Communal Cooking for Busy Families

Faithful Families PRINT


by Annie Hardison-Moody

Originally posted at Voices into Action.

Some of the researchers on the Voices into Action project recently wrote an article about family meals (you can read a little more about it here), in which they talk about the issues families face as they try to get dinner on the table.  Many of these issues are structural, like low wages, gender inequality, and under or un-employment.  As moms in our project have told us, these struggles are real, and families are finding it increasingly hard to shop for and prepare meals each day.

In their article and another piece they posted later, Sarah, Sinikka, and Joslyn all point out that in addition to addressing the larger, structural issues that affect families’ ability to prepare meals,those of us in the health promotion world also need to re-think how we talk about and promote the home-cooked meal.  That’s something that nutritionist, and Faithful Families development team member, Carolyn Dunn addressed on the Food Myths and Memes blog recently.

So just what can families and communities do to ensure that we are all able to come to the table, so to speak?  These articles and posts have encouraged us to start thinking creatively about how and what we eat.  How can we encourage communities and neighbors to come together to plan and prepare meals?  How might mobile markets bring food to areas that lack access to produce?  How might faith communities and other organizations with kitchen space open up their facilities for community meals or meal prep?  These and other solutions are just the tip of the iceberg, in what I hope will become a more vibrant – and productive – conversation about what families eat.

Since I’m so excited about the work our team does, I wanted to test out some of these creative solutions for myself.  And being a new parent, what better time to do that?  When we had our daughter this summer, my spouse and I received freezer and prepared meals to keep us full, so that we could focus on caring for our new little girl.  We have talked a lot as a Voices into Action team about how community meal preparation might be one creative solution to getting food on the table for busy families.  The combination of my work conversations and my experiences with a new baby (and the meals that came along with her arrival!) got me thinking – what if a group of people got together and made a bunch of meals to share, that we could each freeze at home and pop in the oven when we got home from work?  I texted a few of my friends who, like me, like to cook, but don’t have the time, and our first community meal swap was born.  We meet up once a month to swap meals we have prepared for each other, so each family takes home a total of eight freezer meals a month, while only having to cook two.

If you are interested in trying this for yourself, here’s how it works:

  • Figure out who you should invite.  When thinking about who to invite, you might first want to reach out to people who have similar tastes and cooking styles, particularly if you have any picky eaters at home!  If you are feeling more adventurous, you could find friends or neighbors who cook differently from you, to try out new flavors and cuisines.  We ended up with a group of four families – a nice number that wasn’t too intimidating to cook for.  We also all have two (ish – one family has a two year old!) adults in each family, so we decided we could cook meals that fed 4-6 people, so we would have enough to eat each  meal for two nights.  Be sure to find families or groups that are the same size as yours – so you aren’t cooking for a family of eight, when you only have two people in your home!
  • Determine what to cook.  We sent a few emails back and forth, although you could certainly meet in person for 30 minutes or so, to talk about likes/dislikes/allergies, etc.  For those who are into social media, you could even create a Pinterest board (like we did) or a Facebook group to share ideas and recipes.  In general, we have cooked casserole type dishes that have a vegetable included.  When that wasn’t the case (for example, one of the casseroles I made), we send a veggie side as well.  You could decide to always include a side dish, or to always make casserole or one-dish type meal to keep it easy!  Be sure to find meals that freeze easily.  I’ve made some suggestions below, but Pinterest  has been my best friend for this one (I search “freezer meals”).
  • Set the ground rules.  We decided that instead of getting together to cook all of the meals, each family would be responsible for cooking two meals for all four families.  For example, I cooked aMexican chicken casserole and a broccoli, brown rice, and chicken casserole. (A note about the broccoli casserole: I used brown rice instead of white and subbed a cup of nonfat greek yogurt for the mayo – it was just as delicious!) I made enough for four families (including mine), with 4-6 servings per meal.  That way, each family ended up with eight meals per month.  We decided that eight freezer meals/month would work for us, but you might want to exchange meals more or less often than that.
  • Keep it simple. It does take about 2 hours (or it did for me) to prepare eight meals, so keeping it as easy as possible helps minimize the time you spend cooking.  For example, I made two dishes with chicken that I bought at a bulk buying store, to cut down the time it would take to cook a lot of meat.  I also try to make meals that don’t have a lot of complicated steps or ingredients.
  • Determine how to package the meals.  Here’s where you can get creative.  We ended up using recyclable foil pans to package our meals, but you can always use freezer plastic bags for things like soups or stews.  Any dish that freezes well will work.  You can meet up to exchange dishes (so at the end, you are washing and keeping your dishes – not having to return someone else’s), or use disposable or recyclable containers.  A friend recently sent us some chicken chili in salsa jars she had cleaned – what an awesome way to recycle things you have around the house for meals like this!  Remember, it’s important to follow key food safety guidelines when preparing and re-heating foods.
  • Find a date and time to meet up and exchange.  We worked around nap times and schedules to figure out a date and time  by which we could all make our meals and meet up.  The exchange took about 10 minutes – everyone sent one person from their household to make the switch, and we were done!  Be sure to bring a big bag to carry home all of your goodies.  Mine went straight into the freezer, with the exception of one meal we were going to eat the next night.

These are just some of the tips I’ve collected over our first month, but I’m happy to share more as our experiment continues.  What I can say so far is that I love knowing that each night we have a meal that one of us can pop into the oven and eat, and with planning, shopping, and preparation, it only took about four-five hours total. This has cut down on our family cooking time, and left us more time to do the things we want to do, like spend time with our baby girl.  As you can see from the picture of the broccoli casserole above, when she goes to bed, we just heat up dinner and add a salad or simple veggie as a side.

photo 1If you are interested in starting a meal swap, the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and Faithful Families has lots of great, affordable recipes that freeze perfectly.  We’ve frozen both the quiche and the cheesy, beefy skillet dinner.  In fact, just this week I made the quiche with some sweet potatoes I got from the Harnett County Cooperative Extension office.  Instead of using chicken, I put cooked (in the microwave!), chopped sweet potatoes and sauteed onions in the base of the quiche, then topped it with cheese and the egg mixture in the recipe as instructed.  I’ve included a picture, which doesn’t do it justice – it was delicious!  I love that you can use this recipe with any meats or vegetables, or make it completely vegetarian.  It makes two of the quiche, which is perfect – I’ve been eating one for lunch all week, and I put the second in the freezer for a quick dinner later.

Now it’s our turn to hear from you – what creative tips do you have for re-thinking the home-cooked dinner?  Has your community or neighborhood come up with a solution to help busy families eat healthier foods?  We want to hear from you!  Share your stories in the comments, on our Facebook page, or via Twitter (@FFESMM).