Monday, May 17, 2010

Start a cooking co-op!

A great way to minimize the number of nights per week you have to think about dinner, reduce the temptation to eat out, resort to poor food choices because you don't have motivation or resources to put something nutritious together for dinner, and save money, is to start a cooking co-op with family, friends, or neighbors nearby. You may choose to do it once per week, bi-weekly, or even once per month, depending on what your group agrees on.

How it works: you together with one to two other families of similar sizes, decide on a schedule, and one night when you prepare 
dinner for your family you double or triple your recipe, depending on how many people are in your coop. You can either deliver the meal that night, or make something that will be even more delicious the next night, like chili. Or, prepare something that just needs to be thrown in the oven for 22-30 minutes, like a enchiladas or shepard's pie. Here are some recipe ideas that are good to make in bulk, or keep well overnight (click on the links to see sample recipes):

Need more ideas? Contact me directly and I would love to pass more recipe ideas your way. As it turns out, somebody beat me to it and wrote a book on the subject. I haven't previewed this book yet, so I can't speak for it's content, but it probably has some good ideas for recipes.

Important tips:
  • ask participating members about any known food allergies, sensitivities, or dislikes
  • make a list and keep it on the fridge for reference
  • start a Google Calendar so everyone involved can check to see if there are any scheduling changes
  • pick one person's house where the food exchange happens. Or, the exchange can happen at each persons house on rotation at a set time. if you don't want visitors because it is a busy time, just put a big bin outside that everyone can leave their 
  • get the kids involved! My personal experience is that kids love to help cook. Let them contribute, then play a game at dinner guessing which family member made which item from your co-op meals
Here is an example of how it all works:

Three families The Berkley's, Arnold's, and Taylor's agree to do a cooking co-op. They have decided on a bi-weekly schedule, since all three families travel quite a bit, weekly seems a bit ambitious. They decided that Sunday is the best day to cook and exchange food, since everyone works and there are several toddler's involved, week night food exchanges could get complicated. Sunday evening around 5:00 pm each family cooks 1 large meal, some of which they will eat for dinner, and the rest they will package up for the other two families and drop off.

The Berkley's make turkey chili (with toppings on the side and some of the turkey reserved for the kids), the Taylor's make quiche and salad, and the Arnold's make enchiladas, unassembled. Now each family can decide how they want to deal with the meals. Sunday night it is wise to consume the most perishable, least freeze-able item first. The chili is very easy to freeze and should be put in the freezer and consumed later in the week. Sunday night everyone should probably eat the quiche and salad. Although quiche freezes well, salad does not. You can also decide to freeze the quiche and eat the salad with the enchiladas. For this example, let's say everyone eats the quiche and salad Sunday night, and the enchiladas the second night. The enchiladas should have detailed instructions on how to prepare them, and ingredients should be appropriately portioned. Here is what the weekly dinner menu could look like:

Sunday: quiche and salad (put chili in freezer, put any unconsumed portion of quiche in freezer)
Monday: enchiladas
Tuesday: cook at home your choice (take chili out of freezer)
Wednesday: chili (maybe add a side-salad)
Thursday: leftovers (quiche or chili), steamed veggies, baked sweet potato or potato, or rice
Friday: cook at home (start thinking about what you would make for this Sunday's dinner)
Saturday: family choice (eat at home, out, with friends, pick something up)

Doesn't this schedule look do-able? It takes a little planning ahead on the front-end, but you end up with 2-3 prepared meals that you don't have to think about.  And, the added benefit of potential leftovers for lunch the next day.

More tips: keep it simple and be mindful of nutrition. Try to ensure that each meal contains a protein, healthy fats, carbohydrate source, and contains at least 1 cooked and 1 raw vegetable if possible. You can always add a side salad, steamed or sauteed vegetable to any dish. If you add a side dish, you may be able to stretch any of the shared dishes for another night. Also, if there are kids involved try to ensure kid-friendly meals. If a meal needs to be assembled, some of the ingredients can be left out and served to the kids (ground turkey, cheese, veggies, sauces, etc...). If the main is likely not kid-friendly, try to give the family a few suggestions or extra ingredients for the kids. The whole point is so that the whole family's dinner is prepared for that evening.

Determine how you will handle cancellations/scheduling conflicts, because we are real people with real lives and things come up! If there are 3 families and 1 family can't participate that week, then the 2 families can decide that something is better than nothing, or wait and pick it up again the following week. Whatever folks agree on. Most importantly, have fun and eat good food together as a family!