Dinner. The word can evoke many things: romance, gourmet accomplishments, leisure, nourishment, nurturing. But for most working parents, it can also evoke an anxiety-provoking resentment, an awareness of endless drudgery.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but my three kids expect to eat dinner every day. So unreasonable. The funny thing is: I actually enjoy cooking. I collect favourite cookbooks, subscribe to cooking and baking blogs, and tear out promising recipes from newspapers and magazines. I will happily cook for dinner parties, birthdays and leisurely weekend brunches. It’s dinner under duress to which I object: that moment at 6:30 p.m. when I’ve torn myself away from my work obligations to face a sparsely filled fridge, and must think of a quick, delicious meal involving half a leftover rotisserie chicken, some wilted spinach and a can of chickpeas.
The problem lies not only in the endless cycle of plan, prepare, serve, digest, repeat, but also in pleasing my standard group of eaters: my husband with the voracious appetite and three teen/tween daughters with varying food preferences. One would live entirely on a strict diet of fruit, certain raw vegetables, cheese, pasta and steak. Another will eat anything, except tofu. A third is similarly open to most foods but likes thin soups with chunks, while her sister only wants thick pureed soups. Inevitably, despite any work and preparation, someone is disappointed.
So when my close friend and neighbour, Simone Freedman, suggested a couple of years ago that we join forces on dinner prep, I was intrigued.
“It’s hardly a brilliant idea,” Simone explained. “It just seemed logical. It’s barely any more work to cook for two families once you are already cooking for one.”
Convinced by this undeniable logic, we decided to give it a go, with some rough guidelines. Every week, we each prepare one night’s dinner for both families. If we are trying out something very new, we bounce it off each other to make sure no one in the other family has an undiscovered hatred for, say, quinoa. We already know of some dietary preferences: several members of Simone’s family don’t eat beef, my husband draws the line at Brussels sprouts.
We let each other know what sides or dressings are needed, and provide the special ones, like guacamole to go with black bean tacos, or rice to accompany a stir-fry. Since we live around the corner from each other, it’s easy enough to walk the meal over, or ask our husbands to stop by and pick it up on their way home from work. We pass containers and casserole dishes back and forth, and sometimes end up trading recipes for new meal ideas.
About 18 months later, we are both thrilled with the cooperation. Knowing I have one night a week when I’m cooking for more than my family forces me to plan ahead on ingredients, which is always less stressful. I’ve been using my slow cooker more than ever, and have discovered some new recipes that are always popular with both families. And the nights when dinner from Simone appears magically on our table – home-cooked and piping hot – are absolutely wonderful. It really feels like re-creating an aspect of long-ago community.
Simone agrees. “The very best thing about this is I have one night I don’t have to cook! But I also like that we make different things. You might make something that I never thought to make, like the cashew chicken, which wasn’t on my recipe radar.”
Neither of us have had any serious meal failures either, probably because we both put a little more thought into cooking for 10 than we might when it’s just our own kids.
In fact, we both agree there are only advantages. It’s more economical, because we buy in bulk at wholesalers such as Costco and Bourassa. We are less likely to have leftovers growing mold in the back of the fridge, because we can trade half a pot of soup or stew. We’ve become more organized on our meal nights, which lessens the overall stress of dinner prep. We’ve tried out new meals to broaden our repertoires. And our families get to enjoy a home-cooked meal on a night where we would have, otherwise, been willing leftovers into something edible.
Another big advantage? Our kids may push themselves to eat different things, because they are more open to a meal cooked by someone other than Mom or Dad. For example, my family resists eating tofu when I make it, but when Simone crumbled it with cheese in a baked pasta dish, everyone was happy to eat it.
We’ve seen some favourite dishes emerge over time. Simone introduced us to a beef and broccoli dish that is now a part of the regular rotation, and her family really enjoys a sesame cashew chicken dish that I make. Soups, baked pasta, stir-fries and chicken pot pies are regular meals.
Want to try this out?
Here are some suggestions:
This works best with neighbours. Being able to walk over a hot dish is much easier than anyone having to get into his or her car.
Work with a friend who has similar tastes, unless your family is open to culinary diversity and adventure. Picky kids may put their foot down with new spices, textures and ingredients.
Consider the numbers. It really is no more work to cook for 10 than it is for 5, and my slow cooker and casserole pots can easily accommodate the doubled amounts of food. That may not be true if I were cooking for 15 or 20. However, the extra work on the few nights a week you’re on duty may be worth it for the two or three nights when dinner is delivered to your door. There will also be more logistical challenges in coordinating more families. Figure out what works for you.
Share recipes. One of the best parts of this whole experiment has been the new diversity of meals served to our families. My kids and husband were as tired as I was of our usual dishes, and everyone loved trying something new.