Forget Celebrity Wife Swap. This is down and dirty neighbor-to-neighbor swapping that brings you into the most intimate recesses of your neighbors’ personal lives: the dinner co-op. Two, three, four or more families get together and form an exclusive club, each cooking and delivering one giant meal per week that will feed everyone. In exchange, each family gets several weeknights off from cooking, finding their evening meals delivered fresh at their doorsteps. Meal sharing clubs can take endless other forms, as well: a 2010 New York Times article profiled one in which each family cooked and portioned out one large batch per week, then brought the freezer-friendly meals to one participant’s apartment to get three frozen meals in return.
A highly personalized example of creative practices that people are trying in the new “sharing economy,” such an arrangement may save you time and money, while providing you and your family with a variety of culinary options. Major news outlets began covering the concept of the dinner co-op around 2008, around the time that the US economy tanked and families began exploring ways to share the financial and physical burdens of day-to-day functioning. In various places in the US, structures for dinner swap clubs have had time to be tested and some families have stories to tell about what went well—and what concerns and problems start-ups can expect.
Krista Atteberry, a mother of two in Hyattsville, Maryland, had about a year’s worth of dinner swapping with two neighbor families. She says her experience was almost uniformly positive. “There were times when life was so busy I was counting on that dinner showing up,” she says. “There were times when I was pregnant and hungry and waiting at the window. I had so many nights when I didn’t feel like cooking, and a magical meal would show up at my door!”
Atteberry adds that it’s important to find families whose food restrictions and preferences flow well with your own. “I think it’s helpful to have similar eating habits,” she said. With concerns about the food itself out of the way, Atteberry’s co-op identified other priorities. She and the two other families chose to structure their co-op with an eye toward reducing the weeknight-cooking workload. “Each family had one night a week,” she said. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays were the assigned nights. Beyond that, she says, “there were really very few rules…Try to deliver by 6:30. Sometimes you used the dinner for that evening. Sometimes you had other plans and saved the dinner for another night. Generally what you delivered was a ready-to-eat meal. You didn’t bring drinks or desserts.”
Even if food allergies or preferences aren’t factors, those contemplating starting up a dinner co-op should be prepared to have to consider minute details from every possible angle. Like how to deal with food containers. “We had a collective Tupperware assortment so there was no expectation to return Tupperware,” says Atteberry. “Generally we just believed in Tupperware fate. But it was kind of a challenge, because you want to match as many lids with as many containers as possible. It’s hard to do that when you’re trying to finish up the meal and put it in containers and drive it around the neighborhood.”
Food-container logistics aside, though, Atteberry says that, as her household’s main cook, the co-op did give her a significant break. Because of the co-op, she says, “I really planned and cooked one meal a week on a Monday through Friday schedule. Because there was the meal that I did, and then there were the other two meals that were delivered to me, and then we would go out or have leftovers.”
Those hungering for similar work-saving arrangements must plan for potential concerns and problems that can arise from neighbors opening their pantries to one another. Food can be an anxiety trigger for adults who may have at one time suffered from eating disorders. This may make sharing food difficult, or impossible, for some people. Other concerns that can arise— such as one family finding it hard to make multiple deliveries by dinnertime, or families moving to more distant parts of town— could shake the structure that has been agreed upon. Questions of whether and how to exclude others who want to join can lead to sensitive discussions. To head off such issues or handle them as soon as they arise, some dinner co-ops meet at some regular interval—say six weeks—to check in and see if the arrangement still works for everyone. Other dinner clubs decide to use a weekly “pot luck” system instead of the co-op, as a way to involve more people and remove the pressure of cooking large batches.
Atteberry says her co-op came to a stopping point when she and her family moved to the other side of their Washington, DC suburb. “I was the weak link,” she says. “We moved across a major intersection. It just was not feasible to [deliver meals] at the dinner hour because of traffic patterns.” Atteberry calls her dinner co-op “a fantastic experience,” and says that she most appreciated getting to better know the other two families through sharing meals. “You get to know each other’s cooking styles,” she says. “Each family every week was sort of putting their best foot forward. [Saying,] ‘Here’s a really solid meal, and it’s the best of what I have to offer this week.’ And so when you were eating the meals, it was like this person’s best effort.”
Photo by David Masters, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.