Solution 1: Share Meals

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Mealsharing can mean either sitting down and actually eating with others, or sharing meal preparation by trading meals with others in any of a variety of ways. Sharing meals allows us to eat better, save preparation time, and save the cost of eating out or buying prepared meals. It also allows us to try new cuisines, diversify our diets, and get creative with our cooking.

Mealsharing also builds relationships. People who share meals tend to form bonds and trust, from which other kinds of sharing relationships arise. When you sit down to a shared meal at the end of day, you share more than food—you also share time, conversation, community, and support.

Sharing Meals in Your Neighborhood or Home

Most of the time, it's easiest to share meals with people who live close by—in a neighborhood, apartment complex, retirement community, or shared housing.

Group Meals

Group meals are very common in shared housing, especially in cohousing, which often has a common house with a large kitchen and dining space. People who live in group houses share meals regularly. Mealsharing is also great for retirement communities or any neighborhood where people want to enjoy each other's company and share great food.

Talk about other ways to share over dinner. People who share meals are well positioned to share a variety of other things. For example, mealsharers make good partners for collective buying, doing a food recovery project, or participating in community-supported agriculture. Of course, you can also go beyond food sharing to share tools, household goods, childcare, yards, and much more. Some night over dinner, suggest that the group brainstorm other ways of sharing.

EXAMPLE: A group of ten neighboring households shares meals on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Each adult and teenager—27 people—shares in the cooking, with a team of three people assigned to plan, shop, cook, and clean up after each meal. Each person helps prepare a meal once every three weeks and enjoys eight other meals without lifting a finger or spending a dime.

Cooking and eating rotates among three different households, each with a large dining room with adjoining living room, a spacious kitchen, and, most importantly, a dishwasher. When they began the mealshare, everyone chipped in to buy a set of plates and bowls, silverware, and cloth napkins. The dining set is kept in two large crates and travels from house to house. Families bring empty food containers to dinner, so all leftovers find good homes.

Each cooking team emails the group two days before its assigned meal to announce the menu. Meal attendance is optional. Sometimes, people come to dinner, fill up a plate, and return home to eat or save the food for later. Most of the time, however, everyone attends and enjoys the time they spend with their neighbors. There are also guests at most meals. From time to time, the group has theme dinners or special discussion topics. Every Sunday during dessert, the group has "Updates and Announcements." Those with information to share or interesting updates about their lives raise their hands and talk for a minute or two each. Every three months, the group has a meeting dinner to plan the schedule for the next three months and discuss other housekeeping matters.

Plan a tasting party. How often do you get to compare different brands or varieties of a food? Have you ever wanted to taste every type of salami or try different coffees to learn about their subtleties of flavor, or try varieties of locally grown apples? While it's not practical to buy 20 apples or make ten pots of coffee for yourself, a group of people could share this fun endeavor. You could plan a gathering where each attendee brings a thermos of coffee or a different kind of cheddar cheese, for example.

Meal Exchanges

Another way to share meals is through meal exchanges, where one household doubles or triples a recipe and delivers the extra food to others. This can be done on a flexible schedule, with meals that can be reheated later. To assist with meal planning, however, a fixed schedule, with each household cooking on a particular night of the week, works best.

EXAMPLE: Joline and Paulo live across the street from Maxine and Dave. Once or twice a week, each couple prepares a dish to share. The couples don't have a fixed schedule for sharing food. One week their food-sharing looked like this:

On Sunday afternoon, Maxine and Dave roasted a large pan of winter vegetables and delivered half to Joline and Paulo. On Monday evening, Paulo knocked on Maxine and Dave's door with a pot of soup and some home-baked bread. On Wednesday evening, Maxine made a large chef's salad to share with Joline and Paulo. On Friday, Joline and Paulo delivered a casserole dish full of pasta, ready to be baked. The two couples have a shared vegetable garden in Paulo and Joline's yard, and most meals contain some of its bounty.

Potlucks

Potlucks combine the social aspect of a group meal with the ease and flexibility of cooking a single dish at home. Traditionally, everyone brings a dish to a potluck, but all kinds of variations are possible. For example, a large mealsharing group could assign five people to bring dishes for each meal.

A good potluck takes a little planning. Left to their own devices, for example, potluck attendees could end up with a dinner composed of a big bowl of salad, another big bowl of salad, a fruit salad, and another big bowl of salad (true story). One way to plan a potluck is to give one person, often the host, the assignment of making the "anchor dish," which is a large item such as lasagna or a ham, while others are assigned peripheral dishes such as salad, sides, soup, or dessert. A much more coherent meal is likely to result.

These days, the Internet has made potluck planning much simpler. Tools such as Evite (www.evite.com) allow potluck planners to have attendees sign up to bring certain dishes. There are also websites with special potluck planning features, such as www.centerd.com and www.luckypotluck.com.

When the potluck is over, you can either bring home the dish you brought or everyone can bring food containers to divide up the leftovers. There are a few ways to share the cleanup. Everyone can bring their own dishes and take them home afterwards, either washing them at the host's house or at home later. Or, a rotating team, "The Clean Plates Club," can be assigned cleanup duty.

Have a safari supper. For a fun variation on potlucks, try holding a "safari supper," where guests have three courses (appetizer, entrée, and dessert) at three different houses and with a different group at each house. This works best if you have at least nine participating households. For example, for the first course, the Aguilars could host the Browns and the Chens, the Davidsons host the Ellisons and the Frieres; and the Greens host the Huangs and the Isaacsons. For the second course, the hosts get to be guests at another house, and some guests become hosts, and everyone is matched up with new people. By the end of the night, everyone has had the opportunity to share food with at least six other families.

Accommodating Diverse Diets in Mealsharing

The more people you have in a mealsharing group, the harder it becomes to accommodate diverse dietary requirements and preferences. People may avoid foods for different reasons—for health reasons, religious reasons, allergies or sensitivities, ethical or political reasons, plain old dislike, and so on. It helps to keep in mind the most common food allergies—nuts, sesame, shellfish, milk, eggs, wheat, and soy— and alert people when your dish contains them. To make sure everyone can eat the meals you share, have each member of your group fill out the "Diet Preferences for Mealsharing" chart, below (you'll find a blank copy in Appendix B).

Increasingly, people are turning to vegetarian diets. Between 3% and 4% percent of people in the United States are vegetarians, and many more limit the amount of meat they eat, eat only organic or free-range meat, or try to buy meat that has been produced without unnecessary cruelty. Some people are "vege-aquarians," meaning they'll eat seafood, but not meat; others are vegans and avoid animal products altogether. This calls for some creativity when you cook for large groups, perhaps to come up with a vegetarian version of your main dish.

Diet Preferences for Mealsharing

Types of Food

Food I Don't Eat

Food I Prefer Not to Eat (but I Can Be Flexible)

Food That Is Fine If I Can Pick Out

Food That Is Fine in Small Amounts

Milk/Cheese

(I'm lactose intolerant, but I can take a lactase enzyme with dairy foods.)

Mushrooms

Spicy Food

(I am wimpy about spicy foods sometimes.)

Lamb

(Baaa-a-a-a-ad!)
Foods high in cholesterol (My doctor eays I should avoid.)

Create a mealsharing cookbook. Your mealsharing group could compile a binder full of recipes and a list of what people have cooked—and enjoyed eating—in the past. You may also want to keep track of dishes that didn't work (or go over) as well, to make sure you don't repeat these mistakes. Some dishes are easier than others to make in large quantities, and it helps to have a ready list of ideas.

Sharing Meals at Work

In some workplaces, coworkers share lunch during the week. It makes for a fun social break, saves everyone lunch money, and offers a change of pace from the office vending machines, local lunch spots, or even your own leftovers.

Coworkers can share meals in many ways:

  • Prepare lunch in the office kitchen. Each day, designate two people to make the meal and two to clean up. This works especially well if there's an office dishwasher (talk that idea up to your boss).
  • Take turns bringing lunch. Each day, designate one or two people to bring lunch for others.
  • Hold regular pot lucks. Each day, assign each person a part of the meal to bring. For example, one person brings a main dish, one person brings fruit, one brings a vegetable dish, one brings a starch, and one brings dessert.
  • Keep basics on hand. A group of employees could take turns making bulk purchases to keep certain staples on hand, such as fresh fruit, nuts, chips, salsa, sandwich bread, lettuce, tomato, sandwich meat, cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard. That way, everyone could go into the kitchen each day, make themselves a sandwich, have healthy snacks, and grab some cookies!

Many of us use our lunch break for more than just eating. Perhaps you occasionally use your lunch hour to relax and get in some quiet time, you sometimes need to work through lunch, or you spend that time doing errands or getting some exercise. An office mealsharing group will be most successful if it accommodates these needs by making food available to those who won't be sitting down to eat with the group.

Sharing School Lunches

Parents of school-age children are all too familiar with the morning rush to get out the door. There never seems to be enough time to dress and feed everyone, find everyone's bookbags and homework, and prepare everyone's lunch. Here's an idea: Propose a school lunch-sharing arrangement with some other families at your child's school. Agree with other parents to make meals for the kids on a rotating schedule. If the kids are all in the same class, you can just drop off the lunches in the classroom in the morning. Sharing school lunches can also dovetail well with a carpooling group.

Every parent should complete the "Diet Preferences for Meal Sharing" chart, above, for their kids; Appendix B includes a blank copy. You may want to agree to be honest with each other about what your kids like—and don't like—about particular meals. It won't save money or the planet if you make meals that the kids throw away in favor of snacks from the vending machine.

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