Stressed out and tired trying to get healthy food on the table? A cooking cooperative might just be the thing you are looking for so that you can finally offer a variety of healthful foods to your family. The concept is simple: by working together, many hands make light work of preparing healthy meal components and transforming whole foods into staples or meals such as hummus, salsa, chili and soup.
As we have less and less time to cook, we increasingly rely on prepared foods for our meals. These foods are often more costly and have unnecessary additives. Even additive-free prepared foods labeled “healthy” can still have high sodium and added sugar.
However, it’s hard to find time to prepare a variety of healthy meal components. Batch cooking (cooking in large quantities) is a huge time saver and definitely easier on your wallet, but it’s boring to eat the same thing every day and we want to incorporate as much variety as possible into our diets.
Enter the cooking cooperative! With a cooking cooperative, you exchange quantities of a food staple or meal and in return you get another different staple or meal to take home. It’s much easier to batch cook a pot of soup with 12 servings, so why not exchange six or eight of those servings for a fresh loaf of gluten-free bread and hummus?
It does take some initial work to set up a cooking cooperative that will run smoothly, but the payoff is well worth it. When I discovered the cooking cooperative in Pittsburgh started by my friend Leah it was such a revelation. I met people with the same love of from scratch cooking as I have and was introduced to a whole new community of like-minded people who have become lifelong friends.
Food-wise, it was nice to have the variety each week and to be exposed to new recipes and ingredients. I also loved having healthier homemade versions of things like ketchup and BBQ sauce on hand, which as a new mom, I might not have had time to make otherwise.
Here are the steps to follow to start a cooking cooperative:
Step 1: Find fellow foodies.
You need enough people so that you actually have enough food and variety to exchange, but not too many that you are trying to batch cook 30 servings of dairy-free yogurt or bake 20 loaves of bread. Between three to eight people is a good number for a cooking cooperative because not everyone will sign up each week.
Participants sign up each week by the cutoff date (2-3 days before the exchange) and don’t need to participate each week. Yes, this means occasionally no one signs up or there may only be two people swapping, but the flexibly makes it much easier for people to make the commitment.
Start by thinking of your foodie friends and family and send out an invite to see who might be interested. Post on social media and check out Meetup.com and any local food blogs. People may want to travel a farther distance to take advantage of the co-op but begin by looking in your immediate circle of friends and branch out from there.
You also need people who will actually show up once they sign up – so your friend who texts you five minutes before you are scheduled to meet that she is not going to make it is probably not a good fit.
Step 2: Decide on any dietary guidelines you will incorporate.
Once you have your group, discuss any dietary restrictions you will all agree to (i.e. vegetarian, nut-free, etc.). People always have the option to opt-out of something they don’t want or can’t eat so you don’t have to be too strict if you want to be inclusive.
If you find the right cooking cooperative partners, you’ll likely all have similar values around food and this makes the dietary guidelines much easier to create and follow.
Step 3: Create any other guidelines you will follow.
Some other guidelines for you to consider:
- How many servings will be provided per person signed up? (About four is a good rule of thumb)
- Are there ethical standards you will be following when using certain ingredients such as meat or seafood?
- Will you use only organic food or stick to the Dirty Dozen?
- What about seasonal or local ingredients?
- Will you base your cooking cooperative around one type of recipe each week (such as everyone brings snack recipes one week, main dishes the next week) or assign multiple recipe types each week (main dish, breakfast, snack, soup, etc.) so there is variety?
Step 4: Decide how often you will meet to exchange.
If the people are close by consider trying to do it weekly, but bi-weekly or once a month can easily work. A quarterly exchange could work as well, especially if it focuses on a theme such as freezer-meals or staples only so participants can stock up.
Cooks are responsible for dividing up the food into containers to share. Containers can rotate through the group, though occasionally you may find yourself needing to return specific dishes.
You can include an area on the sign-up sheet for a host to sign-up for the week or you can have one house where everyone always goes for the exchange.
Step 5: Set up an online sign-up and schedule the exchange.
Designate someone to send out the sign-up sheet with a reminder that participants must opt-in by the cut-off time. We send out a sign-up sheet each Thursday with a reminder that participants must opt-in by Friday at 5:00pm, but you can figure out what’s the best cut-off time for your cooking cooperative. Here are the things you’ll need on your sign-up:
- Include a space for the date on the sign-up form, who is hosting and their address. Keep it in one location or allow people to sign-up to host.
- Include a category for different items and a place for people to write what they are bringing. This ensures everyone knows what’s being made so you don’t end up with 5 batches of granola.
Google docs seems to work the best for us at keeping everyone up-to-date and informed. You do need to designate one person to send out the form each week and update it with the date to keep things on track. Here is a sample signup sheet that you can copy.
Step 6: Cook and prepare your food.
Scaling up your recipes and batch cooking takes some thought and preparation. It’s better to use a few smaller pots for large stews and soups, for example. Make sure to take stock of your baking dishes and cookware before committing to certain recipes like lasagna. It may be easy to scale up, but if you only have one lasagna pan you could be making 2-4 lasagnas separately and that’s a lot of cooking time. Also, keep an eye out for steps in your recipes that may take longer when scaled up, like browning meat or vegetables.
Some ideas for foods to exchange in your cooking cooperative are:
- Homemade condiments like hummus, ketchup, BBQ sauce, jams, nut butters and salsa
- Sauces like pesto or salad dressings
- Gluten-free bread or muffins
- Fermented foods like pickles or sauerkraut
- Cookies or granola bars
- Hearty main dishes like lasagna, burgers, shepherd’s pie and slow cooker meals are sure to be big hits
I like to cook and prepare my food the day before or even the day of the exchange so the food is fresh if people want to have it in the next few days. The amount of time you’ll need will depend on the recipe, so ensure you manage your time so you’re able to keep your commitment to your cooking cooperative.
Step 7: Meet and exchange delicious homemade staples.
This is the fun part!
Step 8: Repeat steps 5-7 and enjoy!
There are many different ways you can run your cooking cooperative, so you may need to adjust and tweak as you go. Chat with your group members regularly about how things are going and what can be improved. A cooking cooperative should make your cooking life easier, not more difficult, so ensure this is the case for you. Once your cooperative gets into the groove, I expect it will be an enjoyable, delicious and helpful process.
Are you part of a cooking cooperative? Please share any tips in the comments!
Header image: Konstantin Yuganov