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Organizing a dinner coop: Do you have advice?

Dinner_with_trains

Ever since I read a post by one of my fellow Culinate bloggers, who's written a book on dinner coops, Dinner at Your Door, I've been toying with the idea of trying to start a neighborhood group. But I'm shy about commitment (when it comes to other people relying on me to show up on time, that is). Unless my neighbor (cough, cough) starts one, I'm a little reluctant. Lori isn't though: she's ready to go! Can you help her with advice?

I really like to cook but not every night and I am not a big leftovers fan.  I have been talking with a few of my friends about setting up a dinner swap once a week where we portion out the food for each family.  At the moment we are mainly focusing on stews, soups and casseroles.  Does anyone have any experience or suggestions with this? How do you handle special dietary restrictions, storage containers, etc.

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It sounds like a great idea and I briefly toyed with being part of one that was forming in my neighborhood. But the meat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free restrictions of a few of the people involved just made it unappealing to me (as a cook and a diner). The best advice I have is to hook up with folks with compatible diets. After all, this is supposed to make life easier, not more difficult.

Same kind of thing here. My old neighborhood in Atlanta had a group that worked pretty well, but they wanted all organic produce and meats all the time. My budget just wouldn't stretch that far at the time so I had to say no.

As a slight alternative, I have a friend that we have been swapping Monday night dinners with for almost 7 years now... started out as us alternating watching Monday night football at eachother's houses before my kids were born. Then we didn't want to give it up after football was over. Now, 7 years later we all moved to Portland together and we've switched it to Sunday night and she almost always comes to our house, since we have kids. We have a loose agreement that we alternate cooking, though some weekends we talk on the phone and plan to share (one cooks the entree, the other the sides and dessert). The point is that we've got some community going on, my kids eat someone elses cooking once in a while, and I get a break too! It is great. Lately she's been busy with a class and traveling so I cooked more, but she DOES THE DISHES!

So while a swap co-op where you pack the stuff up sounds great... having another family or a friend that you can actually share the meal with once a week or every other week is so very wonderful. We are very lucky and thankful.

A few like-minded foodies and I started a dinner co-op about 2 months ago. It's been working out well. We agreed up front to take it in six week sessions at a time, then meet up to decide if we wanted to continue. I think that helps the commitment phobes among us who want to be sure we can get out if we need to without explanations or problems.

All of us are happy with the co-op. We plan our six weeks of menus in advance so everyone knows what to expect each night -- and so that we can keep our meals balanced. We all generally agree about how much protein and carbs we want to eat. We use a lot of recipes from the "Dinner at your Door" book -- in fact I helped test some of those recipes myself while the book was in development.

I think the first session we were all trying to impress each other and may have spent more on groceries than we planned. This session, we've scaled back a bit to the kind of cooking you might do any day of the week -- just 12 servings of it! And that has made a difference in the bottom line.

I have to say I never get over the novelty of being able to schedule an after-work activity knowing that I don't have to rush home to make dinner. And we are definitely not eating out as often.

I would recommend just giving it a try for a trial period. You can always go your separate ways if things don't work out. But you may just get hooked!

Go, Lori, go! As Debbie said, give it six weeks and see what you think.

In "Dinner At Your Door," we recommend a particular set of inexpensive but virtually bulletproof Pyrex lidded bakers--a rectangle and a round--that you'll buy when you launch your dinner co-op. The set will be group-owned, and you'll always magically have the right number of containers on your night to cook. These will help take the guesswork out of portioning. Some of our recipes are designed to be baked right inside those dishes, so the meal can go from oven, to porch, to table, to fridge--if there's any left over.

Re: dietary restrictions, the book includes two forms that help you figure out who's compatible with whom. There's the Culinary Compatibility survey (where you rate yourself as a Betty Beginner, Asian Maven, Organic Fanatic, Carnivore, Comfort Foodie, Vegetarian Wonder, Omnivorous Thrillseeker, etc. and talk about acceptable levels of fat and calories) and the Food Preferences form, where your family gets to veto a few items if there's an allergy or a strong dislike for any particular ingredients.

We've found that when interested parties get these two forms filled out and compare notes, people relax and feel more comfortable going forward knowing there are no surprises.

Good luck--hope it's a fun experience for you!

(If any of you urban mamas decide to launch a dinner co-op, drop us a line and my co-authors and I will add you to the US map we're building at www.dinnerco-ops.com/map)

I organized a dinner co-op with three friends after my second child was born. We got together at the beginning and talked about likes/dislikes, how much to use organic vs. non-organic, portion size, etc. Like Debbie, we started out trying to impress each other too much, and after awhile we cut out desserts because we were all gaining weight. We had "co-op night" twice a week; each family cooked once every two weeks and got three meals cooked for them. The whole deal fell apart after about four months, I think mostly because some members had higher expectations.

One friend had similar expectations as mine (what I like to call an attitude of gratitude) and we cooked similar foods for our families, so she and I started trading off once a week. She would cook Tuesday, I would cook Thursday, or something like that. It worked beautifully until she started working more, then the schedule got too hard.

I sure miss it! One thing we did was everyone picked up their own dinner at the cook's house. The cook would have everything all packaged up and ready to go at the allotted time. It was like take-out, only better. At the beginning we each bought the same size casserole dish, so we could keep portions about the same. We also used a lot of plastic containers, which inevitably got lost. It wasn't a perfect system, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.

It worked well for us because none of us worked full time (in fact, until my friend started waitressing again I was the only one working at all). Now that I work 8-5 I doubt I could do it. But I could definitely see doing a weekly swap with a neighbor/friend. Hmmm... something to look into!

Thanks for the ideas - we are down to two people in the first month - with our other friend joining in when she can - but even with just two, it has been saving both of us money

You'd be surprised how easy it is to cook within most people's dietary restrictions. Just about any cook can find a good recipe for meat or beans, fruits and veggies, and rice, or even a gluten-free pasta. It's actually an adventure to get creative within these parameters. And the dishes are usually lower in calories and fat, too.

I began just cooking with my neighbor. It's not a co-op, but fun and wasn't hard to get going on it either.

One day my neighbor just called me up and asked if I had any ground beef and he had a bunch of vegetables and we collaborated on a quick dinner that we both threw together.

Probably the idea of a coop is that you get a break from cooking and thinking about dinner. But we both had a good time cooking together too. (but then they moved... and I miss the calls of "hey Lisa whaddya got in your fridge?")

Just checked out the link to the dinner at your door site... VERY COOL!

We have a household of 5 children and three adults, so I think we might just have to swap with two familes, but I'm really wondering if this is something I could do with my sisters.. close friends, it'd be really really great!

The time saved, the money, the variety, you know what would be really neat, finding some people from different culinary cultures to swap with!

Even if it were just a monday swap as a commenter mentioned, or a couple days a week. .. I'm in love with the idea!

Ok, I'm a touch germophoic, so I'm .. nearly..in love with the idea :P

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