Whether you’re a working mom or are a stay-at-home mom, serving your family a home-cooked meal during the week can be a challenge.
Having a new baby and returning to work has taken us some time to get our rhythm down. But I’ve tried something different that has eased the pressure of my weeknight dinner dilemmas, even on crazy days.
Over the last few of months, I started exchanging dinners with my friend and it has worked wonders. Nowadays, I cook two meals and get to serve my family at least four different dinners during the week. It has been quite a game changer for our weeknight meals.
How Our Meal Exchange Started
Some time ago, when my friend and I would meet for coffee, we often asked each other what we had planned for dinner. At times, we were both on our A-game and had something ready. Other times, not so much.
I thought to myself – we both work, both need to cook dinner for our families and could both benefit from cooking less, while still putting home-cooked meals on the table. So I asked her if she was open to try exchanging meals. We both had to cook anyways, why not simply increase the portion size of the dish we were making (which I already did at times to double up for my family) and exchange it with each other. My friend LOVED the idea and we started the very next week!
Why Exchanging Meals Is Totally Worth Trying
We’ve been doing this now for a few months and are still loving it. It has been so helpful, especially with an infant. And if you decide to give it a try, you could benefit in the same way we have:
- You’ll be forced to plan and cook ahead, instead of waiting ‘til the last minute. Not always fun, BUT you know you will always have dinner for your family, even on your busiest weeknights.
- Goodbye last minute, mad-dash cooking and takeout! All thanks to your planning and cooking ahead.
- By reducing how much your family “dines out,” your family can eat healthier meals and save money. In addition, because you are meal planning, you know exactly what you need to buy at the store and will have less waste – just remember to stick to your list. 🙂
- It’ll expand your culinary world and add variety to your meals by trying new dishes you normally don’t cook yourself.
- Spend less time cleaning. Woot woot! By cooking only those two dishes – even if you do them in separate nights, you’ll only have to clean up those nights. (Not including your dinner dishes of course.) And if you’re like my friend and me who try to batch cook in the weekend, then cooking clean up is just once.
- You’ll have more free time because you’re no longer cooking every night (or almost every night).
- And most importantly, the reason you tried this in the first place – you get to feed your family a home-cooked meal more frequently during the week even if you have a hectic schedule and you’re just exhausted at the end of the day.
Get Started With These Simple Steps
In the 5 steps listed below, you can say goodbye to your “it’s 6 p.m. and I don’t know what to feed my family” dilemma.
1. Find a Friend or Relative Whose Family Eats Similar to Yours.
This might be the trickiest part – and by tricky, I mean you’ll just need to put some thought into this before partnering up with someone. Your families don’t need to eat the same things 100% in order for this to work. In fact, it is a good way for you to introduce new dishes to your families. But I probably wouldn’t recommend swapping meals with another family that’s vegan, if your family isn’t. That would make it much more difficult to swing.
For example, both my friend and I cook Filipino dishes on a regular basis (we were both born and raised in the Philippines, but met here in the Bay area). However, how and what dishes we cook still differ. She prepares dishes the way she learned from her mom and I cook dishes inspired by my family’s recipes. So, there were dishes she knew how to cook that I didn’t and vice versa. Or some dishes we both knew how to make, we’d make different from each other. Also, she cooks plenty more of the traditional Filipino dishes and I cook a lot more non-Filipino dishes, like American and Italian dishes. So we get to mix it up for each others’ families.
If you guys have some dietary restrictions, just let your friend know. Recently, I temporarily went dairy-free to see if it’s a trigger for my baby’s eczema. I simply asked my friend not to cook any dishes that contained dairy for us. It was
Another thing to consider is proximity to your friend/relative and your ability to see each other regularly. Before starting this, my friend and I have really made the effort to schedule some mommy-only time with each other once every week or two. We also live about 15 minutes away from each other. So it was easy for us to exchange meals. You want this to be easier for you – not harder. So think about the logistics and how easily it would work for you and your friend.
Oh and family size too! If possible, have a similar family size so you guys are exchanging similar portion sizes.
2. Make the Suggestion.
Once you have a person in mind, go make the suggestion. Be open to trying it for a couple of weeks. When I suggested this to my friend, I positioned it as something we could try for 2-3 weeks to see if our families like each other’s cooking, if it’s logistically possible and if it works overall. If it doesn’t work out, it’s ok, try with someone else. But you won’t know unless you suggest it and try.
3. Have Some Ground Rules.
Once you’ve found a partner to share meals with, it’s time to have a discussion about how you guys want to make this happen.
Be clear and open with your friend about what you both expect of each other. How many dishes do you want to exchange in a week? One, two or three? My friend and I exchange two meals each week so we have four days covered and the other days are open for us to do what we like. What day(s) do you want to exchange? What types of food should each of you cook? Does anyone have any dietary restrictions to be aware of? What types of food do your families enjoy? What foods do you guys like cooking?
All these are good points to discuss so you both know what to expect from each other.
4. Set a Schedule with Some Wiggle Room.
When my friend and I started, we had decided to exchange meals on Monday or Tuesday so we could cook over the weekend. We managed to do this most of the time.
In recent weeks, both our schedules have been kind of crazy, so we would keep each other posted on when we’d have food ready for each other. This has worked for us too. There have even been a couple weeks wherein either she or I weren’t ready for our agreed upon exchange day – we don’t sweat it. We are just open about it, let the other know and exchange meals another day. The key is just keeping each other in the loop – send a quick text on your status.
On weeks where either she’s out of town or family visiting, we just agreed to skip of our swap. The goal is to make it easier on ourselves – so there’s no point stressing ourselves out to cook if we can’t. We simply picked it back up the following week.
5. Automate It.
During our trial period, we asked each other Thursdays what we were planning to cook and check if that worked for the other. This way, we could shop for our ingredients and cook over the weekend. By checking with each other first, we made sure the other family would like it and that we had a variety of meals. If I was making 2 chicken dishes, then she’d make something with beef or pork.
After a few weeks of doing this and learning what each other’s family liked eating, I created a simple Weekly Meal Exchange Plan template for us to use. I created it in Google Docs and shared it with my friend (make sure you give her access to edit the document). We’d both fill it out with what we intended to make.
This proved to be quite helpful. We were able to see what we cooked previously (because we often forget the following weeks after) so we didn’t repeat it the following week and didn’t forget what the other was cooking the following week – it happens! It just kept us on track and helped us streamline our process. Less back and forth over text messages. We simply check that sheet to see what the other is cooking and for us to note what we plan to make ourselves.
To take it a step further, we are now highlighting our favorite meals. This way, after we have about 6-8 weeks of meals, we can have a good number of meals we can rotate with enough variety. In the end, we will have a month’s schedule of meals both our families love. Of course, we can modify it if and when we want to, but it really streamlines the process for us and eliminates the need to think and recall what dishes to prepare.
Tips of the Trade (Pun Intended)
In the several weeks we’ve been swapping food, here are some tips I’ve gathered that can help you guys make this work:
- When planning your meals, think of making dishes that reheat well. For instance, I avoid exchanging dishes that should be eaten right after its made, such as burgers, grilled shrimp and risotto. Also, try not to fully cook or overcook veggies, as these will be reheated. If they’re already cooked a lot and they get reheated, they might get too mushy. Or if you make something in the oven, I intentionally do not cook what I will share for the full duration. Instead, I would cut it short by 10-15 minutes and just let my friend know the minimum amount of time she should bake it for to reheat.
- Be honest with each other! For this to work, you both need to be open about what you and your families enjoyed eating and those you didn’t. This was something my friend and I agreed to and it has helped. There’s no point in me cooking something her family didn’t like and vice versa. There are some dishes I’ve made which her kids just preferred their mommy’s
waycooking such as spaghetti. I make my pasta sauce more with an Italian flavor and she makes it Filipino style, which is much sweeter. So when it came to my pasta, they found it a little too tangy. And that’s totally fine! I get it, there’s just something about our mom’s cooking, y’know! 😉 But then again, there are some dishes I’ve made that my friend doesn’t make, like my lemon cream pasta, which they love. So I make that instead. In order for this to work long-term, you guys need to like what you’re eating. So be honest and don’t be offended if a dish or two wasn’t a hit.
- Do what works for your families. This is supposed to help you guys, not be stressful. If you prefer to swap one meal or three meals a week, that’s totally up to you guys. If you guys prefer exchanging freezer meals or crockpot dishes, do that. You guys choose. Make it your own. Just as long as it works for both of you.
- If you’ve agreed to exchange 2 meals a week, but want to stretch your cooking so you have dinner for 5 weeknights, simply cook up more of one of the dishes you’re already making. This way, you can share one family portion with your friend and keep two portions for your family to eat over two evenings. I’ve done this several times and it works well.
- Be flexible! I can’t stress this enough. We’ve got enough going on in our daily shuffle. This is supposed to help lighten the load. So, if you aren’t able to cook over the weekend and you know you’ll be late, just give your pal a heads up. And pal, remember to give your friend some grace. They may be late one week, but you may be late the next.
- Get some good glass storage containers. Plastic containers work just fine. But I personally prefer me some glass ones to plastic. They’re sturdier, don’t stain and I feel are safer to reheat food in. If you’re unsure what to get, I like using pyrex containers a lot.
To be honest with you, sometimes it does put me under the gun because I may not feel like going to the store or cooking a certain day, but I know that my friend is going to need her meals. So it’s my kick in the butt to go to the store to get what I need and cook. In the end, I’m always glad I did it because I know that come dinnertime – after a long day and my baby is wailing because he wants to nurse – I am less stressed when it comes to dinner because I’m all set.
And an added bonus to this is that it’s a perfect excuse for my friend and I to see each other and chat even for just 15 minutes.
So if you’re looking to feed your family home-cooked dinners during the week, without having to cook every night, I really recommend you try this out. You’ll save yourself time, stress and money in the process too.
All you need to do is find a partner who’s willing to give this a whirl, start planning your meals together and make the exchange. Remember to be honest and flexible with each other and just be open to trying.
It’s been a few months now and my friend and I are still exchanging meals. Try it out and let me know how it goes for you guys. Have you guys done anything different to make it even better and easier?