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Dinner Co-Ops! An Easy Way to Keep Your Family Eating Together!

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DINNERTABLE
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Cooking dinner and sitting down to share a meal with my family is my favorite part of the day. Nothing fills my bucket like knowing that I am feeding my kids something healthy; seeing my littles gobble their food and comment, "This is really good, Mom" (which certainly doesn't happen every meal) brings me deep contentment. This daily ritual of slamming together 30-minute meals, often relying heavily upon my new bestie, the slow-cooker, to make dinnertime a reality, gives me an opportunity to create a happy space; and decompress with some jams, a knife and my cutting board.

Refocusing on my kids, hearing little bits about their day, or joking with them while I ask for their help with final touches on the meal, or if I'm feeling really bold, quizzing them on their spelling words for the week, makes me feel like Rocky when he runs up the stairs and does a victory dance. It's a time when I forget about all the things I haven't accomplished, like the pile of clean clothes that resembles Machu Picchu and should have been folded days ago, the 20 emails that should have been sent and all the rest of the things that didn't get done.

I care about what goes into my body and my families' bodies. I want my kids to have a healthy perspective on food and mealtime and understand that eating is a way to nourish and fuel their bodies. I also want them to experience and recognize how good food can taste when it has been prepared with love. I hope that my kids develop their palates, stay open to trying new foods and that they view food as a way to connect with people and learn about new cultures and traditions.

From my work at Common Threads, I know that children in families who eat at least three dinners together each week are less likely to drink, smoke and be obese. As a working mom, I definitely struggle to keep my train of parental and family responsibilities on track; I do, however, make cooking at home and sharing family meals a priority. I try to focus on staying inspired in the kitchen and introducing new simple healthy recipes with different flavor profiles.

In an effort to make this part of the day a reality, I've reached out to my peers to share ideas that they have successfully put into practice. Dinner co-ops are not a new idea, but I have never met anyone, until recently, who has participated in one. I have recently met three women, involved in different dinner co-ops, who have shared their experiences and tips with me. Dinner co-ops have become an easy resource of recipes and have kept them cooking and eating healthy dinners at home while also keeping them away from frozen foods and drive-throughs!

The Benefits
A Lighter Workload

A dinner group formed with others can lighten the load for everyone involved. Parents today are so busy that they sometimes sacrifice the ritual of making their family a healthy dinner but this brilliant supper system can help at-home family meals become a reality. What intrigues me about this concept is the more families I talk to that participate in these groups, the more it becomes clear that is it not just another baton thrown into their juggling routine. "You don't need to think of as many meals to cook," explains my friend Melissa, a working mother of three, who cooks for two other families as a part of a dinner co-op.

"I seriously can't imagine life without it! I feel like I only have to plan for one meal the whole week. I founded a fast growing start-up and while I don't have a lot of creative energy left over to put towards thinking about meals, I still want to nurture my family and provide healthy, hot meals for them," explains Jessica, working mother of three, who eats at home on average five nights a week. The co-op, made up of three other families, enables her family to gather around the table almost every evening.

My friend, Ruthie, whose husband loves what a co-op has meant for their at-home meals, talked about how relaxing it is to not worry about what to feed her family once a week. The co-op guarantees a delicious, fresh, home-cooked meal provided for her family. And isn't it just common knowledge that dinner just always taste better when someone else has made it for you?

The Benefits
A Sense of Culinary Adventure

All three ladies believe in making the same meal for the entire family, kids included. While it may seem true that children prefer mac and cheese, chicken tenders and pizza; if new items are never introduced, they aren't going to expand their palates. "It's important to introduce children to as many foods as possible when they are young; the more flavors and textures that you can expose them to the better. Asian food, big colorful nutrient-dense salads, creative slaws with crunchy veggies and chickpeas; my kids love varied flavors and trying new things. As they get older, they love trying even more new foods as well as new restaurants," says Kiki, mother of four, food writer, recipe tester and the woman I would most want to co-op with if I still lived in Chicago.

The co-ops foster this idea of trying new things. In fact, all three ladies noted that the dinner co-op had amplified their own interest in cooking, helped grow their culinary abilities and encouraged their kiddos to be more open to trying new foods. If a child is not involved in a cooking or gardening program in school, such as Common Threads, Sustainable Food Center or Wellness in the Schools, much research says that it takes an average of 10-12 attempts before they will try a new food. Dinners can be used as an active way to learn about food and co-ops can breed a sense of culinary adventure.

The Benefits
An Improved Set of Cooking Skills

Cooking for large groups of people puts me into panic mode; I can do it but it takes me all day to prepare for gatherings and I get stressed when entertaining. A dinner co-op is the exact medicine for my pain spot. The co-op has helped Jessica learn to "cook simple and fast meals that taste good and can serve a lot of people. I don't get as stressed anymore when we are entertaining because I am regularly cooking for three families," says Jessica. "Cooking Light is a source of inspiration, and if I don't find anything there, then I go right to Mexican." The bottom line is that the more you cook, even for large groups, the more you improve.

The Challenges

A dinner co-op is not without challenges. Complicated recipes can be hard to make in large quantities. "You may think a recipe will take one hour, but it could end up taking two," explains Melissa. Dinner doesn't always turn out perfectly, sometimes you don't like it, don't want it and can end up disappointed," said Melissa. However, the benefits seem to greatly outweigh the risks for these groups, making it worth trying it out to see if you can find a way to make it work for your family. There are things you can do to make it easier, but think of them as starting points. Don't be afraid to change the rules and make it your own because that is how it will be sustainable for you.

Make it Work
Be Bendy

Communicate. All of the ladies say that making time for weekly calls to plan meals is key. Some co-op groups take advantage of online resources like a Google calendar or a Yahoo! Group to keep track of who is cooking what, and when. Other groups assign alternating categories such as meat, pasta, soup or vegetarian dish to ensure variety and to evenly distribute the cost of pricier items like meat and poultry.

At the same time, the wonder of what is for dinner can be exciting and the anticipation of trying to figure it out can be like watching "The Price is Right." "Sometimes we plan and other times we let it be a surprise," says Ruthie. She and her sister-in-law alternate days of the week that they cook for each other, based upon their schedules. Because many people don't have a nine-to-five job and some people travel for work, flexibility in scheduling from week to week can be a necessary strategy for a co-op.

Use the school calendar to take a hiatus from dinners and to accommodate vacations and travel, and be honest when your schedule seems too crazy to participate. For example, Melissa is taking a break during baseball season for eight weeks.

Make it Work
Transparency and Grace

If your family didn't love a dish, consider telling your fellow co-op members, even if you blame it on the kids, so that you don't get that same meal again. Ruthie likes getting feedback so she can use the information for future planning and meal selection purposes. Others believe that showing grace is a more important strategy. No matter which way you feel, it's helpful to be open while still being kind and grateful. And try not to get bent out of shape if others don't return your Pyrex dishes and Tupperware, you might have to go without them for a couple weeks, but that seems a small price to pay in exchange for dinner for your whole family!

"We are the family that is like 'you get what you get' with our kids. They truly are exposed to everything -- including some meals that are just salads (one of our children has celiac disease and her go-to meal is a salad that is more of a meal). We occasionally text one another when something is over-the-top delicious. We don't usually talk about things we don't like," says Jessica. Sometimes saying nothing about a dish is message enough.

Make it Work
Birds of a Feather

Like-mindedness is a key component for a successful dinner co-op. Sharing the same ideals and food philosophies, having the same number of family members and cooking and eating the same way will ease the dinner co-op partnership. One friend joked that her palate and cooking (chicken tenders, mac and cheese) wouldn't get her into a co-op and she might be right! It is helpful to appreciate other members' cooking and to not be concerned with ingredients they're using. If you are someone who likes to continuously learn and grow your culinary skills, you want to find that same interest and passion in a co-op partner. Be clear about your expectations and preferences from the beginning; for example if you would prefer organic or locally sourced produce or meats then let everyone know that. In addition to being closely linked philosophically, the women noted that delivery has to be efficient and that living close together, physically, is also key to sustainability.

Melissa's group has a no-casserole rule, limits pastas and uses only organics. Ruthie's group focuses on including a protein, a vegetable and a salad. The possibilities are endless but the important part is to partner with like-minded people.

"One of the girls in the group has celiac so everything has to be gluten free. Her needs definitely come first! We do try to take away some spice for kids. In general, though, we all think pretty similarly about food. We aren't hard-core health people, but we enjoy farmers markets, so a portion may be organic. The guys all appreciate a heavy meat meal and love when my husband makes ribs!" adds Jessica.

Make it Work
Don't Break the Bank

Practice portion control. All of the ladies mentioned that you should make enough for one meal, not for families to have extra. "Cooking for large groups of people can actually help you save money by allowing you to take advantage of discounts for large quantities," explains Kiki.

It has also provided me a way to use up those farm delivery baskets. I have always gotten so frustrated when there is nothing but collards in my basket. A dinner co-op would enable me to make a cauldron of "Kiki's Asian Collards with Coconut and Bacon" for two to three families. Serve it with rice and chicken kebobs and boom!

"It was tricky at first to figure portions out. We definitely don't have a lot of shrimp and steak. It is pretty easy now, since it has been three years, but it definitely took time to find a rhythm," says Jessica.

Make it Work
It's All About the Kids

Eating habits are learned behaviors; they're not intuitive. How and what your children learn to eat at home early in life sticks with them well into adulthood. "I am interested in cooking for kids. There is nothing greater than knowing that you are providing a nourishing meal for kids and exposing them to different flavor profiles and interesting textures, while teaching them about the world through food," says Kiki.

You can let your children help by planning, shopping or cooking dinner. Encourage your children to get involved in the kitchen. Give them opportunities them peel, chop, mix, assemble, taste and package up food.

Fewer and fewer Americans cook meals from scratch because it's easier and faster to throw a frozen dinner in the oven, or grab something from a fast-food restaurant on the way home from work. Dinner time should be an opportunity for your family to connect with one another.

I think it is so important that families treat mealtime as a team effort and take advantage of the time to be together, to cook and talk, especially when the kids are young. We want to foster the family time we have together because we might not always have the opportunity, as the kids get older. My hope is that my cooking continues to improve so that perhaps my kids won't want to miss dinner. I want my kids to feel like they can cook a meal. I want my kids to be able to dissect a dish by spice and understand what it means to dress a dish with flavor without going nuts with butter, salt and oil. If we are at a restaurant and the kids are devouring something spectacular, I want to be able to try to recreate some of those flavors at home for them or better yet, have them take a stab at it.

In the extra time gained by having someone prepare dinner for you, you could make a special family ritual of setting the table, turning on some music, burning some candles, or using real glasses and cloth napkins. Or maybe, you use it to choose one current event to talk to your kids about. Anything special you are doing as a family with strengthen the mealtime experience and make it more meaningful for everyone.

The opportunity for connection and nourishment, and the chance to instill life long habits in our children make dinnertime one of the most valuable times of the day. As parents, it is up to us to make it a priority and carve out the time. Working together with a group that shares the same goals can help make it possible to spend the much-needed time together with our families, as well as with our larger families. "There is something so nurturing and connecting about cooking for the same people every week for so many years. Even though we don't all necessarily gather together around the table very often, we are somehow connected by the food that we serve one another," explains Jessica. Now that is a lesson I would like to pass on to my children.

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