By Carl Hanson
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When neighbors are in need, sharing food with them can be one way to show you care. So many life events offer opportunities to be generous to our neighbors. A birth, an illness, a hospital stay -- or maybe just a neighbor up to her elbows remodeling the kitchen. Bringing over a home-cooked meal is just about the most neighborly thing a person can do.

And when friends join in to help, you multiply the generosity. Ask friends and neighbors to help by making meals, too, and you've started a dinner tree -- or meal train. Get on board!

So many casseroles | Photo by Meredith

How to Create a Dinner Tree

First, line up some meal-making friends and neighbors. You can use free online meal-sharing calendars like Meal Train, which is interactive and includes a built-in invitation feature, email reminders, and more.

But a simple spreadsheet works, too, and helps organize meals into categories (main, side, dessert, for example). It allows you to coordinate who's doing what, when; and lets everyone see what's happening at a glance. The spreadsheet is also helpful for listing food allergies and dietary preferences. Have someone assume the role of Keeper of the Spreadsheet, and share your spreadsheet with the group.

Coordinate with the family to make sure you're taking into account any food allergies or dietary restrictions. Then organize the group so the family in need gets a balanced meal. If one generous cook provides a savory casserole main dish, another goes in for the salad and some rolls, and another bakes a pie. Or maybe it's several days' worth of main dish recipes, coordinated to allow variety -- lasagna one day, enchiladas the next, and a batch of chili with cornbread after that.

Fusion Chili | Photo by Allrecipes

Quick Tips for Picking Recipes

  • Try to avoid meals that require a lot of extra assembly. Be sure to include reheating instructions and any assembly directions in a note.
  • Pick dishes that reheat and/or freeze easily (lasagnas and casseroles are big winners).
  • For families with kids, consider kid-friendly foods like baked ziti.
  • Vegetarians in the house? You know what to do. Here's our collection of Vegetarian Recipes.
  • Choose meals that travel well -- cheese and eggs help hold together pre-baked casseroles.
  • For delicate salads, include a separate container of dressing to be mixed in just before serving.

OK, let's get to the recipes! Here are some family-friendly favorites for your dinner tree:

Pasta Casserole

Pasta casseroles are easy to make, they travel well, and are easy to reheat or freeze for later.

Baked Ziti | Photo by Meredith

"A delicious side or main dish with beef, basil and lots of cheese. You can substitute the beef for Italian sausage or add a combination. Serve with crusty warm bread and a green salad, if desired." -- VERDIEIIIS

"This easy-to-make old-school macaroni and cheese has a perfectly crispy crust." -- Chef John

Enchiladas

With enchiladas, it's nice to bring garnishes like sour cream and guacamole and even a Ziploc bag with chopped lettuce.

Authentic Enchiladas Verdes | Photo by Allrecipes

"These enchiladas are made with a fresh green salsa, just like you would find in a Mexican restaurant or better yet, in a Mexican home." -- PattiVerde

"Simple and quick beef enchiladas. Ground beef and onion are wrapped in flour tortillas, topped with Cheddar cheese and black olives, then baked. This is also great with leftover chicken, shredded beef, or turkey. Serve with a green salad or beans and rice." -- Becky

Vegetable Casseroles

Look here for broccoli casseroles, potato and Tater Tot casseroles, and other casseroles -- some with meat some without.

Ham, Potato and Broccoli Casserole | Photo by Staci Purvis Maddox

"This is a great, easy to make, and nutritious casserole. You can add some macaroni pasta or try seasoning the potatoes before you bake. Put this dish in the freezer and bake whenever! Can also be made with leftover cooked chicken." -- SURELEE

"This is my go-to recipe when my evening is running late and I still have to make dinner. I top off the dish with colby jack or mozzarella & freshly grated Parmesan and panko bread crumbs." -- melmeow79

Savory Pies

This category includes savory pies like chicken pot pie, taco pie, and shepherd's pie, along with vegetarian options.

Chicken Pot Pie IX | Photo by ReneePaj

"Baked barbeque beans and ground beef with a crust. This pie is perfect for any occasion." -- CHRYSTALP1981

"A delicious chicken pie made from scratch with carrots, peas and celery." -- Robbie Rice

Pasta and Potato Salads

These picnic and potluck staples are also great side dish offerings for dinner trees.

Greek Pasta Salad I Photo by Allrecipes

"This is a great make-ahead pasta salad!" -- Behr

"This is a great twist on 2 all-American favorites -- the potato salad and the loaded baked potato. Served cold, this has been a crowd-pleaser at our many family functions and is often requested." -- spicejenmom

Salads

If you make a casserole, add a simple side dish to round out the meal, like an undressed tossed salad, maybe with a jar of dressing on the side, or a dozen dinner rolls.

Wheat Berry Salad with Peas, Radishes, and Dill | Photo by Allrecipes

These salads do it with quinoa, barley, wheat berry, farro, bulgur, and more.

Here are the top-rated recipes for hree bean salads, bean and corn salads, and every kind of bean salad you can imagine.

Sweet Pies

Featuring all your favorite fruit pies, plus nut and chocolate pies, custard pies,and other sweet pies.

Cherry Pie | Photo by Mark Thomas

"This recipe is a family favorite because it is so fudgy and rich-tasting, and at the same time it is also very easy to make." -- Nancy Sabatino

Explore this collection of classic fruit pies like cherry and apple, plus recipes for peach, pear, and berry pies.

Brownies

You can't go wrong with these easy-to-bake treats, from classic chocolate brownies to blondies and peanut butter brownies.

Brownie-Mallow Bars | Photo by naples34102

"Very easy recipe and comes out nice and rich. The semi-sweet chips keep it from being too sweet. The "topping" nearly doubles the thickness so cut them small." -- Abbee

"These brownies are magnificent! I mean 'melt in your mouth' and I didn't even make the frosting. I doubled the recipe and it still won't be enough." -- CRBOWLES

A Note on Getting Dishware Back

Neighbors in need have lots on their minds, of course. And remembering to return a casserole dish? Maybe not the highest priority. And if they received several casseroles and a variety of dishes, sorting out whose dish belongs to whom might be challenging. To ensure your friendly gesture results in returned dishware, label it with your name -- write it on masking tape with a Sharpie -- and then have one dinner train team member gather all of the dishware up weekly and redistribute, so the family doesn't have to. Another option is to present your dishes in inexpensive glass or recyclable foil pans, so you don't need to retrieve it.


For more, check out our complete collection of Casserole Recipes -- including noodle casseroles, rice casseroles, breakfast casseroles, side dish casseroles, and more.