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Monday, April 18, 2011

Looking to Create Community (and Healthy Meals)? Try A Meal Share! by Jennifer Gannett

One day, over a year ago, I realized that meals were becoming annoying and stressful: my goal was to create healthy, inexpensive, low waste, plant-based meals for my family and myself-- but I was getting exasperated with the amount of time I was spending chopping veggies and performing the necessary kitchen work each day.  When  we sat down to dinner as a family, I-- tired and cranky-- would be not-so-secretly assessing what my family was eating and feeling really bummed out if they didn't seem to like what I'd made.  All in all, not a pleasant dynamic.  I decided to approach another busy friend about potentially doing a meal trade, and she was willing to give it a go.  It worked out so well that we ended up incorporating a third family and it feels like a terrific rhythm has been established. 

In our meal share group, each family is responsible for cooking for the two other families on their assigned day (currently Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays).  A sampling of meals that have been delivered to my door over the past few months include Tamale Pie; Lima and Edamame Soup; Pad Thai; Quinoa, Kale and Bean Stew; and Carrot Polenta with Sausages and Peppers.  Some of the benefits:  The meals are all very good and healthy.  I really appreciate that I can take a couple of nights off from cooking without having to go out to a restaurant or order take-out.  My son has expanded his palate in a way that is startling (and heartwarming). We are saving a lot of money-- I no longer have to be in the market so often for the meal that night or something that I forgot (and of course, I cannot tell a lie: I would always spend more money than I'd planned to).  Preparing food in this way is also an energy saving measure, as we all aren't cooking on our own individual stoves or with our ovens etc. But perhaps one of the best things to come away from this experience is the peace of mind I have on Mondays and Wednesdays as I know our family will get a break from the kitchen stuff while still eating a delicious meal, and that is a true gift. 

Meal share groups are really catching on!  The New York Times wrote a piece last year entitled Saving Time and Stress with Cooking Coops  (I couldn't have titled it any better myself).  The article lays out the different ways that meals can be cooperatively shared and prepared together.  Beloved foodie site Chowhound offers yummy ideas for vegetarian meal share dishes here.  There is even a Montclair, NJ-based site called Cooking With Friends, which emphasizes communal meal preparation.  Our meal share group has its own blog called Suburban Vegan Meal Group, which is a year-long experiment in chronicling our meals and cooking experiences.  Readers of Your Greener Future will probably especially appreciate our entry about how we transport meals in the most environmentally-friendly way (hint: it involves tiffins and spaghetti sauce jars!).  Because we all live within a mile of each other we often try to bike or walk our meals to each other.

One last note, and that is that I think two things have been essential to our experience.  The first is that we all eat a vegan diet for ethical and environmental reasons and therefore have no qualms about cooking without dairy, meat or eggs.  Having meal sharers in your group that are on the same page is very important. The second key to success is that we are very flexible with our schedules and deliveries.  Sometimes one of us might need to skip or substitute a night, or maybe we're running a little late (or we've made dinner early in the day and we're delivering it at lunchtime).  It has never been a problem.

So give a meal share a try! Cooking together or for others is a great way to build a sense of community, try out new foods and alleviate some of the burden of domestic life.

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