One of the most important factors in being able to build up a quality food storage program is to actually store the food that you will eat and find a way to rotate that stored food into your daily diet. The problem many of us face is that while pizza is fast and convenient, and the pizza boxes stack really well, the food sure doesn’t last. I also don’t think that if I ordered an extra meal from the local Chinese delivery place, that I could just throw it onto my food storage shelving and expect it to do any good.
Part of the problem is that most families, especially those of my admittedly younger age group, have grown so accustomed to having cheap, tasteful food at our fingertips that we have lost the skill of actually cooking for ourselves. The family dinner at the table has become a thing of the past as have the requisite skills from planning meals ahead of time to storing for particular meal needs. Fortunately, for the past couple of years my family has participated in a program with several of our neighbors that has helped combat this trend and created an excellent, yet unplanned opportunity for us all to build up our food storage supplies and skills.
How does it work? Let’s look at the basics of our dinner group program.
The dinner group program we follow is fairly simple but has enormous benefits. What follows is the ideal situation according to our rules, but of course you would modify to your groups desires. My wife’s basic “sales pitch” for this is; “How would you like to only cook one night during the week?”. In short, this is a program where you will alternate cooking dinners with several of your neighbors in an effort to create an ‘economy of scale’ and integrate this in your cooking plans.
Note: much of the following was written by my wife, who of course is the person doing most of the work in our part of the dinner group :) No surprise there.
We follow a simple weeknight schedule, where each family has an assigned day of the week. For us, this is Monday through Thursday. This allows for the weekends to be free for the hectic family schedules and travels that always happen. We meet at the end of a month each quarter to review and plan out the menu for the next 3-4 months. We each bring recipe options and a calendar. Since each person represents an entire family, this means we only have to cook for one night each week and each person only needs four recipes per month.
We gather our recipes from anywhere we can think of. At first we start out with our families standards and favorites. Then we call our mothers for their ideas. After that, we search the internet or grab our cooking magazines. All the while we are rotating through our recipes and trying new things at the same time. Not only from what we are making, but from what we are getting from the neighbors. The purpose of the calendar is to write it all out for everyone to see so that we get balanced meals during the week and not 3 nights of spaghetti in a row. The we take turns every quarter typing up the calendar and making a printout for each family to put on the fridge. <Hint>: You can search with Google for “free calendars makers” to find several options if your computer doesn’t have a printable calendar.</Hint> Our kids love to look at the calendar and know ahead of time what is coming on any given night.
For our Dinner Group we start with 4 families of similar size. 4 families is the ideal number for our setup, but you could start with less. You want to choose families of the same size so all meals can be prepared equally, and everything stays fair. A family with a single young child should not be asked to cook for a family with 4 teenage sons. It is also important to choose families that either share similar tastes in food or are open to trying new things. It is amazing what new things may come across your table from people you thought you knew. One last *very* important factor is to discuss allergies with each family. It is easier, but not necessary to have families that have no allergies. One family in our group has a daughter allergic to corn. This makes it interesting to cook once you start paying attention to how many things have corn starch in them. But it is workable and not a problem for us. Just be aware of any health issues in the families entering your group. A quarterly meeting also serve as a great time to review the previous quarter. Talk about any meals that were not liked or need changes and exchange recipes for those meals that were fabulous. Remember to always be constructive and positive.
Our group has an agreed upon budget per meal ($35), along with dish requirements. Each member of the group had to purchase in advance one 9×13 pan with lid, one 8×8 pan with lid and one 10 cup bowl with lid ($17 total from Wal-Mart). These three dishes cover 99% of the requirements needed to deliver a meal to another family. The lids are very practical in that they keep food from spilling in the car when you go to deliver the food. Dinner must contain 1 entree, along with 2 sides.
It must be nutritious and include fruits and/or vegetables based on what will go best with the main dish. Occasionally the main dish has most of the food groups contained in it. Such as a casserole may have a carb (bread) and a vegetable and meat all in one. In this instance the side dishes get a little more fun. A dessert gets added or a bottle of soda for each family. Our particular dinner group is not that picky about what comes with dinner as long as the 4 main food groups are represented, if possible.
As for how much food to prepare on your night of the week, we look to create a meal that is 4x our standard meal. For us, this is food that will fill the needs of dinner, and also provide for a “leftover lunch”. This of course is something you should discuss with any group you are in, but we do this because it is what we would do normally. In short, we want the meal to encourage healthy eating, and discourage the need to eat out quite so often.
Example of a cooking day for me:
Plan meal: Hamburger Stroganoff, peas and corn, canned pears.
Buy Food: I love Costco!
Standard recipe: 1 pound hamburger meat, chopped onions to taste, chopped green bell pepper to taste, salt, pepper, can cream of mushroom soup, Half of mushroom soup can of milk, 1 cup sour cream. 4 servings of noodles or 1-2 cups cooked rice. 1 cup frozen corn and 1 cup frozen peas or 1 can of each. 1 15 oz can sliced pears.
Quadrupled recipe: 4 pounds hamburger, about 1 large onion chopped, about 1 green bell pepper and one red bell pepper chopped, salt, peper, 4 cans cream of mushroom soup and 2 cans filled with milk, 4 cups sour cream. 6-8 cups cooked rice or 16 servigings of your favorite noodle. 4 cups frozen or 4 cans of corn, same with peas. If you are serving just one of the vegetables, a #10 can of either veggie is perfect for the servings of 4 families. One #10 can of sliced pears is also the perfect amount for 4 family fruit servings.
Cook Food: I allow 2-3 hours to cook depending on the complexity of the meal.
Divide Food: After cooking: Pour noodles or rice into 9×13 and then cover with the sauce. In the 8×8 put the veggies and in the 10 cup bowl put the pears.
Deliver Food: Our dinner group decided we wanted to have our meals delivered by 6 pm. This worked best with dads getting home from work and kids getting home from or leaving to go to extracurricular activities. Plan a time that is the best compromise for everyone’s schedules.
Be sure to plan for these. They can be anything from vacations (dinner group goes on without that one family for that week or two), having babies (take 2 weeks off depending on the new mothers needs and the other families continue to bring food to that family as a service in the interim), Holidays (No dinner group on a national holiday. Thanksgiving week as well as the 2 weeks of Christmas and New Years dinner group is cancelled.)
The benefits of this program have been of tremendous importance to my family. It has allowed me to learn a number of useful skills, including advanced meal planning, use food storage for daily meals and saving money by buying in bulk and buying only what is needed (less extraneous or spur of the moment spending). It has also provided for a way for me to cook less often but still feed my family a healthy and balanced diet. The time I spend not cooking or worrying about shopping has also allowed us to spend more time together as a family.