had a daughter in the NICU for two and a half months and had meals for about three months afterwards. While we were in the NICU we stayed at the Ronald McDonald house. At the RM House I noticed that most meals were also pasta based and each meal came with enough dessert to last a week.

    We were so grateful for the help for so many different reasons. However, one thing I did notice after five months of meals was that we received spaghetti, penne with tomato sauce, or lasagne about 2 times a week. Because most people brought meals large enough for leftovers, 17 months later I have just finished eating the last of the frozen lasagne and spaghetti sauce based leftovers. It’s the first thing most people think about bringing.

    Please don’t get me wrong, I appreciated every meal I had, regardless of what it was. I know that it is expensive to cook a meal and tricky to transport meals that are not one pot. I also know that those pasta based meals are often the easiest for people who want to help but don’t have a large repertoire.

    But, being honest, I will say that once I could go back to helping others I swore I would never bring lasagne, spaghetti or anything with spaghetti sauce again (which I had brought prior to our ordeal). I avoid pasta dishes unless it’s something really fabulous and unusual. I also don’t ever bring dessert, but instead make sure I bring fresh fruit. I try to keep it as healthy as possible, since stress eating (as I found out the hard way) keeps many reaching for high fat/high sugar/high carb foods. I think: protein, veg, fruit, starch… and try to baance it all out.

    Some of my recent meals given have included Garlic Roasted Chicken/Rosemary Potatoes/Green Beans; Tuscan White Beans and Sausage/Honey Cornbread; Baked Chicken Breast/Cucumber Feta Salad/Toasted Cous Cous; Teriyaki Chicken/Sesame Broccoli/jasmine rice; Plaza III Soup; French Onion Soup (toasted bread and swiss on the side to add as needed. All came with fruit.

    I use ziplock baggies where I can and empty 32 oz yogurt cartons for the sides; aluminum foil pans as needed.

    Recently I set up meals for a friend of mine and we included her favorite take out places and ethnic cuisines (ie Chik Fil A and Italian). That helped a great deal for people who wanted to do something but didn’t like to or have time to cook.

  31. Amy….loved this post…..great tips for giving food! 🙂

  32. Lovely sentiment and advice. I enjoy making something for people in their ttime of need and knowing I am warming their bodies….and hopefully their souls

  33. I saved this page the day you posted it thinking “oh, this may come in handy someday” Never knowing how fast that day would come. Yesterday our dear friends lost their only child, their daughter, in a very tragic car accident that also severly injured their only grandchild. Thank you for giving me the ideas and the will to help them through this terrible time.

  34. I read some where that breakfast is often needed by families going through a tough time. I gave bagels, cream cheese, English muffins, bananas and apples (all from Sam’s Club) to a friend and her family along with paper plates, napkins, cups and silverware. She appreciated it because she could just grab the food when she was hungry – not necessarily at breakfast time. The food also kept for a quite a few days.

  35. My beloved Grandmother died recently after a few months of in-home hospice. The food that was delivered after her death was certainly appreciated, however the meals that arrived before her death were a blessing. She was on a limited diet and didn’t eat much, but the rest of us (friends, family members, nurses, etc.) who worked around the clock to keep her at home where she wanted to be still needed to eat. In her last week when we hardly left her side, we received a platter of sandwiches and a container of lemonade from one family and a dozen muffins and a bag of apples from another. Those gifts truly made a difference. I’ve decided to try to bring food to families prior to the events if possible and appropriate. A over-tired full-term mommy might appreciate a night off from cooking before the birth as well as after.

  36. We have had the opportunity to give and receive meals and in both cases have been so blessed! One occasion that really stands out to me is when our family came home from vacation to a fully stocked fridge and cupboards. The people who took care of our home while we were away left us with enough food for a few days while we re-settled. It was such a nice gesture….not really something we needed but so very helpful!!!! We will definitely do this in the future when we have the opportunity.

  37. I really, really like this. I almost never comment on blogs – particularly not the “feel good” ones – but this is awesome. No pretension, no false altruism, no fluff, just practical, helpful, and NICE.

    Two large, loving thumbs up.

  38. Hi. I really appreciate all your work on this. I lost my husband when I was 25 and he was 27. It was a sudden, unexpected death. There were lots of meals that were brought in to me and my two small girls. And while all of the meals were greatly appreciated, there is one thing I would change to your list for those taking means to someone grieving…. When someone is grieving, the last thing they can stomach is acidic food, such as the spaghetti and lasagna as you suggested.
    There is a couple things I would like to add for people when they are taking in meals to a grieving family: Bring a case of water bottles – that helped me monitor my water intake (and helped my extended family) to stay hydrated. I know it sounds silly, but actually getting up to pour a glass of water took too much brain power.
    Also, even though meals were brought in, I could hardly eat, and someone brought a basket of muffins. Something so simple was one of the few things that I was able to keep down.
    Thank you so much for compiling a great resource for caring people out there who wish to help others in times of need.

  39. Aimee, what a great thing to talk/post about. I love your tips and advice here.

  40. This is a subject that I have never seen talked about but that I think is very important! This is great info for caring people. It sure is a way of giving of one’s self in time, creativity and love! Great post!

  41. Great ideas and let me add another. So often the meals we think of bringing are dinner-type foods. Several times I have taken a “breakfast bag” to friends/family in need because they seem to get a lot of food for the other meals. It’s great for new parents who are sleep-deprived and don’t want to have to worry about preparing a lot of breakfast or times when there are family members coming and going all morning – a breakfast buffet is a great way for folks to help themselves. I include things like bagels and cream cheese, a variety of yogurts, homemade granola, muffins and butter and jams, boiled eggs, juices, a carton of milk, fruits (usually already cut up and ready to eat to minimize preparation), a bag of good coffee and tea bags and a small container of cream, coffeecake or other pastries. It is always very appreciated!

  42. Another non-food item to consider is holiday decorations. It can be depressing to have no holiday decorating done, and someone who is ill may simply be unable to accomplish this, even if they want to. We ran into this once when a close friend of ours (Penny) had a serious illness at Christmastime (right after she and her husband moved in next door to us)…and she was released from the hospital December 23rd. She had made an offhanded comment or two that they were too overwhelmed to “do Christmas”, though it felt strange. My husband and I had so much fun getting a fresh tree, and some simple lights and decorations, then waiting until her husband was picking her up at the hospital, to put it up. We pulled all of their curtains closed, and left the tree lights on after cleaning up, and running out the door. When they walked in to their dark living room, to see a happy, twinkling tree, with all the trimmings, they cried (happy tears!) They talked about how much that tree meant to them for years…
    A whole Christmas tree might be a bit much, if you don’t know the person well, but a cheerful wreath, or other small something, may just mean more to them than you know.

  43. Great advice! I would not have eaten anything but plain bread after I came home from having my 1st child if it weren’t for people bringing us meals! I loved it when they came in tinfoil trays like you have shown – instruction and dish written on top and then I didn’t even have to do dishes! (well… make the husband do dishes. I was excited to kinda be able sit after a week)

  44. Donna Young says:

    What a wonderful article! SO informative and helpful. I hope I won’t be using it anytime soon but I want to tell you how much I appreciate the information and suggestions. Brilliant!

  45. New England Flybaby says:

    Oh, what wonderful ideas, Aimee. I’m glad I read ALL the comments, also, as they had fabulous suggestions, too! Thanks for doing all the work in compiling these ideas.

  46. Great post. We recently lost my bother-in-law, and so many wonderful people helped with food.
    One woman also brought a bag filled with bathroom tissue and klenex. That was so helpful, as we had a houseful of people!
    Another woman brought lots of bacon, refrigerator biscuits and eggs and OJ so we’d have things for breakfast.
    Several others brought gift cards to local restaurants. These helped then, and they continue to help even now…when my sis has a particularly bad day and can’t face cooking, she has been able to use these cards as needed.

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