I have long suspected that my life choices were unduly influenced by my 1980’s television viewing. After a childhood in the suburbs, I now live in a farmhouse with three daughters and on good days when I’m not screaming at them to get into the car or off the computer, I like to imagine I’m Ma Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie. On those days I might even bake bread.

The rest of the time, I’m a busy working mother who needs quick and easy solutions to feeding this unappreciative trio (unlike the Ingalls girls, my daughters thank neither me nor God) and the horsemeat scandal is not helping my choices. Supermarket burgers, IKEA meatballs and pretty much all ready meals are out. Our school dinners are contaminated and I can no longer look at a takeaway without suspicion. I’m all for knowing what’s in our food but does this knowledge condemn women – or whoever is at home the most – to never leave the kitchen again?

With this pressing problem at the forefront of my mind, I remembered the dinner co-op. This was an idea I first came across in New Zealand, a country that still holds onto many of its pioneering ways. When a woman had a baby, other women in the community would take it in turns to deliver them dinner each night. It gave the family one less element of domestic life to worry about and made sure that the new, breastfeeding Mum was eating well. In the fortnight after I gave birth to my third daughter, delicious casseroles, pies, gratins and salads would arrive at my door. It was, quite frankly, worth having a baby for.

Toad in the hole at the dinner co-opWhile dinner co-ops are useful in times of a crisis, I figured there’s no reason why they couldn’t work on a regular basis – obviously with you contributing as well. A quick search showed me that this is exactly what the Americans have been doing for years. Called cooking co-ops or dinner swaps, they work in a variety of ways but essentially they are an agreement by two or more individuals or households to provide a prepared meal for each other, according to a schedule. The goal being to reduce the time spent in the kitchen while increasing the quality and variety of the food eaten.

Families sometimes come together to cook these meals as a team and then freeze them for later in the week. Others take their turn to cook and deliver and then wait for their evening meals to arrive on other designated nights. Bored to my back teeth with cooking, I figured it had to be worth a go. I emailed several local Mums – who I knew had similar ideas about food – and waited for their replies. Two agreed to a week’s trial on the basis that we’d cook and deliver. As one of the women was a fish-eating vegetarian, it meant that all the meals would have to be without meat.

On my day, I headed to the local farmers market to buy the ingredients. Fish pie was quickly abandoned after realising how much it would cost and I settled on Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni – a favourite with my kids. In hindsight, I should have gone for something easier as stuffing 54 cannelloni’s by hand took a backbreaking hour. However, the hassle was quickly overcome by the pride I felt in hand-delivering each dish and soaking up the appreciative comments so often lacking from my own family.

The next night, I was told to stand by for delivery around 5.30 pm. I made a salad, laid the table and even lit some candles. By 6.30 pm I had a very hungry three year old and no sign of dinner. A text message told me it was on the way. My friend eventually tore up the drive with a tray of delicious Moroccan fish cakes and couscous, which we wolfed down. Ten minutes later she was back with our cat who had jumped into the boot to tuck into the others families dinner in the handover!

Our third and final meal for the week was a spinach and feta pie accompanied by garlic bread and cooked as the chef put it “with love”. The kids were happy to have such a variety – not just Mum’s boring old cooking – and I was delighted to be out of the kitchen. Also other people’s food always tastes better. Although maybe that’s because other people’s food really does taste better! I will never know as my lovely, fellow, co-op’ers are too kind to say anything other than how much they enjoyed my cooking.

In all, the experience has been a very positive one, which we are all keen to continue. We decided that it works best for us just to cook the main dish and let each family prepare what they want to go with that – baked potato, rice, salad, etc. Perhaps it would work well to have the dish delivered a day earlier than you plan to eat it, although there is something wonderful about having steaming food arrive at your door. Ultimately you can do it whichever way works for you. It saved me a little on the grocery bill but the aim was to save time rather than money. And the big bonus for me was I was able to spend two evenings a week helping the girls with their homework, clearing the chaos off our dining table (rather than shoving it to one side) and then calmly serving up a home-cooked meal – just like Ma Ingalls!

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