Updated on 11.22.09

How to Start a Meal Exchange

Trent Hamm

Recently, several couples in our community started a frozen meal exchange. It’s a really simple idea. On a certain day, everyone in the exchange meets for coffee and brings along a laundry basket full of frozen meals, one for each family, along with any needed instructions taped to the lid. The members of the club just swap the meals so that everyone takes home one of each meal that they didn’t prepare.

It’s a very clever idea for several reasons. First, it makes it very easy for people to prepare a variety of home-cooked meals. Second, it drastically reduces the meal preparation time, since there’s only one big session of making several copies of one meal and after that one only needs to pull a meal out of the freezer and toss it in the oven. Third, it’s much cheaper since you can buy the ingredients for your meal in bulk.

Although I’m not a charter member in this group (I did suggest giving me a ring if a spot opens up), I’ve put some serious thought into starting my own group. I asked a few questions, did some research, and here’s a simple guide to starting your own meal exchange with some friends.

Consider who to invite. You need people that are frugal and reliable. Are they people who consistently come through when things are asked of them? Nothing will make an exchange fall apart faster than someone who doesn’t come through.

Avoid food allergies. When you invite someone, get clear information on their food allergies and simply make those ingredients verboten in all meal exchanges. If there is also any intense food dislikes, those should be known, too, though you should consider not inviting any notoriously picky eaters as they will make the exchange difficult for everyone.

Make a very clear set of written guidelines for everyone to follow. You’ll need to specify several policies for the group. I took a look at the guidelines for the local group and it featured the following things.

+ Meals were exchanged on the first Sunday of each month, with a rotation of hosts for the get-together. The host usually served coffee and a simple snack.

+ The meals were expected to be frozen, which means they couldn’t be prepared earlier that day and it’s actually more useful to do them late in the previous month.

+ You’re only allowed to miss one month per year – if you miss more than one, you’re automatically out unless everyone agrees by secret ballot to allow you to stay in (which allows exceptions for something truly exceptional). An exception to this is if you can give a two week notice to the entire group (so that vacations can be handled, for example).

+ To join, everyone had to buy a set of identical pans with covers, one for each other person in the exchange, that they didn’t mind “losing.” That means that the first month, everyone uses their own pans to prepare the meals. After the first exchange, everyone simply used the pans they have.

+ The contents of each meal, along with a clear statement on how to finish preparing it, had to be taped to the top of the lid.

+ A food allergy list (mentioned above) was also included in the form of a “foods that must be avoided” list.

Once you have these guidelines, make sure everyone has a clear copy. You might also want to send out an electronic copy of them.

Have an email list and set up email reminders. An email list makes it easy for you to issue reminders to everyone in the group of upcoming events – the next meal exchange (who is hosting, when, and where), reminders to get your meals cooked, notices of how many meals need to be prepared, and so on. A calendar can also be set up to help with such reminders.

A meal exchange is a really great idea to cut down your food costs and your food preparation time without giving up meal variety. If you have a wide social circle, consider starting one up.

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  1. Courtney says:

    I guess I would just prefer to eat food that I cooked myself.

    If you do it, make sure that everyone in your group has a clean, sanitary kitchen :)

  2. Courtney says:

    And if you don’t have a bunch of frugal friends in your area, you can use a meal preparation service. I use Let’s Dish (www.letsdish.com) and split all my meals in half since they serve 4-6 each, but it’s just the two of us. I spend 1-2 hours a month and take home anywhere from 8-24 meals at a cost of $10.50-12.50 per meal.

  3. Johanna says:

    Considering all the arguments people here have about nutrition, I’d think you’d also want to make sure that everyone in the group has similar feelings about what constitutes a balanced, healthful meal.

    But how much money does this really save you? Non-perishable ingredients, you can buy in bulk regardless (as long as you have sufficient storage space). Meats and some cheeses, you can buy in bulk and freeze. That leaves fresh fruits and vegetables and perhaps a few dairy products, and you don’t get *that* much of a discount for buying those in bulk. At least, you don’t where I shop.

  4. Chapeau says:

    To my way of thinking it saves money less in the cost of actual meal prep and more in the cost of my time and taste buds. While I like cooking in bulk, I only have a couple of recipes that I love to cook in bulk (I can only take so much lasagna, for example). But if other people have other recipes, then I’m getting new food ideas and new tastes.
    Having a variety of food in my freezer is just as important to me as having prepared foods in my freezer.
    I’m also hesitant to buy a “strange” ingredient sometimes, because I don’t know if my family will like it, or the recipe I want to use it in. But if I try a different ingredient in someone else’s recipe, then I get to taste it without the cash investment. And if my husband could please taste quinoa, for example, without knowing that it’s quinoa, then he might like it. And then I could cook with it more often. Cause I love it.

  5. Kristen says:

    If you’re someone who doesn’t self-motivate very well, this looks like a great way to be accountable for eating healthily and frugally (at home). You only have to get up the gumption once a month and others are counting on you. Then you will always have something good and healthy in the freezer.

    I do think you would want to limit the size of the group so that the cooking (and buying the dishes) didn’t get insane. I’m thinking around 8 families would be a good maximum. How many does the group you mentioned have?

  6. Rick says:

    I agree that this saves more time than money. I would imagine that making six of the same meal is easier, since you only have to buy 1 set of the ingredients needed, and you can make all the meals at the same.

  7. Hannah says:

    Voting by a secret ballot to see who gets to stay in the meal club? Oh my god, I have never wanted to belong to a “community” of neighbors less.

  8. Gretchen says:

    I can’t even agree with meal ideas my husband comes up with, let alone those of 6, 8 other families.

    I also don’t have the kind of freezer space it much require.
    Bulk cooking is okay in theory, but in practice I don’t do that much of it. Lunches and some snacks during the weekend, but dinners usually get cooked and eaten right away.

  9. brad says:

    @ 7 hannah



  10. *sara* says:

    Great idea. I’ve always wanted to start a group like this except invite members of different ethnicities to cook and exchange meals from their cultures. That would be a great way to learn, and share some foods that I wouldn’t normally know how to prepare!

    Another tip is to make sure there are expectations communicated about things like meat, cheese, or other “specialty” (ie expensive) ingredients, so that there isn’t one member (as in my own experience) who always brings split pea soup, or something else thats ultra-frugal, but happily accepting the chicken and steak that others provided.

    Thanks for the tips!

  11. bethh says:

    I belong to a lunch group at work and it’s extremely awesome. We currently have three active members (a fourth person is on leave), and we’re each responsible for bringing a home-made lunch to feed the group, one day per week. I bring lunch on Tuesdays, and have food provided for me on Monday & Wednesday. We usually eat vegetarian meals, but have no rules or food issues at all.

    It’s super easy – a few people expressed interest, and we decided to just do it. It’s been 2 1/2 years and no secret ballots have been required :)

    This arrangement motivates me to cook regularly, is way healthier/cheaper than buying lunch those days, and builds community among those of us in the group.

  12. Stephan F- says:

    Something we are considering restarting is a “tamale” party. We used to get together with friends and make a big pile of masa, fillings and then came together, assembled and cooked it all together.
    It doesn’t need to be tamales either, it could be anything like would benefit from a mass production environment: empanadas, ravioli, potstickers (yum), pasties, wantons, eggrolls, or maultashen.
    It is a fun way to spend time together and cook.

  13. Looby says:

    Thanks Brad @ 9 for causing me to laugh out loud at my desk, while I’m supposed to be working!

    As well as Hannah’s comment, which I completely agree with, there is not one part of this that appeals to me; from having to come up with a suitable and original dish each month (catering to goodness knows how many food foibles and allergies)
    to coming away with who knows what from other people, and having to store a “laundry basket” of dishes in between times.

  14. sbt says:

    I think this would save money for those of us who would otherwise be tempted to go out to eat on those days you just don’t feel like cooking. It’s nice to have things in the freezer for those days when they hit, and a cooking club would make it much less headache to keep a variety in the freezer.

  15. Candi says:

    Hmmm I could just cook what I actually like in bulk and freeze it. And no secret ballot voting required, sheesh.

    Thanks Hannah, I think you said it best!

  16. Rachel says:

    Personally I’m not sure I could go for that, I would probably prefer to be invited to someone’s house for dinner once a week and invite everyone over once a month, than take someone else’s food out of my freezer and serve it up.

    The secret ballot does sound a bit much, and you would need to be careful about specialty vs ultra-frugal ingredients as *sara* @10 mentioned, as well as family/portion sizes (or just have members with the same family size).

    I did like the lunch group idea that bethh @11 described, though.

  17. Good idea for people who trust other peoples recipes. I cannot do that.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  18. Steven says:

    Haha, this made me laugh. Man I wish I could find people my age who cook. All through college, I met so many people, and very few did much beyond reheating meals on the stove or in the nuker.

    Met a few guys here and there who would cook a little, but no one who would cook from scratch like I would.

    Still waiting for the girl who can cook. Looks like it’s a lost skill among the females of my generation. T_T

  19. Mary W says:

    When I worked we had a salad bar lunch group. Bring in one salad ingredient a week and you ate salad for that week. About 8 people at anyone time participated. Members changed over time. No big deal if you didn’t want to participate in any given week. No notice required. There is an endless variety of salad ingredients and most are pretty cheap. If someone didn’t like an ingredient then they didn’t add it to their salad.

    The Supper Club idea wouldn’t work for our current situation of retired with no kids. I don’t want to eat frozen casserole even if it is homemade.

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