When the Betz-Essinger family sits down for dinner in Birmingham, AL, it doesn’t take the children long to identify the provenance of their meal. “Is this a Caroline?” they ask, “or a Leigh Fran?”
Caroline and Leigh Fran are not brands of frozen dinners—they are the two friends with whom Ruthann Betz-Essinger has shared the preparation of weeknight meals for more than a decade. Ruthann’s children “know how each of us cooks,” she laughs.
Through an arrangement known as “cooperative cooking,” the friends each prepare a single, large meal that will feed all three families, and package it up. One share goes into their own refrigerators, and on Sundays, the women meet at Betz-Essinger’s house to give each other the other two shares. So in exchange for cooking one meal, each family gets three meals—which, with leftovers, is often enough to provide dinner for every weeknight.
“When you get your sack, it’s got everything in it, with directions about what to do, and how long it will take to cook or reheat,” says Betz-Essinger.
On busy weeknights, when Betz-Essinger gets home from work, she and her children open the refrigerator to find a “Caroline” or “Leigh Fran” meal already assembled. “It’s like eating at a restaurant every night,” says Betz-Essinger, “only you take whatever the chef is making.”
From college campuses to apartment buildings, and from suburban neighborhoods to cohousing communities, many busy people have found that cooking cooperatively, especially for the after-work dinners on weeknights, can save time and money, and deepen connections with family and community—all while supporting healthy, green food choices. Though cooking co-op arrangements vary, they all take advantage of the fact that cooking one meal for a crowd, once a week, requires less money, less planning, and less time than cooking five to seven different meals for one’s own family.
In the process, cooking co-ops also ensure food variety; minimize the temptation to go out to eat or purchase expensive, highly processed convenience or fast foods; share food traditions among members; and inspire participants to try out special recipes. And co-op cooking can free up some room in your food budget to shift to greener food choices.
How It Works
Cooking co-ops across the country have established a range of systems for sharing
the cooking of family meals.
A potluck group may ask participants to contribute a component of the meal each time, and then eat together on a specific day of every week or month.
A meal group may rotate the preparation of a meal among the participants, and gather regularly at the host’s home to eat together.
The residents of the Eastern Village Cohousing community in Silver Spring, MD, do both. They begin the week with a standing Monday evening potluck, which anyone can join by bringing a dish to share. And they close out the weekend with a rotating Sunday meal group, in which each participant takes about two turns every three months to make dinner for 12 others.
As with Ruthann Betz-Essinger’s group, the members of a “pick-up” cooking co-op share cooking responsibilities but do the eating at home, with their own families.
In Bakersfield, CA, Jan Limiero organizes ten friends once a month to each prepare one recipe, for ten families, that will freeze well; each family takes home a freezer’s worth of different meals ready to reheat and serve. In Occidental, CA, six families stop by a member’s home from 6–7 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays to pick up a meal that one member has prepared for the others, according to the Sonoma County Independent. In Berkeley, CA, Laila Ibrahim is one of six adults in three neighboring households who have each rotated cooking, six nights a week, for more than seven years. The family that cooks delivers a meal to each of the others by 6 p.m.
All three types of cooking co-ops have a wide range of policies about what participants make for dinner. Betz-Essinger’s group in Alabama, self-identified “foodies,” endeavor to rotate entrees every week, and to never repeat a recipe. The Berkeley co-op is free to cook anything, but always in a way that accommodates vegetarian families. The Bobolink co-op in Rutledge, MO, eats organic, local, and vegan. And most of the student-organized dining co-ops at Oberlin College come to consensus at the start of each semester about the sourcing of the food they will cook for each other.
Benefits of Cooking Cooperatively
Co-op cooking saves time and money at every step: When planning and shopping, purchasing for a single meal in quantity is less complicated than purchasing for a week of different meals. It saves time in the evenings, when families don’t have to cook after work and can instead spend more time talking to and enjoying each other. And it saves clean-up time, since the kitchen only gets really messy on the night when the meal is cooked there.
Co-op cooking also saves money. On the Oberlin campus, students save $4,000 a year by cooking cooperatively rather than eating in the dining halls. Ruthann Betz Essinger estimates that she saves 25 percent at the supermarket compared to cooking all of her family’s meals herself. And Amy Seiden at Bobolink, a food co-op at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri, says the members manage to eat a delicious lunch and dinner for just $6 per person per day. In addition to purchasing fewer ingredients, families in cooking co-ops can save money by purchasing food on sale or in bulk for the one meal they plan to make in quantity.
By rotating the planning of meals among a large group of households, each with their own favorites recipes and food traditions, cooking co-ops also enjoy a much greater variety of food than isolated families cooking for themselves.
“We can’t get into a rut, because we don’t eat the same thing over and over again,” says Betz Essinger. “It was an amazing thing for our children. They were exposed to a huge variety of food that if I had been the only one cooking for them, they would never have tried.”
Cooking co-ops help families save money and eat more healthfully in other ways: They eat fewer meals out, including fast food. Consequently, they’ll save energy and resources, and reduce waste—no styrofoam take-out containers and foil wrappings, fewer car trips, and more room in their dinner menus for local, organic food.
Co-op cooking builds community. Becca Rosen says her responsibilities as a student member of the Oberlin cooking co-ops built connections with more than just her meals: “I built my social life around food,” she says. “I made my closest friends at Oberlin because we ended up cooking together.”
Co-ops that dine together build connections over shared meals and lively group conversation, and celebrate diverse family food traditions through the dishes they serve to each other. Even a “pick-up” co-op builds long-term connections when neighbors pick up or drop off meals, often exchanging friendly greetings and checking in on each other in the process. All forms of cooperative cooking mean less time that each person spends cooking and cleaning up, and more time spent talking, laughing, and connecting over food with family and friends.
Making It Easier to Cook Green
One of the best perks of co-op cooking is that the money you’ll save can make it easier to afford to green your food choices.
“Cooking co-ops are a perfect example of the ways that greening a whole category of our purchasing can work,” says Alisa Gravitz, Green America’s executive director. “An organic, local apple may cost more than a conventionally grown apple, and Fair Trade Certified™ vanilla may still cost a little bit more than conventional vanilla. But if you cook cooperatively, then the savings on your food budget from buying in bulk can make it possible to green your remaining food purchases. By thinking about the whole category of food holistically, you can eat greener, healthier, more varied meals—at the same cost as your old way of eating.” (See below for a sampling of Green America’s resources for eating green.)
Some cooking co-ops, like the Bobolink and Oberlin co-ops, establish green guidelines about preparing local and organic foods, or emphasizing vegetarian and vegan menus. Co-op cooking lends itself to making use of the bounty of seasonal vegetables or fruits that a farmers’ market or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box can offer. Making a large meal for a co-op crowd can help singles or small families put a box of CSA produce to good use before the next share arrives.
Tips for Forming a Cooking Co-op
What would families who have cooked cooperatively for years recommend to those considering forming their own cooking co-ops?
- Pick families who make it very easy to get the food to them, either through a common drop-off/pick up point, or by forming a co-op with neighbors or coworkers. Set up delivery times that fit with everyone’s schedule.
- Find people whose families are similar sizes, because it makes portioning easier.
- Find people with similar food tastes and practices.
- Establish clear guidelines for what the group expects each member to make when it’s his/her turn. A planning calendar can help to ensure a variety of foods.
- Find people who are prepared to accept and eat whatever is served, but are also willing to share honest feedback. “We might send a note with a meal we’ve made, saying, ‘This is hideous. I won’t ever make it again,’” laughs Betz-Essinger. “And sometimes I’ll get calls that say, ‘That wasn’t so bad.’ But sometimes they’ll call and say, ‘You’re right. Don’t ever make that again.’”
- Package foods in containers that can be both frozen, reheated, and then reused, such as Pyrex baking dishes. Secondhand stores such as Goodwill can be an inexpensive way to acquire additional containers. If you’d like to eat well, save time and money, and build community in the process, consider forming a cooking co-op.
“I love the co-op,” says Laila Ibrahim in Berkeley, whose family recently enjoyed a tasty pasta with onions, capers, and salmon delivered to their door, along with bread and a salad. “It makes our lives so much better. Cooking a nice meal once a week is just perfect.”