Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How-Tuesday: How To Set Up a Dinner Exchange Group

Cooking dinner every night kind of sucks. What you need is a Dinner Exchange Group, which is where you swap meals with one or more families each week. Doing a dinner group can save both time and money, and it's a great way to try new recipes and ideas. So here's how to set one up:

1) First, figure out how many nights you want to be doing this. I find that 2-4 families usually works out about right. No one wants to be doing this every night - we all have other obligations.

2) Ask around to find some families to join you. We always try to find families that are similar in size to ours so that we are exchanging equal amounts of food.

3) Once you've got your group, decide on your ground rules. You need to have everyone pick a night they want to cook, and decide how you are doing your portioning and menu planning. Discuss likes and dislikes, what to do about canceling, time frame for meal delivery, etc. (See notes later on for more discussion on these.)

4) Get started! Just know that at times, everyone is going to make things that don't turn out very well, or didn't make enough, or whatever. It happens - don't stress out.

5) Touch base regularly and honestly. If there are things that aren't working, speak up. You're not doing anyone any favors by continuing to participate resentfully, or by throwing away a certain meal each time it's made because you're too embarrassed to say you don't like it. We met every few months and just went over our old calendars and said what meals our family really DID like, and that worked well so that people knew what was good to repeat.

6) Sit back and enjoy your night(s) each week where you don't have to do any meal prep or clean-up!

Some Notes From the Trenches:

If you're serious about wanting to set up a group, I thought I'd share some more detailed notes on things we've learned along the way.

*Menu-planning: In my old group, we used a Yahoo calendar to set up meals so that there was no duplication. In the beginning we did a meat rotation (chicken, beef, other) so that there was variety, but after time we abandoned that and just paid attention to what other people were calendaring in so that we didn't have a whole bunch of chicken in a row, or pasta, or whatever. In my group now there are only 2 families and we just make whatever. It causes me a bit of anxiety to not have it scheduled out, but it works for the other family, so I go with it. Another group I'm familiar with meets for breakfast one Saturday each quarter, brings their recipes/cookbooks, and schedules out the whole quarter right then and there.

*Side dishes: This can be handled in a variety of ways, from exchanging the meat, carbs, veggies, and desserts to just exchanging the main dish. Again, this is just one of those things you have to discuss with your group to see what works for everyone. We also never exchanged sour cream or shredded cheese (like as a topping), because those were things we all agreed we had on hand and it was more hassle than it was worth to deal with a tiny little container of sour cream.

*Portioning: In one group, we had designated tupperware containers that we determined were the right portions to exchange, and you just filled them, and we only swapped those containers. Everyone put in like $10 up front to buy the containers. Or, you can just kind of talk about how much you feel is an appropriate portion for each adult and kid and stick to it.

*Meal ideas: Uh, obviously not everything works well for a dinner exchange. You need to plan stuff that will travel well, and sit well since it won't be eaten immediately. Soups, salads, casseroles, stir-frys, etc. are all great. If you'd like, you can check out our old Yahoo calendar for ideas. I participated in this group during all of 2008 and some of 2009 so there are lots of ideas. Sample Dinner Group Calendar

Any other questions? Just ask! We've been doing some form of a dinner group for almost 4 years now, so we've had a lot of experiences, both good and bad!

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Kerry said...

You amaze me. I wish I lived close enough to be in a dinner group with you.

Melissa said...

I did a dinner group for five years and loved it. There were always three of us, and though we didn't plan out ahead of time the meals, it always seemed to work out. I miss it already.

Ericka said...

How did you exchange meals? Exchanging more than once a week would be challening. I have 2 other families interested in creating one with me.

Katie said...

We each had one day a week. Mine was Monday, so on Mondays I would make the dinners for everyone and drive them around. You could also do freezer meals and meet once a week to exchange, but we liked to have it arrive warm, fresh, and ready to eat!