Just after I had Noble (3 years ago) a friend of mine told me she was going to bring me dinner. I said thank you and she brought us a delicious mexican meal. My husband told me to make sure I got the recipe. When I talked to her next and thanked her for the meal she told me she was going to bring me dinner again on the same night the next week.
I again said thank you but that she didn't need to do that. She explained that it was no big deal because it was her night to cook for her dinner group so it was no problem to bring me some too. With that qualification I accepted her offer to bring me dinner again. Again she brought us another incredible meal. Again my husband told me to get the recipe.
The next time I saw her, I asked for the recipes and thanked her again. She told me again it wasn't a big deal because she was used to cooking for 3 families every week on that night but that one of her dinner group families had just backed out and they hadn't found a replacement yet. I immediately saw the potential for great benefits here and asked if I could fill that spot. She talked to the other woman in the group and I became their third member.
So for the past 3 years I have cooked dinner for 3 families every Tuesday night (my family and 2 others.) Then on Wednesday and Thursday nights dinner arrives at my door hot and ready to eat. It has been WONDERFUL!
Some of the main benefits have been: cost saving (I cook one dinner for lots of people so I can buy in bulk for that meal), my kids have learned to broaden their palates and try new foods, I have tried countless new recipes, more variety in what we eat in general, less fast food trips mid week, time savings, more well rounded meals, less cooking.
The only real down side has been that I do block out Tuesday afternoons for cooking and sometimes it is a bit hectic from 3:30 when the kids get home till about 4:30 or 5:00 when I get dinner delivered. Still if I am cooking well for my family I would probably still have this problem to some degree and it would be every night.
Now I have seen other people try to start dinner groups and they have not stayed together or worked as well as our does. So I thought I would pass on some tips if you want to start a group.
- 3 is the perfect number of families. If you get 4 it is too much food to make in a normal kitchen (depending on how big the families are.) 2 seems like just friends doing favors for each other and it seems like a lot of work to make the big meal when you only get one other day off cooking.
- You need to find other women whose cooking you like. This is probably the trickiest part. The other two women in my group do not cook the same as me but they are both really good cooks. It is simply not worth doing the big cook for others if you don't like the food they bring and they don't like your food. So you need to find people whose food you like and who like what you make.
- You can't have super picky eaters. Of course there will be foods some people in the group don't like (I mean we have kids after all and we adults all have our little quirks right?) But we have a general rule that we eat what we are given. If there are olives in a salad we get, I just eat around them. If they are in a cooked dish, I just eat it anyway. I am not an olive fan but I am not going to boycott a dish if they are in it. There are a few things we have shared with each other that we don't like. I know one of my families doesn't like raw tomatoes. If I made a dish (like I did last night) that calls for tomatoes I put them in anyway and that family can just eat around them (I made red, black and pinto bean salad with roasted corn and avocado and it also had halved cherry tomatoes in it.) If on the other hand I am making a toss salad or toppings for tacos, I just don't chop up the tomatoes to serve with theirs. Whoever is in your group needs to be flexible and open minded. There are more ways to cook a chicken than one. As long as you are open to trying new ways of cooking and forcing your children to eat whatever comes it will be great.
- No crazy diets. It is really hard to do this if you have someone who is dieting or has a special diet. Unless everyone in the group is used to cooking gluten free it is hard to include a person with a gluten allergy. That is why my group lost the person who was in before me. She had just had a baby and was on a strict diet to lose the weight. I have dieted while doing this but I did Weight Watchers where I could eat anything but just watched my portion size. And I did cook really healthy on my night during that time and was really careful on Wed. and Thurs. to save my points for dinner since I didn't know if what was coming would be healthy or fatty.
- Have a common idea about what makes a complete "dinner." It is helpful to set out some ground rules up front so everyone is on the same page about what to bring. In our group we have a few stated and a few understood ground rules. Generally we try to include a main dish, a vegetable and a fruit in every meal. The main dish can be vegetarian. But it would not be okay to just bring a meat and no sides. We do sometimes do a casserole type all in one pot meal but even then we try to have something that goes along. Like last night I did tater tot casserole but I had that bean salad on the side and cookies for dessert. I didn't have a fruit dish but the salad had tomatoes and avocados and there were veggies in the casserole and the salad too so I figured there was enough plant type food. Also we have an unwritten rule about trying to stay mostly homemade. We can use a roasted chicken to make another meal but wouldn't buy the chicken and serve it as the main dish. We can buy premade rolls to use for a sandwich but we need to have put some time and effort into the rest of the meal. If we are going to serve pizza, we need to have made the pizza ourselves. Also dessert in our group is optional, never expected but always welcome. We understand if some weeks our lives are crazy and we do an easier to make meal but we don't do those super easy meals very often. Usually I try to have at least one item that I put some extra time and effort into (homemade rolls, a fancy dessert, something that took lots of chopping.)
- Know when to skip but don't do it too often. You need to have people who are going to be committed and are in town most of the time. There are times when one of us bows out because we are going out of town but we aren't out of town for months at a time. Summer is a little tricky but we stick it out even if only 2 of us participate for a week. Sometimes we even invite a guest cook for a week if we know one of us will be out of town for a while.
- Communicate nicely. It is important to be able to nicely tell people in your group if there is a fixable problem or what things you like the most about your group. We have sent emails around a couple of times just to see what people liked the most and if there was anything they really didn't want to see again. I found out that neither of the other families I cook for like sweet potatoes. This was good info. My family LOVES sweet potatoes and would choose them over regular potatoes every time. So I had been making sweet potato fries or other sides for them. Now I get both sweet and regular potatoes when I made something with potatoes. (Like the tater tot casserole last night. Regular tots for them and sweet potato tots for us.) It was an easy fix and I am glad they shared. We don't compliment meals every time. We only compliment when the dinner is so good we would love to see it repeated. That way if we don't get a compliment it doesn't mean they didn't like the food and no feelings are hurt. If we do get a compliment we know they LOVED it and would like to see it again.
- Watch repeats. One of the beauties of this is the greater variety of food. Even good food can get old if you eat it too often. So we try not to repeat too often. I have a few favorite meals that I used to make a couple times a month for my family. Now we eat them a couple of times a year instead. Even the foods I know my other families LOVE and ask me to make anytime I still only make maybe half a dozen times a year. We all try lots of new recipes. None of us mind being guinea pigs. Also you want to watch out for repeating the same type of food too often. People will get sick of soup every week even though there are a million different soups you could make. Same with casseroles or crock pot meals.
- Agree on timing. Different families eat at different times. It is helpful to find other families who eat close to when you do. We eat really early at our house. Dinner at 4:30 is ideal. I know other families who don't eat till 7 or 8 at night. That wouldn't work for us. In our group I usually deliver between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m. and the other two deliver between 5 and 5:30. 6 is about the latest we ever have to wait for dinner. That works for us.
- Agree on portions. You need to let people know how much your family eats. I have a bigger family than the other two girls in my group but because my kids don't eat very much our portions are pretty similar. The other two girls each have 3 boys. I make portions for 16 (5 for each of them and 6 for us). I know some kids eat more than others so it is important to let people know if your kids (or adults) are big eaters or not.
- Dishes. In our group we deliver dinner on a jelly roll pan (this just serves as a carrying tray.) We use our own real dishes and they get passed from house to house. Sometimes we use disposable things like paper plates or tin foil or Ziplock bags for some items. But it is common for us to have a couple of Tupperwares and a 8x8 glass backing dish or another type of serving dish used to deliver the food. For example, yesterday I sent out 3 casserole dishes and 3 Plastic Storage containers with food in them to the families. The plastic I sent was stuff that came with food in it last week and not mine. The casserole dishes were mine. Today dinner came in one of my casserole dishes and in addition my friend brought a couple of plastic containers that are mine and another casserole dish she had from a previous meal I had made. Once in a while we find one person is running low on plastic containers or someone has too many and is not sure whose is whose. I mark the ones I care about with my name. Then periodically I clean out my plastic storage containers and take all the ones I am not sure about to the other ladies to see if they want them or if they recognize them. It generally all evens out. We normally know our real dishes well enough to recognize them and return the when we take our next meal. Hope that helps!
I know other groups do frozen dinners that they deliver to each other on a given night (like they meet on Sunday night and trade frozen dinners.) Or other groups will have a meal ready to make that the others pick up sometime before dinner time and take home to stick in the oven. The key is to agree on these thing before hand so you are all on the same page and are doing something that works for you.
I have felt that my dinner group has been a huge blessing to me. There have only been a couple of times in the last three years that I didn't like what they brought for dinner (my kids often are not crazy about stuff but I make them eat it any way. They just as often don't like what I make. I figure it is good for them to broaden their palate.)
Let me know if any of you start a dinner group and how it goes. I would LOVE to hear about it.