Meal Swaps Are an Idea for Our Times

For busy family cooks, it’s a smart way to cook less, try more, and strengthen friendships over food.
Meal Swaps Are an Idea for Our Times
Have a family you love seeing all the time? Try meal swapping with them. (Dreamstime/TNS)
Tribune News Service
Daniel Neman St. Louis Post-Dispatch

You know those obvious things that people come up with and you say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

My friend Dorothy thought of one.

Dorothy lives in my former town of Richmond, Virginia. She and her family are longtime friends of a woman named Martina and her family.

Martina is from Germany. She came to this country—to Richmond, actually—as a teenager to be an au pair for a family with three young children.

OK, it was Dorothy’s family. She and her husband needed someone to look after their kids while they were busy at work, and they also wanted someone to teach the children a foreign language.

Martina fell in love with what I am told is a nice young man here, and now they are married and have two children of their own.

Every weekend for 10 years or more, Dorothy has been cooking a big dinner. It’s enough food for two full meals for Martina and her family, including a ravenous teenage boy, and two full meals for Dorothy, her husband and their adult daughter who is back living with them.

Meanwhile, Martina is cooking an equally large amount of food, enough for two meals for Dorothy’s family and two meals for her own family, including that teenager.

Dorothy usually cooks hers on Saturdays. Martina cooks hers on Sundays. On Mondays, they get together and exchange the food. They call it a meal swap.

The idea is to limit the amount of meals each one has to cook. The swap covers four meals a week for each family, but the cooks only have to make one meal—though plenty of it.

That’s the practical purpose, but the more important reason for the swap is it gives them a chance to see each other. And they also chat, or usually text, throughout the week to see what the others might be in the mood for, or to coordinate so they both don’t end up making a pasta dish.

Over time, Dorothy has come to know Martina’s family’s tastes. They don’t like mushrooms (Dorothy’s family loves mushrooms, so if the recipe calls for it she tries to put mushrooms in her portion). They don’t like too much of an egg flavor. The children used to not like onions, but they are mostly over that by now.

In my imagination, Martina occasionally cooks her favorite German specialties for Dorothy’s family. I don’t know if she actually does that. I could ask Dorothy, but I'd rather live with the pleasant fantasy of platters laden with sauerbraten, bowls piled high with spätzle and plates of Holstein schnitzels.

Dorothy calls the meal swap “our own version of Blue Apron.” Blue Apron is one of those popular, or at least formerly popular, meal subscription services where you get a delivery with all the ingredients you need for a meal.

For her part, Martina says it the swap is “a lifesaver” and that the chance to see Dorothy on a weekly basis “is an added bonus.”

I think meal swaps are a genius idea, and I am not alone.

The idea has spread around at least one group of friends in Richmond. Families are pairing up and cooking food for each other once a week, or every two weeks, or every month. One of Martina’s friends asked if she wanted to do a meal swap.

No, she said. She’s already doing one.

It’s a simple idea, and it’s catching on.

Why didn’t I think of that?

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