How to Start a Meal Exchange

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.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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