Like many overcommitted, time-crunched 9-to-5ers, my weekday lunches used to fall into two categories: A) leftovers thrown into Tupperware, or B) take-out. Then, six years ago, a friend of mine heard about something called a lunch swap. A few conversations and invitations later, and our own Lunch Swap was born. We still get together to trade lunches every Sunday. Whether it's called a swap, a share, a co-op, a circle or a bunch, people have been getting together to trade food for years. Any arrangement to trade food on a consistent basis counts, the idea being to save time and money while getting healthier, more consistent meals. Here in the Twin Cities, food sharers enthuse about their own groups: Some have even started blogs and compiled favorite recipes into cookbooks. Martha Ballard of southeast Minneapolis started her Food Circle after watching people bring pots of soup or frozen lasagnas to each other upon the birth of a baby or a relative in the hospital. "I thought, 'Oh, this is so good we should do this more often,'" Ballard said. "You get good food and a night off from cooking." She invited three other nearby households (where she knew neighbors who liked to cook and eat) to join a monthly cooking rotation. Once a week, one of the households cooks and delivers meals to the others.

"I check in with everyone once a month and give them an option to opt out," Ballard said. "They all always want to keep going, even through the holidays."

They've developed a habit of sending thank-you e-mails with feedback about what they like about each dish.

"Yesterday I made a quiche and a salad for every household, because I know they love my quiches," Ballard said.

A time to chat

It also gives the neighbors an excuse to catch up.

Indeed, it's often the social element that keeps groups going. Karen Slaght started her Lunch Bunch five years ago with two friends, based on a vegan food exchange they had heard of.

"For several of us, it's the longest relationship I've ever had," Slaght said. "It's such a great way to have a predicted way/time to see your friends. Sometimes my husband will say, 'You spent four hours cooking for Lunch Bunch, but what about me?' And I say, 'Well, they were there first.' "

Slaght's group meets every other week for a potluck dinner, in addition to swapping lunches. Many in the group now are married and thinking about starting families, so they treasure their time together even more. Each dinner starts with a check-in of what's going on in each member's life.

And the food?

"The food is great," Slaght said. The group compiled a cookbook of their favorite recipes.

At my own Lunch Swap, a recent menu included black-bean pineapple burritos, spicy peanut noodles with shrimp, and a tomato and basil pasta salad. We have a few simple restrictions (no meat except fish, no mushrooms) and a few understandings (a preference for whole grains and organic ingredients).

Lisa Struehinger, a 35-year-old teacher in Minneapolis, and Amy Johnson, a 36-year-old teacher in Minneapolis, got the idea to start our swap after participating in a similar swap. The first one didn't fit their expectations.

"The food was too bizarre," Johnson said. "So we asked ourselves, 'Who is a good cook? Who cooks normal food?' I think it's lasted so long partly because we picked people we knew pretty well."

When our group started, none of the members had kids. With more than six babies born since then, we loaded up extra Tupperware containers full of our weekly concoctions for the new parents, and alternated homes to accommodate nursing moms and bedtimes. In the summer, we decided to turn Lunch Swap into a play date/potluck. As the kids get older, we've talked about adding a school-lunch swap.

Johnson's latest endeavor? Breakfast swap.

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a Twin Cities freelance writer.