Monday, March 26, 2012

How to Start a Meal Co-Op

The hardest part of cooking isn't the actual warming up of food.  It's the planning - deciding what you're going to make, shopping for the ingredients, cutting it all up, measuring everything...  The warming up is the easiest part, actually.  Well, what if I told you that you could get out of all the hard work, and get back to the family table (SO important - see below) almost every night?  And you can do it cheaper (because you're buying in bulk) and with less effort than cooking every night from scratch.  Interested?

Last fall my aunt Kathryn invited me to join her Meal Co-op. I had never heard of such a thing. It turns out that joining was one of the best things I've ever done, and I think you should do it too. Here's how it works:

You find five friends who have families approximately like your own. So, if you're a vegetarian, find five vegetarians. If you have a family of 5 like me, you want to find five other similarly sized families. It won't work as well if your families are all different sizes. And if you have three growing teenaged boys in your house, you don't necessarily want to co-op with people who have empty nests (although it could work, with some extra packaging and planning - you'd just divide the empty nesters' share into two or three packages instead of putting it all in one, I suppose). You can do it with more or fewer families, but fewer and it's not as worthwhile, and more and it's going to get overwhelming. 6 - 8 total families seems to be the sweet spot where it's do-able and worthwhile.

Each month you're going to make one thing six times and freeze it. For example, I just made a drunken pork tenderloin - I made the marinade in a one gallon pitcher with totally ridiculous amounts of food - 8 pork tenderloins, 32 cloves of garlic, 2 cups of Jack Daniels (woo woo!), and so on. I put each tenderloin in a one gallon ziploc bag, then poured the finished marinade over the meat, squeezed the excess air out of the bag, and froze them.

Marinades are easy to make in huge quantities.
If I ever find my blank labels, I'll print a label for each bag.  Since my labels have disappeared, I took pictures of last month's meals for the sake of examples:

This chicken is amazing!  I got the recipe from Kathryn.
Shepherd's pie tastes better sideways, right?
I printed out 6 copies of my recipe (my local group has seven families - I made two tenderloins for myself because somehow multiplying by 8 is easier than multiplying by 7).  I often take my extra meal to friends with new babies, my pregnant sister, my overwhelmed friend, etc.  Next weekend I'll get together with the other six families and each of them will have made 7 (or 8) of something, and we'll each give each other one "copy" of the meal. So I show up with 7 of the same thing and I go home with 7 unique meals!

And my freezer will look like this!  That whole middle shelf is filled with meals, all ready to rock!
You know how everyone brings casseroles after you have a baby, and it's so nice to have all that food already made?  Well, this is exactly like that, only you don't have to have a baby!

My co-op in Grammaland (the one I'm in with Kathryn) has fewer families than my local group, but we each make two, sometimes three meals. Each month I have about 3 weeks worth of meals in my freezer - then I fill in the other week with fresh stuff, or we eat out, or whatever.

I was concerned about the money aspect of it - if I make filet mignon and someone else makes chicken soup, how is that fair? Well, it is a simple matter of filling out a template lists all the ingredients listed, figuring out a cost per entree, then figuring out the total amount spent per "set" of meals.

Google Documents makes this super easy.
Then you subtract what you spent to make your meals, and if you spent more the banker writes you a check. If you spent less, then you write the banker a check.

The entrees generally work out to around $8 each. They usually feed us dinner with plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day.

Before the co-op, I had gotten into such a rut.  I was making the same five or six meals every week, and we were all completely bored with all of them.  Well, since joining the co-op we've eaten a much greater variety of foods that we would never have tried otherwise.  (At the meeting we decide what we're going to make next time, so no one ends up with too much lasagna - as if there is such a thing as too much lasagna!)

We eat out a lot less because I have to plan ahead and get something out of the freezer the night before (generally I'll go out to the garage freezer to grab a vegetable to go along with tonight's dinner, and I'll grab tomorrow's dinner at the same time).  Since it's already thawed and almost entirely ready to go, I don't tend to get lazy around 5 pm (the hardest time of the day for parents of young kids) and say, "Let's just order pizza," or "Let's just eat out," the way I used to.

My kids are trying new things, too, which is so important.  I always make sure that there's at least one thing per meal that they will eat - so if I'm not sure that they'll like the entree, I'll make mashed potatoes and broccoli which everyone loves.  Or I'll make bread or rolls.  It's really easy to fill in and make sure everyone gets enough.  And if they totally can't stand it, there's always PB&J.

The great thing about it is that you set the rules - in my Grammaland co-op we prefer whole ingredients and meals made from scratch.  We avoid artificial sweeteners and other chemical ingredients.  We also have guidelines for cleanliness (I must have washed my hands 82 times - cooking for friends makes me a lot more careful than when I cook for my family!) that are in writing and agreed upon.  I'll be happy to email our guidelines and templates to you, if you want to start your own co-op (just email me) but the beauty of it is that you can shape it to fit your situation!

As for where to find the recipes, if you don't have an aunt Kathryn, try this fabulous cookbook (LOVE). All Recipes scales recipes up easily, too.  Or just do the math for your own favorite recipes.  Just remember that eights are easier than sevens!  Raw potatoes don't freeze well.  Undercook pasta so it doesn't get squashy.  Lettuce and banana also don't do well when thawed and heated.  But really, who eats hot lettuce, anyway?  Dairy products separate, sometimes, so be careful of sour cream based sauces and so on.  Most everything else, though, will freeze beautifully if you remove the extra air. It's easiest to freeze things flat so they transport and store easily.

My Grammaland co-op was so terrific, I started another one locally.  I encourage you to try it with your own friends.  Life changing stuff, here, folks.

From WebMD:
10 Benefits of Frequent Family Dinners
  • Everyone eats healthier meals.
  • Kids are less likely to become overweight or obese.
  • Kids more likely to stay away from cigarettes.
  • They're less likely to drink alcohol.
  • They won't likely try marijuana.
  • They're less likely to use illicit drugs.
  • Friends won't likely abuse prescription drugs.
  • School grades will be better.
  • You and your kids will talk more.
  • You'll be more likely to hear about a serious problem.
  • Kids will feel like you're proud of them.
  • There will be less stress and tension at home.
Sounds worth it to me!!


Kathryn said...

Funny that the 2 pictures of finished meals are the ones I have out thawing now - the Firehouse Chicken for tonight and the Shepard's Pie for tomorrow unless it becomes magical and I get a call to eat dinner out :)

Amy Austin said...

Must be Firehouse Chicken night. We had it too!

Liz said...

It's a neat idea. Very cool.

Kathryn said...

I know why the Shepards pie is magical. Because after 2 full days in the refrigerator and 30 minutes in the oven it is STILL frozen in the middle. Hence the need to eat out. We are now having upside down Shepards pie so we can thaw it in the microwave.

Amy Austin said...

Wow! That's a stubborn frozen shepherd's pie. Sorry!!!

Hope it tasted good once it thawed!

heathers243 said...

Hey Amy, have you tried Crowd Kitchen? Similar concept, but a little more flexible with timing and the food doesnt have to be frozen. Check it out!

Amy Austin said...

Crowd kitchen is a neat idea, but it looks pretty new - no one is using it in my community.

I signed up, though. Who knows what will take off on the 'net?

heathers243 said...

It is brand new! Just launched is week :-) invite some local friends and I'd love to hear your feedback on how it works for you!

Jo(ke) said...

Seriously awesome idea. I want to start doing this with a few friends once I am married in July.

Erin said...

this sounds so awesome! you've posted a bit about it before and i always thought it sounded cool. now that you've written out so many details it really has peaked my interest.

but...i feel like it would be a lot of work to make all the meals, coordinate get togethers, etc. do you find it overwhelming at times? before you joined were you a bit apprehensive?

Amy Austin said...

At first I was TOTALLY intimidated! I cooked my first set of meals at my aunt's house, because she has done it before and has a better kitchen. But honestly, cooking 6 or 8 entrees once is a LOT less effort than cooking 6 or 8 different things all week. It's an investment of time, but it's well worth it. I recommend not choosing two recipes that require a lot of chopping and fussing - one of those and one easy one is much more do-able if you are doing a co-op where you do two meals. And don't choose recipes with a lot of onions. Gah. I cut up two entire bags full of onions before I realized that there's no law that says onions have to be in everything! :) I get the frozen pre-chopped ones, too. More expensive, but a lot easier on the eyes. But honestly, it's not that hard.

Robyn said...

I love the idea of freezer meal swapping, but not sure what you mean by the banker thing... I understand working out how much each meal costs etc. just not how it works with spending over or under and paying the 'banker'. I really want to start a freezer meal swap in my home town with a few of my friends but want to make sure I have my head around the idea completely before going ahead with it. I would really love any information regarding how these work so I can hopefully start one up here and it can be a success.