Simply in Season

News and reflections on all that's good about local food
from the co-author of Simply in Season,
a World Community Cookbook in the spirit of More-with-Less

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Dinner co-ops

Shortage of time is one of the greatest obstacles to eating well. We might want to choose fresh, whole foods but it’s easy to reach for highly processed foods or stop for a fast food meal when time is short.

Responding to the time crunch takes creativity. One of my favorite ideas is the dinner co-op or supper club.

A dinner co-op can take any number of shapes and forms, but the basic idea is that a group of people cook for each other -- allowing everyone to eat more home-cooked food but saving time (and often saving money) in the process.

Several years ago I was part of a group that came to be known as the “Monday Night Supper Club that Meets on Tuesdays” (see Simply in Season page 218 for my version of the most memorable dish of that experience, Pumpkin Chocolate Cheesecake). The supper club was made up of six single folks and one couple. Each week one person would cook and host an evening meal for the rest.

Meals were not fancy and neither was the atmosphere; as young adults with minimal furniture some of us barely had enough chairs to go around. On at least one occasion I recall everyone eating pancakes on the floor of my apartment with crates for tables, and for a while everyone needed to bring their own tableware. Everyone understood that it was fine to come, eat and then hurry off to other activities. Yet often we lingered over tea. For those who live alone, it can be difficult to bother with cooking, and it was nice to know that at least once a week we would have a “real” meal with others.

This past weekend I heard of another model. Six families in Portland get together once per month. They eat bring pre-portioned entrees, divide them up, and everyone takes them home for the freezer. Each portion serves about two adults; there’s no need to worry about having different numbers of small children in the different households. Most often the meals are toppings for rice, polenta or pasta, but casseroles, soups, enchiladas, lasagna, etc., also freeze well. What a better way to go than buying heavily packaged TV dinners! And what a nice way for parents of small children to get to enjoy more “grown-up food” with minimal effort. Make one meal, get six!

Co-op America offers several good tips for starting a dinner co-op:

This is a link to a dinner co-op website (with a completely different type of organization) that includes lots of recipes:

These links describe more ways that dinner co-ops can be structured:

If you’re part of a dinner co-op, tell us about your experience. What works well for your group?

* * *

The SIS recipe of the week, Greens in Peanut Sauce, makes a delicious, easy side dish to a curry meal. Speaking of saving time: A few weeks ago I helped to make a huge batch of Red Lentil Coconut Curry (page 206) for the Oregon Mennonite Festival for World Relief. After we finished making the red lentil sauce, we realized that we had overestimated: this was too much! We decided to remove several cups of sauce before adding the cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and cabbage.

We found that the sauce freezes well -- much better than freezing the completed dish, which would have resulted in mushy vegetables. It’s going to make a super-simple meal later: just add the fresh vegetables, cook and serve!

Next time, I’m going to make extra curry sauce to freeze on purpose.

(Recipe changes weekly. To get on our recipe e-mail list, go to the SIS website and click on "Register.")


At 2:57 PM, Blogger Lauren said...

Hi Cathleen,

We have never exactly been in a co-op. When I was single, living in Philly, some single people from my church had a potluck every month. One time all we had was bread and dessert! Someone ran home and rustled up some salad.

In the last place we lived, we were in a monthly potluck with four other families with small children. It was always on the first Saturday of the month. We took turns hosting. The food was wonderful, without fail, and the kids had a blast. Where we live now it's harder to find home cooks because the pace of life is faster. I make bread in a bread machine several times a week and people are amazed at that!

At 7:57 AM, Blogger Lauren said...

I made the lowfat pumpkin chocolate cheesecake last weekend. I was too lazy to use the blender on the cottage cheese, so it had curds. I let the chocolate mixture cool too much, I guess, because it was too stiff to create a marbled effect. But neither of those things prevented the cheesecake from being gratefully devoured.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Cathleen said...

Glad you liked it. I'm a big fan of the pumpkin/chocolate flavor combination. Can't make the Winter Squash Bars (p. 219) without sprinkling in a few chocolate chips.

The cheesecake reduces fat by using some low-fat cottage cheese, and substituting Neufchatel for the cream cheese is fine. Word to the wise, though: do NOT try to substitute nonfat cottage cheese, as this did NOT work for our testers.

When making this cheesecake, I don't think I'd skip the pureeing step, but the chocolate mixture IS very stiff. The last time I made this cheesecake I made two (for a fundraising dinner), and I ended up just making a layered cheesecake instead of attempting the swirl. That certainly works fine (I'd suggest putting the chocolate on the bottom); it's just not as pretty. Yum, yum!

At 9:04 AM, Blogger diana said...

Here in Boise, Idaho we have a lot of dinner co-op activity. I've been cooking once a week for 2-3 other families for the past 10 years and I can't imagine stopping. The other 2-3 nights of the week, I get a freshly made, hot meal delivered to my door by my neighbors. I'm currently researching what other cities have dinner co-ops up and running. I'd like to set up a website where we could all communicate on what works and spread the good word.

At 3:11 PM, Blogger diana said...

I've been involved in dinner co-ops for nearly 10 years and it's been a wonderful experience. 3 nights a week the doorbell rings at dinner time and a delicious hot meal is delivered by one of my co-op members. It's nearly like Christmas! When it's my turn to cook on Thursdays, I really enjoy making something nice for the others. I'm more excited to cook, and I find I have more energy to search out unusual or seasonal ingredients. You can find out more about dinner co-ops here:


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