Many times in past years, I’ve shown up at a friend or loved one’s house with a hot pan full of casserole and plastic tubs of side dishes. At those times, the food was in some way an excuse: to hold someone’s hand while they cried tears of grief, to celebrate the joy of a tiny new human coming into the world, to see them inside their hospital room and reassure myself that they were on the mend.
In 2020, so many of our rituals have been interrupted, but I’m grateful that we still turn to the impulse of bringing food to others in order to provide something that words can’t: a full stomach when they’re too sad or worried to eat, or a full plate when every moment of their time is absorbed in caregiving tasks.
Still, the script has changed. Multiple friends of mine gave birth to children during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I myself adopted a little one this year. Suddenly, the fear of passing COVID-19 to a new parent overrode the disappointment of not getting to see the baby. My own friends and family got very creative: they sent food with other family members rather than delivering it in person or they’d leave a tray of goodies on our porch and text us about it when they were getting back into their cars. We’ve had so many people kindly and selflessly provide for us while working to keep us all safe from the virus.
I didn’t turn down all the companionship either: a couple who had recently been tested for COVID-19 for other reasons asked if they could share a meal with us in our home, and the uplift from that evening was incredibly comforting. My mother-in-law marshaled her friends and family before making her journey to meet the baby, and she arrived for a few days’ visit with a cooler full of frozen meals that we were still eating on tired evenings weeks later.
Like always, bringing food to friends and family during the hard or busy moments of their lives doesn’t have to look just one way, even during periods of social distancing. But in the course of being showered with care in the past few months, I’ve found a few things to be true, and I wanted to share them with you, in case they help you when you need care or want to give it.
There are times when you definitely don’t want to be the one cooking. You also may never have been much of a home chef. If this is the case, figure out which food delivery services are active in your area and get a gift card from one of them delivered to your friend’s email address. All they have to do is order the food. Just make sure the card is enough for the meal plus a few bucks for service fees and a tip, since delivery often ends up being a little pricier than expected.
You can also hedge your bets if you aren’t a great chef but want to try your hand at cooking. I always get a little intimidated cooking for friends and family, so I default to things they can assemble: fresh salads, items for a tasty taco bar, or a basic but hearty pasta dish. These are especially useful in families with young kids already, where my latest weird kitchen creation might go untouched even if it does actually taste good.
Coordinating a drop-off time is going to be part of the work of giving care to your friend or family member. If you are incredibly busy right now, consider sending a gift card or other item you don’t have to deliver in person. It’s just as caring and doesn’t require as many scheduling gymnastics.
If you do want to bring a meal over, try to clear your schedule for when your friends can receive it. Whether they’re grieving or caregiving, their lives may be pretty circumscribed at the moment, and you’re doing them a service by making time to show up when it works for them.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see a new baby when you bring food over, but it’s great to start that conversation before you show up. Rather than the in-person pressure of asking, “Can I come in?”, craft a text message that says if you’ve been tested lately, that you’ve felt healthy, that you’ll wash your hands and wear a mask when inside, that you’ll stay for only a couple of minutes, and whatever other reassurances you can give. Also leave them an out: something positive like, “We can absolutely wait a few months on this if you prefer!” This gives them the freedom to make the best choice for their family without having to reject your sweet offer.
I’ve always agonized over what people actually enjoy eating in these situations. Then I noticed a section on a Meal Train website that saved me so much trouble. (Meal Train is a website that helps a group of people coordinate bringing food to someone’s home multiple nights in a row.) The Meal Train coordinator I was working with had asked for what kinds of meals the family liked. Rather than just saying “no fish, no peanuts” they were able to let everyone know they loved Mexican food, Italian food, and fresh fruits and vegetables. I could work with that!
Absolutely respect allergies and restrictions on diet—again, it’s a way to show care. But getting just a couple of their food “yeses” can be a nice accompaniment to knowing their “nopes.”
I’m grateful to everyone who brought us a meal, but I won’t lie that there were some stars who brought over more than we could eat in one evening. One friend brought multiple takeout containers that she’d filled with a simple creamy chicken pasta, which we could eat or freeze. It was so nice to have something to quickly microwave for a few days.
We also had a friend bring over a hot-and-ready meatloaf and a huge pan of potatoes au gratin, but she also had shaped up another raw meatloaf that we could freeze and then cook ourselves later (she also provided easy instructions). Not only were there leftovers, but we were able to have another home-cooked meal with virtually no prep a week later.
We could see evidence of our friends’ thoughtfulness and effort everywhere: a friend who was a new mom herself brought over takeout but also the best homemade chocolate chip cookies. Another friend brought a small basket of fresh fruit with her meal that we used for quick snacks before feedings or time with the baby. My parents mailed us a big box of assorted snack foods, which ended up serving a similar purpose and made waking up in the middle of the night just a little easier. Anything you do for someone who is going through one of the harder times in their life will be appreciated, but rest assured that extra touches—any of them—will become just one more moment of connection during a hard or busy time.