Before I had children, the challenge wasn’t time. And, I enjoy cooking, so the nightly task never felt like a chore. Back then, what made it hard was planning meals around the package sizes of ingredients. A new recipe that called for one chipotle pepper looked interesting, but the idea of being left with most of a can was unappealing. And, when it was just us, I preferred to make half-batches of family-sized recipes, so that we were not eating the same thing nights in a row: even reasonably-written recipes left me with component overages. Yes, odd-lot ingredients can be saved and used later, but the running tally of perishables for which I had to find uses sent my OCD into overdrive.
Now that we have two children, the challenge is time. The idea of starting a meal from scratch every evening is overwhelming. I could stockpile my time, and use part of the weekend to get a head start on meals for the week, but even that two-or-three hour stretch (longer if I have “Helpers”) can feel like a luxury.
Years ago, my sister-in-law, mother, and I (all of who were dealing with the challenges of working full-time and cooking for just two) came up with a plan to solve our shared problem: each of us (plus my sister, whom we co-opted into the scheme) would cook a full recipe of an entire dinner–thereby going a long way toward addressing the problem of left-over ingredients. We’d portion our recipes into serves-two packages and meet on Sunday afternoons to
drink wine and trade food. Each of us went home with four two-person meals to use during the week. Once you added social events, work obligations, and restaurant dinners into the equation, four home-cooked meals was plenty to get each family through to the next exchange.
Our club started as a way to help with the challenges of cooking for two, but a club makes even more sense for busy mothers. In exchange for cooking once (even if it’s a double- or triple-batch), you get multiple nights of varied meals, ready to heat for your family dinner.
I make it sound easy. There were some bumps in the road. Lucky for you, the three of us also cracked open a bottle of wine (to encourage Real Talk) and made up a list of Rules of Membership.
When our club was in its heyday, the rules were posted prominently in my mother’s kitchen. I came across them recently. They were drafted for a specific audience and aren’t fit for a family-friendly blog, but I have taken it upon myself to distill their wisdom for you. Here are the (sometimes re-worded) rules that served us well. [hr]
Members Should Have Similar Tastes.
Are you vegetarian? Not a fan of fish or seafood? Working with a food allergy or intolerance? When possible, recruit members whose preferences or needs are similar to yours, to increase the chances that each meal provided is a hit in each house. While part of the fun of a club is trying meals that you wouldn’t think to make on your own, it’s helpful to find families whose palates are as broad (or narrow) as your family’s, and who fall close together on the white rice/brown rice/quinoa continuum.
Our (somewhat repetitive) canon contains five separate rules that point to this concept, including the no-punch pulling and strangely arithmetic, “3 gross meals=membership revoked.” One might argue that “gross” is vague, or subject to unreasonable interpretation. On our hamster wheel, we addressed that concern with the maxims, “majority rules,” and “new recipes require clearance from co-presidents unless substantially credible.”
So, yes, you should have some mechanism to resolve differences in expectations, and to address sub-par performance. [hr]
Decide the State of Completion in Which Meals Should Be Provided.
In our club, we determined that meals should be sent with all components, including right-portioned sides, bread, and salad, as appropriate. To avoid pantry-squatting leftovers, we agreed that rice or pasta should be sent uncooked, in a two-person quantity, with cooking times. Your club might decide to be entrée-only, to permit each family to round out a main dish with their own on-hand items. Or, you might decide that everything, including rice or pasta, should be sent fully-cooked.
Particularly if your club contains busy families, don’t overlook the “freezes beautifully” section of your cookbook. It’s nice to share “something that freezes beautifully” if school or sports, social obligations, or other factors prevent a family from getting to your meal during the week it was delivered.[hr]
Agree on a Delivery System (and Consequences).
Our club met at the most centrally-located house every Sunday at 4 p.m., and each person cooked every week. You might decide to meet bi-weekly, or monthly. Perhaps in your club, only one person cooks each week: at home, you’d only get one “night off” per week, but you’d cook for the group infrequently. Whatever schedule works for your group, make sure it is communicated clearly, and that everyone understands the consequences of not abiding.
We established a sporadically-enforced three-strike system, with each no-show counting as a strike. We struggled with the advisability of a buy-out option (pursuant to which, rather than tendering her pre-portioned meals, a member could deliver crisp $20 bills to be used to order take-out). Early in our drafting, we toed a hard line, insisting that members were required to cook. We eventually softened in response to one member’s repeated reference to her challenging personal circumstances and agreed that a buy-out would be permitted in certain dire, enumerated situations.[hr]
Remember: it’s Supper Club, Not Pinterest.
Certainly, members should use reasonable efforts to make healthful, interesting meals that they are proud to deliver and think other members will enjoy. At the same time, the whole point of a club is to make lives easier. It’s not competitive. In fact, show-boating is likely to undermine the essential tenants of heat-and-eat, family-friendly, and limited left-overs. So really, don’t be a prancing pony, and do your part to prevent the Pinterest mentality from taking over your club.[hr]
It may take some tinkering, but with the right group and shared expectations, a supper club might be a great solution to your meal-planning problem.