Imagine cooking one delicious dinner a week and then having equally delicious dinners delivered to your front door every other night of the week. Sound too good to be true? It’s not! And, even better, creating a dinner co-op is simple: A neighborhood circle of cooks takes turns preparing and delivering homemade meals on weeknights. “People are realizing that they want to eat local and better foods with their families, and in the co-op they get all those benefits at very little cost,” says Diana Ellis, who has been part of a dinner co-op since 1999 and is one of the authors of Dinner at Your Door (Gibbs Smith, 2008), a guide to starting your own cooking co-op. “It’s environmentally conscious, strengthens community, and simplifies life,” points out Andy Remeis, another of the book’s authors. Ellis, who is part of a family of two, grows her own vegetables and incorporates them into her co-op meals. It solves the problem of how to use 5 pounds of Swiss chard or all those fresh tomatoes when they glut the garden.
The benefits of joining a dinner co-op don’t stop there: It can broaden your palate, elevate your cooking skills, and bring a healthy element of surprise to the dinner table. Sound appealing? Dinner at Your Door provides a variety of worksheets and tips to help determine food preferences, compatibility, and planning, right down to the container sizes you need to get, but here are some basics to get you started.
1. Find compatible cooks. First and foremost, you need to assemble a compatible group. Start with members in other clubs you belong to, such as book clubs or neighborhood associations. Ask your workout buddies. It’s also important that dinner co-op members live relatively close so that drop-offs aren’t a long-distance endeavor. Once you’ve identified some potential members, have everyone fill out a compatibility survey listing preferences around ingredients and preparation (Dinner at Your Door includes an example survey). It’s unlikely preferences will match perfectly, so Davis warns that co-op success will require an open mind and willingness to try new foods.
2. Make flexibility part of the requirements. It’s important to be flexible with the way you set up your dinner co-op and decide what goals you are collectively working toward. Many people are trying to eat more local and organic foods, and a co-op can bring that goal within reach. Keep in mind that a cooking co-op is meant to upgrade your lifestyle with healthy and satisfying meals all week. You might want to set a trial period—such as one month—so that no one feels pressured to continue if the co-op isn’t compatible for their needs or lifestyle.
3. Establish guidelines. At the first co-op meeting, make sure members fill out a food preferences sheet and include any food allergies. Then determine the number of servings that will be needed to feed everyone in the co-op. (Rather than prepare too little, remember that leftovers can be saved for lunch the next day.) Next, set a schedule: Each member picks one night a week to cook for the group. The authors suggest delivering co-op meals Monday through Thursday so that every household has the weekend to freely choose meals and dinner times. Set a half-hour range for dinner delivery that allows for some reliability in everyone’s schedule.
4. Get the right containers. Buy identical containers for everyone in a variety of sizes so you have the correct quantity every time. The authors suggest a particular set of deep, straight-sided glass dishes from Pyrex’s “Storage Plus” line that can be found at www.pyrexware.com. You’ll need to invest in six sets of containers each for a three-family co-op and ten sets of containers each for a four-family co-op. That way every night there is one seven-cup round and one 11-cup rectangle glass container for each family. Keep in mind that the dishes are owned collectively and circulate nightly. For a three-household co-op, the first chef starts with three sets of containers, the second chef has two, and the third chef has one set, so that when they rotate you should have the correct number of containers when it’s your night to cook.
5. Communicate. It is important to keep talking and make adjustments if something isn’t going smoothly. Make sure members don’t feel like they’re trapped in the co-op. Make it clear that any one can graciously decide to opt out at any point. If someone makes a meal with an ingredient you cannot stand, give it a try—you might be pleasantly surprised. If you ever have to salvage a questionable dinner, try adding extra spices or ingredients from your own kitchen. Culinary flops are bound to happen—be able to laugh them off. The authors recommend creating a feedback forum that can be done through email or as an informal monthly review. You might even plan a special monthly group potluck so you can give each other feedback and do some menu planning to ensure variety in meal choices. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself along the way!
For more information about Dinner at Your Door visit the website at dinnerco-ops.com.
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