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How to start a meal exchange

You can keep food costs under control and save preparation time.

By Karen Datko Nov 25, 2009 1:09PM

This post comes from Trent Hamm at partner blog The Simple Dollar.


Recently, several couples in our community started a frozen-meal exchange. It’s a really simple idea.

On a certain day, everyone in the exchange meets for coffee and brings along a laundry basket full of frozen meals, one for each family, along with any needed instructions taped to the lids. The club members swap the meals so that everyone takes home one of each meal that they didn’t prepare.


It’s a very clever idea for several reasons.

  • It makes it very easy for people to prepare a variety of home-cooked meals.
  • It drastically reduces meal-preparation time, because there’s only one big session of making several batches of one meal. After that one only needs to pull a meal out of the freezer and toss it in the oven.
  • It’s much cheaper because you can buy the ingredients for your meal in bulk.

Although I’m not a charter member in this group (I did suggest giving me a ring if a spot opens up), I’ve put some serious thought into starting my own group. I asked a few questions and did some research. Here’s a simple guide to starting your own meal exchange with some friends.


Consider whom to invite. You need people who are frugal and reliable. Are they people who consistently come through when things are asked of them? Nothing will make an exchange fall apart faster than someone who doesn’t follow through.


Learn about food allergies. When you invite people, get clear information about their food allergies and make those ingredients verboten in all meal exchanges. If there are any intense food dislikes, those should be known, too, though you should consider not inviting any notoriously picky eaters as they will make the exchange difficult for everyone.


Make a clear set of written guidelines for everyone to follow. You’ll need to specify several policies for the group. I took a look at the guidelines for the local group and it featured the following points.

  • Meals are exchanged on the first Sunday of each month, with a rotation of hosts for the get-together. The host usually serves coffee and a simple snack.
  • The meals are expected to be frozen, which means they can’t be prepared earlier that day.
  • You’re allowed to miss only one month per year. If you miss more than one, you’re automatically out unless everyone agrees by secret ballot to allow you to stay (which allows exceptions for something truly unavoidable). An exception to this is if you can give a two-week notice to the entire group (so that vacations can be handled, for example).
  • To join, everyone should buy a set of identical pans with covers -- one for every other person in the exchange -- that they didn’t mind “losing.” That means that the first month, everyone uses their own pans to prepare the meals. After the first exchange, everyone simply uses the pans they have.
  • The contents of each meal, along with a clear statement on how to finish preparing it, should be taped to the top of the lid.
  • A food allergy list (mentioned above) is included in the form of a “foods that must be avoided” list.

Once you have these guidelines, make sure everyone has a copy. You might also want to send out an electronic copy of them.


Have an e-mail list and set up e-mail reminders. An e-mail list makes it easy for you to issue reminders to everyone in the group about upcoming events -- the next meal exchange (who is hosting, when, and where), reminders to get your meals cooked, notices of how many meals to prepare. A calendar can also be set up to help with such reminders.


A meal exchange is a really great idea to cut down your food costs and your food preparation time without giving up meal variety. If you have a wide social circle, consider starting one.


Related reading at The Simple Dollar:

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