Dear Helena,

Some friends of mine just had a baby and I want to drop by with some food, as I understand new parents are totally exhausted and don’t even have time to boil an egg. But what should I bring? A casserole sounds traditional but very 1950s. Then again, this is my first friend to have a baby, so I don’t know that much about it. Do breast-feeding moms have special nutritional needs? Is there anything that would be particularly good to make? Is there any way I can go wrong?
—Bearing Gifts

Dear Bearing Gifts,
In this case, what you bring is less important than how you bring it. You should always show up on the dot. Show up early and your friend may be in the middle of a feed; show up late and you may be infringing on the baby’s nap schedule. And keep your visit brief. Unless your friend is begging you to stay, 45 minutes is the max. New parents have barely enough time to shower, let alone two hours to sit around and gossip. If you don’t know them very well, you shouldn’t expect to visit with them at all. Just drop off your dish, make an excuse so they don’t feel obliged to ask you in, and save dandling the baby for another time.

New parents are always grateful for food, but when I called around, I found there was little consensus about what dishes are best. Some said they wanted healthy food and fruit, whereas others craved comfort food and lavish desserts. (Breast-feeding women, unlike pregnant women, have few rigid dietary restrictions but do need a lot of calories.) Justine Reese, the product manager for UrbanBaby (owned by CBS Interactive, which also owns, says when her two children were born, she wanted to indulge in foods that were off-limits while pregnant, like “soft French cheeses.” She also liked food that felt festive: “I could take care of the nutritional part of eating, and I wanted special-occasion food, like an incredible homemade Bolognese sauce.”

But people did agree on some points about what’s good to bring.

1) Large, long-keeping dishes. There’s a reason a casserole is a traditional gift at times like this: It doesn’t have to be eaten immediately, and it lasts for several meals. Consider soups, stews, and curries rather than, say, a delicate salad that will wilt in minutes under the weight of vinaigrette. Check out this thread or this one for some Chowhound ideas.

2) Complete meals. Reese is forever grateful to some kind friends who dropped off “an elaborate salad with pomegranate seeds and goat cheese, a chicken stew, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine.” The last item is important, since for many a meal isn’t complete and certainly doesn’t feel festive without a glass of vino. And finally, the mother can drink more than an occasional glass of wine if she pleases.

3) Snacks: An alternative gift to the complete meal, interesting dip and crudités or homemade muffins can be eaten with one hand while holding a baby.

It might seem like a good idea to just call your friend and ask her what she’d like you to bring, but I wouldn’t bother. Most people are too polite to demand a dish tailor-made to their specifications. Plus, your friend may not even know what she’s in the mood for. Kirsten Shaw, a mother in Brooklyn, says when her baby was born, her mom made “all the ’70s Midwestern favorites like tuna noodle casserole and goulash that I hadn’t had in years,” and though usually this isn’t her type of food, she found it “totally comforting and delicious.”

You can’t go wrong when bringing food to new parents. It’s like bringing food to a bereaved friend. Even if you accidentally bring something they don’t like, they’ll still appreciate your good intentions. The only faux pas is if you show up with lasagne, eat half of it, and then expect your friend to spend the next 90 minutes listening to your vacation plans.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.

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