5 Mistakes to Avoid When Bringing Food to Family or Friends

What not to do when you're trying to help by providing meals

When you're trying to help friends or family in need by bringing a meal , steer clear of these common gaffes:

1. Using dishes that have to be returned. It might feel natural to zip over to an ailing friend's house with a tureen full of soup, but bringing a food donation in a dish that has to be returned is the number-one no-no. If you've been on the receiving end of food donations, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Now you have a bunch of dishes that have to be washed and returned -- if only you could remember who brought the blue bowl and where you put that pie plate. Use a disposable foil baking pan for casseroles, put soup in plastic yogurt containers or a big Tupperware you don't need to get back, or wrap food up in foil or plastic wrap. The last thing you want to do is create a hassle for a family that already has enough to worry about.

2. Providing food with a time limit. A dressed salad left on the porch might be wilted by the time the recipients return from the hospital; grilled salmon is delicious but may end up in the trash if the timing's not right. When you're helping out a family in crisis, it's best to choose a dish that lends itself to flexibility. You may not be the only one bringing food, the family may end up eating at odd hours, or any number of other variables may get in the way. So choose a dish that can be easily frozen -- and include a note to that effect, so no one has to feel guilty if they don't eat it right away.

3. Not storing food safely. I'll never forget the time that friends arrived to see our new baby, bringing a platter of shrimp and dipping sauce -- which they set on the counter and neglected to tell us about. We all oohed and aahed over our infant, they departed, we fell asleep cuddling the baby, and . . . a platter of shrimp went to waste. If you plan to leave your food offering at the house and don't know how soon it will be served, take that into account when you choose what to make. If it's a meat dish and will be left outside, store it in a soft-sided cooler with a cold pack to keep it safe.

4. Making a mess or hassle while trying to help. It's tempting to run next door with your casserole hot out of the oven, but that doesn't really meet the needs of a family in crisis. Someone has to cut it up and serve it, or cut it up, wrap it, and store it if it's going to be saved for later. Do all this before you deliver your gift, and it will be that much more appreciated. This is particularly true for anything messy. If you're bringing crumbly brownies or sticky Rice Krispies treats, for example, cut them up first and put them on a paper plate or wrap them individually.

5. Bringing something no one can eat. Cooking for vegetarians is the most common challenge, but there are lots of other dietary issues to be aware of when bringing food. If there are children in the house, choose something kid-friendly, like macaroni and cheese; or call ahead to find out what the kids like. If you don't want to bother the recipients, ask around to see if someone's coordinating donations. This consideration is even more of an issue if you're helping out someone who's been ill or has dietary restrictions. Cancer patients often suffer from nausea and lack of appetite, so to make sure your gift means something, you'll need to ask what they feel like eating. Those with heart conditions may be on a low-sodium diet, many people avoid wheat or gluten, and some people get heartburn easily from spicy foods. When in doubt, ask, or choose something you know from experience that they like. Or purchase a gift certificate from a local restaurant that offers takeout (and then offer to pick up the food for them once they've ordered it).

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio