First, we very briefly discussed food allergies or strong aversions to certain foods via Facebook messages. Luckily, there were no food allergies so that wasn't a concern. The only things to work around were a husband who doesn't like chunks of tomatoes in anything and two husbands who don't like casseroles or too many textures in the same dish. At the end of September, we had an initial planning session that lasted about one hour. Each person brought 12 recipes they felt comfortable making for others. The only guidelines for the recipes were that they needed to a) be freezeable and b) reheat well and fairly easily.
We went around the table, each person giving the names of their recipes and a brief description if it wasn't self-explanatory. From there we started narrowing down the lists to 4 recipes per person, one for each week in October. The most important thing about this step was HONESTY! If we heard a recipe that we knew our family wouldn't enjoy, it was important to speak up so that it could be removed from the list of possibilites. On the other hand, it was equally as important to chime in when we heard somehing that sounded really good. I was a little nervous that all of one person's recipes would get vetoed or that someone woudn't hear any recipes that sounded good to them. It was a pleasant surprise to see how easy it really was.
The final thing we did in our planning session was to decide which meals would be prepared in which week. We tried to keep a little variety within each week (i.e. not all Italian dishes, not all chicken recipes, etc.)
The exchange: We decided that 2 of us would bring our meals on Tuesday when we met for our mommy & me group and the other 2 would bring meals to church on Sunday mornings. We're fortunate that our church has a refrigerator with plenty of space so that the "bringers" could put their food in their when they arrived and the "takers" could grab it out of the fridge as they left. This way the meals would be fairly fresh. We also wouldn't be juggling a ton of food and children at the same time.
Containers: Each person was responsible for providing containers for each of their meals. If the container was reusable, it was the responsibility of the recipient to wash and return the container. I personally found it the easiest and most cost-effective to purchase foil pans with lids. I bought 30 of each at Sam's Club for around $13 total.
Side dishes: Main courses were the focus of our meal swap. If the dish required rice, pasta or buns to really be complete (i.e. spaghetti and meatballs, stir fry, pulled pork sandwiches), then the "cooker" provided those. If the dish was a meal in and of itself (i.e. enchiladas, marinated/breaded meat) then there was no accompaniment. When pasta or rice was provided, we chose to do it uncooked so that it would be fresh at the time of serving. We all bought in bulk, portioned it into plastic bags and wrote the cooking instructions on the outside.
Reheating instructions: Each "cooker" included suggested reheating instructions with each of their dishes. One of the ladies read that it's best not to write directly on aluminum foil pans because it can rub off. We also didn't want to write the instructions directly on plastic containers since they're reusable. Instead, we wrote our instructions on either plain white labels or masking tape and adhered them to the container.
What Dishes Worked?
- meats cooked in sauce (beef stroganoff, curry chicken, spaghetti and meatballs)
- soups and stews
- doughy things (stromboli, calzones)
- things that could be assembled ahead of time and baked just before eating (enchiladas, lasagna) although it is important to specify any timeframe in which the dish has to be baked
- stir frys
- I've been told by others that casseroles work extremely well, too. We didn't have any of these in our meal swap because of the two husbands who don't like casseroles. Weirdos. :)
I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing in the beginning for a couple of reason. First of all, I was nervous about my cooking being "good enough" for other families. Secondly, I like to cook and I was afraid that I'd miss cooking each night.
Turns out, I loved it! I was a little shocked the first week at how long it took to prepare my contribution, about 3 hours start to finish. There was a definite return on investment the rest of the week, though. I didn't have to spend more than 30 minutes preparing dinner each night. Being able to get extra things done around the house in the time it would normally have taken to make dinner was nice. I still still put a homecooked meal on the table for my husband and little one which made me not miss the cooking as much as I thought I would.
My husband and I really liked trying new things and having a peek at what's on normal rotation in the other families' homes. I requested several recipes from the "cookers" and plan to add a couple of the dishes to our own usual rotation.
If you have any other questions about our meal swap, please comment on this post or e-mail me and I'll be happy to respond.