Co-Op Cooking: A New Saving Strategy

by Dee Sarton Bower

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I just added up how much money I've saved on food for my family over six years -- $14,850! How did I do it? Co-op cooking!

At our house, dinner planning and preparation had become a dreaded daily chore. Not only that, my grocery and fast food spending had spun out of control. We ate, but I didn't have time to plan, shop, and prepare meals in between work, dance lessons, committee meetings, laundry, church, soccer games, school, dirty diapers, piano know what I mean. The busyness of life sabotaged my good intentions for economical, healthy, enjoyable mealtimes.

That was my life until I discovered co-op cooking -- an amazing approach to mealtimes.

A cooking co-op is a group of people who prepare meals for one another on a rotating basis. You don't eat together, rather, one day a week you simply fix enough dinner for everyone in your co-op. The other days you rest and meals are delivered to you.

Cooking co-ops can take many forms, ours is a neighborhood co-op. Others have started cooking co-ops with co-workers, church groups, club members -- even families (grown siblings in the same town, for instance can create a co-op).

Our neighborhood co-op includes four families who cook for each other Monday through Thursday. We each have a designated day to prepare meals for the entire group. What makes our co-op work is that our families are about the same size and we have children with similar appetites. We also have similar lifestyles (busy!) and compatible tastes in food. Since we live on the same block, delivering meals is as easy as loading up the kids' wagons.

Issues such as these need to be addressed before starting a co-op, so here's an easy checklist:

  • Are our tastes in food compatible?
  • How much food should we prepare?
  • How will we handle food delivery?
  • How will we evaluate our co-op to keep it successful?

Once a cooking co-op gets started, it doesn't take long to realize its many advantages. Some are obvious, but I was surprised to find so many unexpected pluses. Here's my "Top 10 List" of the co-op cooking benefits:

  1. You save money (I save between $200 to $250 a month). And planning ahead means you can take advantage of sales and buying in bulk.
  2. You spend less time in the grocery store. Shopping for one large meal a week is much easier and less time consuming. You also don't pick up as many impulsive, easy-to-prepare and costly foods as you do when you're trying to figure out five or more meals a week to prepare.
  3. Menus are set up weeks in advance. How wonderful! (We hold a quick meeting once every six weeks to plan our menus.
  4. No more last minute expensive, unhealthy fast food meals.
  5. Your kitchen only gets messy once a week.
  6. Dinnertime stress is gone. Imagine laughter and smiles at the dinner table!
  7. You maximize your efforts and minimize time expended. Cooking day can be intense, approximately 3-4 hours, but your "off" days are spent on other things -- like hobbies, interests, extra family time.
  8. Cooking is fun again because you make one special dinner a week instead of daily routine meals.
  9. Co-op cooking brings people together. It creates a sense of community.
  10. You always have an answer for that pesky question, "Mom, what's for dinner?"

Now you may be saying, "But I'm not a cook, I can't do this!" Reconsider. I was insecure about my cooking abilities too, but the rewards are so great and the savings so significant it's worth overcoming any amount of initial hesitation. A couple of hints for novice cooks: Start with simple menus (French dip sandwiches and salad, for instance), read up on how to multiply recipes (it's not hard), and ask for help from your friends who love to cook. Two or three weeks into your cooking co-op and you'll wonder how you ever got along without it. I know I do and I have nearly $15,000.00 to remind me why I never want to do without co-op cooking again.

Take the Next Step

  • Continue to look for new ways to trim food costs. Visit our food & groceries section each week to get tips for keeping more of your hard-earned dollars in your pocket.
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