I’m sure you’ve been there too. No matter how many times we make a menu, buy in bulk, and plan ahead, there are going to be days or even weeks when we just can’t get it together to make a healthy meal for dinner.
What happens then?
Well for me, this usually means takeout Chinese food, which is definitely not a healthy or frugal option.
Well, lately, I’ve found a different solution: neighborhood dinner swaps. Think of neighborhood dinner swaps like the neighborhood potlucks of 50 years ago. Only now, you swap dinner one-on-one with a neighbor one day per week.
The biggest benefit to a dinner swap is that for one or more nights each week, you don’t have to worry about cooking dinner. If you hook up with a trustworthy neighbor, then your dinner will show up at a predetermined time. This means you have the evening to relax.
And what about when it’s your day to cook? Well, just choose recipes that are easy to double. It doesn’t take a lot of extra work, to turn a 1 family dinner into a 2 family dinner.
One of the biggest advantages of dinner swaps is that you’re going to save a lot of money on your grocery bill. Think about what happens when you plan out five different meals. You often have extra ingredients you forget about or don’t use, and then they go bad. You also have to go to the store more often because you need fresh ingredients, which can make it really difficult to save on gas.
But rotating meals in a dinner swap means you can buy bulk foods, cook it all at once, and then you’re done!
There are several ways you can structure a dinner swap.
The first, as I already mentioned, is to collaborate with one other neighbor. You’ll cook a hot meal for them once a week, and they’ll do the same for you on another day. The food is dropped off in the afternoon or evening, and all you have to do is warm it up and eat it.
Another way you can structure your dinner swap is to collaborate with several neighbors, say three other families. You can spend one afternoon cooking four, family-sized servings of a dish that freezes easily. You drop one freezable dish off to each your three neighbors (leaving one for your own family), and pick up one of their dishes for yourself. You now have four different dinners for your crew, all which can be stuck in the freezer until you’re ready to use them.
I have read plenty of dinner co-op forum threads online, and this seems to be the arrangement that suits people best. After all, all you have to do is spend one afternoon cooking four servings of the same meal. Then, you’re set for the rest of the week, eating everyone else’s food! Makes perfect sense.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to do dinner swaps with just your neighbors. Do you have a weekly or monthly book club? Why not swap with them? Or if your children are on a sports team, why not collaborate with other parents on the team? You could swap dinners before or after the game. You can also do dinner swaps with work colleagues, friends, or family members.
Remember, dinner swaps don’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. Cooking in bulk is actually a great way to save money. And, to add some panache to your meals, you can easily use some frugal gourmet food ingredients.
Have a Meeting
If you’re serious about setting up a dinner swap and you’ve found a group of people who want to be involved, it’s important to have a meeting first. Ideally it’s in person, but it could even be done virtually, through Skype’s Video Chat for example, if you’re all busy.
The purpose of the meeting is to get everything laid out on the table so expectations are clear, schedules are determined, and any potential trouble spots are ironed out.
Consider these questions:
- What days of the week will each person be cooking?
- How, and when, will the meals be swapped?
- How big is each family?
- Will sides and desserts be included, or will the dinner swap only cover the main dish?
- Is anyone a vegetarian? Does anyone have food allergies?
- What price range should everyone stay within?
- What containers will food be put in? Will these containers be communal property and only be used for the dinner swaps?
Plan the Menu
Once you’ve got the basic rules and expectations established, you need to plan out a menu. Having a set menu will keep everyone organized, and ensure that meals don’t get duplicated (or triplicated!).
Before everyone shows up for the first meeting, ask them to come with a list of several meals they’d like to cook for the dinner swap. Then, using a calender page, have one person write out who will be cooking what, on which day, every week. Try to plan out at least a month in advance.
- Keep an eye out for special bargains and grocery store food coupons to save on groceries. Planning your dinner swaps based on food that’s on sale will save you even more.
- You can also save money on healthy fruits and vegetables when you plan meals based on what’s in season. Buying produce at farmer’s markets, co-ops, and through community supported agriculture (CSA) farms are also great ways to keep costs down.
- Real Simple Magazine created a wonderful list of recipes that work great for dinner swaps, which you can see here.
- You might also want to check out Dinner At Your Door: Tips and Recipes for Starting a Neighborhood Dinner Coop for other great ideas. Your library might have this one.
- Make sure to choose collaborators who like food similar to you. For instance, if you’re really into vegetarian or organic meals, then it’s best to start a group with similar tastes and preferences.
Have any of you ever tried doing dinner swaps? If so, what worked and what didn’t? I’d love to hear your dinner swap stories and tips if you have any to share.
(Photo Credit: SweetOnVeg)