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Feeding Six: The Meal Co-op

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A Simple Six: Feeding Six: The Meal Co-op

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Feeding Six: The Meal Co-op

Three meals of cantaloupe, Waldorf chicken salad, pitas, and tabbouleh, packaged for trading.

Introduction and History
Four years ago I read a magazine article about some women who all lived on one block and took turns cooking meals for each other. One family would cook a full meal for everyone and deliver packaged warm meals to the other two families at a designated time, keeping one for their own family to enjoy. Brilliance, in my opinion.

Since most of my ideas are just modifications of others greatness, I brought this one to a friend and we discussed the options. None of my friends lived on my block. They actually lived all over the county. We devised a list of potential cooks, keeping in mind family sizes and cooking abilities. I admit we were pretty picky at first, almost snobby about who we asked, as we were concerned our great idea was going to interest everyone, but it didn't. We started with about four families and devised a plan to have everyone cook for the other three families on Sunday, package their meals and trade them on Monday morning during a play group. If you chose to cook a fourth meal for yourself, was up to you.

Our group met weekly with packaged food in reusable plastic containers with our names on them and a food label with instructions. We had an online forum to track our menus in advance and "secret" polls to offer feedback. There were lists of food preferences made and things to avoid because it wouldn't be eaten or someone was allergic. After a couple of months we opened the group up to other families and enlisted substitutes and part time swappers. Our group grew so much one year we had ten full time families so we broke into two groups based on eating habits and family size.

In the Now
As the group currently stands, we are much more relaxed. There are four families (I am the only original member left living in Huntington) who use a group on Facebook to post menus and questions. The family sizes vary greatly; ours having six, two families with four and one with three. This works well for all of us as my little four are picky and Brent and I eat a lot of our meals for lunch. The family with three does some of the same but then they have more for dinner.

I love my meal co-op. During crazy busy after school weeks, dinner is done. When I feel a bit ill/tired or Brent's working nights, dinner is done. If I decide I haven't seen my neighbors in a while or they seem super busy, dinner is done. If I am away for the evening, Brent can put dinner together and it won't be toast and spaghetti (although the children prefer this). I have been able to eat moussaka a couple of time without the labor. I have indulged in more shrimp and had several loaves of artisan bread without looking for my yeast or removing any shells. These families have me spoiled. It's also been the case that when one of our members are ill, we cook for them anyway, without anything expected in return. It's a great food community.

The Doing
Preparing for our exchange has taken some practice. I now have a great system of knowing how to batch cook and pace my dishes. I documented my cooking last weekend to help illustrate.

My menu: Waldorf chicken salad, tabbouleh and cantaloupe.
Started by boiling in my 8 quart pot, as this would take the longest to cook and cool.

Chicken cooking next to bulgar wheat soaking. The wheat for the tabbouleh would take at least an hour.

While the chicken and grains were doing their part, I diced up veggies.

I lay out all my glass containers on the counter, separated in groups of three (for each family), and add ingredients as I finish prepping them. We choose glass for the ease of reheating and baking straight in the dish we are swapping.

Tabbouleh is seasoned and drizzled and is just awaiting wheat.

I moved onto chopping grapes for the chicken salad.

Assembled straight in my swapping dishes.

Two dishes for three families (and a plastic container for the extra). Everything is dressed and ready for the last ingredients (chicken and wheat).

Adding the bulgar wheat.

Stir right in the serving dishes.

Add lids and set aside, in this case they went into my refrigerator.

Chicken was taken off the bone and skins removed, then chopped.

Added to the prepped salad bowls.

Everything is ready to go. I went with store bought pitas this week, but it's not unusual for us to trade homemade breads, naans, desserts, rolls, and more. Keeping the cantaloupes whole means they are "fresher" for the families.

Single family serving.
The Swap
A few things to note
  1. We agree ahead of time on the menus, to avoid everyone making lasagnas. We choose to have one protein main course and two sides of fruits, veggies and/or grains. This group is very relaxed and sometimes our main protein course is vegetarian with grain and the sides are more veggies. How do you complain about more veggies? We love it.
  2. We all purchased nine glass containers with lids. Three of those containers are large (about 11cups in volume) and six of them are medium size (about 4-6 cups in volume). We don't "own" the containers once they enter the swap. They are just evenly exchanged each week. I hand out 9 (1 large and 2 mediums to each family) and I get 9. As seen in the photo above, there are only two glass containers, as my third dish was a whole melon. I do pass an empty container and lid to this family as well, to keep the exchange even. Some weeks we are all bringing empties, so we leave with the one we brought.
  3.  We transport our glass containers and meals in coolers with ice packs in the summer. They are heavy, but we are strong!
  4. We used to label our meals with the contents, re-heating instructions and the cooks initials. We are bit too lazy for that now and just settle on memory or chance. I do recommend a tighter plan and labels when you first get started. If you do label, painters tape and a sharpie works the best, but do it before you refrigerate.
  5. Cooking this way hasn't saved me money, nor has it cost me more. Some weeks are less expensive than others, but I am not doing it to be frugal with my dollar, but more frugal with my time. I like having my evenings with my family and not with my stove top. I like snacking a well balanced meal at lunch time instead of any old thing in a bag.
Two complete meals that are being brought to me. Note the empty container in the left stack. She made Phad Thai, thus satisfying the grain, meat, veggie requirement in one dish, and added green beans for the side. The right stack is an enchilada lasagna, re-fried beans and stewed tomatoes.

All the meals being sorted and distributed for swap.

Links
Many have blazed this trail before me, and since, and they have also said it better. If you are looking for a way to incorporate meal swapping into your life, check out these links.
 *Little House in the Suburbs talks about child care sharing as well. This is something we have done in the past, but being a family with four children now, we haven't dared to trade children often. Yet, this is a wonderful option for those on a budget!

Questions?
I love my meal co-op! I know everything is not explained well, as it wasn't really meant to be a "how to" post. Yet, if you have questions, I would love to answer them. Drop me a line or post a comment.

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