After lugging an Igloo cooler from my minivan into the living room of a two-story home in Bloomington, I nervously watched 10 frozen batches of my family-favorite Zuppa Toscana soup change hands between 10 people whom I had never met.
I was the newest member of the Bloomington Meal Swap, a secret society of suburban soup-makers and casserole cooks on a mission to save money, their sanity and feed their families nutritious home-cooked food.
I had heard of neighbors swapping leftovers, and thanks to Pinterest was no stranger to the freezer meal phenomenon. But a club devoted to sharing cooking duties was new to me and I had a golden ticket.
As I would come to learn, the concept for a meal swap is simple: Each member makes the same number of freezer-friendly recipes as there are members in the group. Sometimes called a freezer club, the idea is to save time and money, since you can buy in bulk or buy items that are on sale to make multiples of the same recipe.
The beauty of it all is that you go home with a variety of meals to eat throughout the month.
“I wouldn’t be able to function without meal swap,” says Trace Ulland, a Lakeville mother of three. “If I run out of meals I’m like, ‘Now what do I do?’ ”
As frozen Ziploc bricks of squash soup, coconut chicken and Bolognese sauce made their way to my cooler, I wondered if any of it would actually taste good.
I also silently pleaded: Please like my soup, please like my soup. More important, please be the solution to my cooking problem.
When I first heard of meal-swapping, I was at my breaking point with the struggle to “do it all.” I was back at work from my maternity leave with my second child. At home, the freezer that was once lovingly stocked with wholesome meals delivered by friends and family was now bare.
As my kids get older and involved in activities, dinnertime has become more of a frenzied necessity and less of an enjoyable family affair. The rush of list-making, shopping, preparing and catering to different likes and dislikes while trying to cook healthful meals after a long workday was making me feel like an epic failure.
Even the simplest entree of chicken and rice with broccoli gave me anxiety and drew exasperation from my 6-year-old: “We’re having that again?”
My children are like little senior citizens who like to eat at 5 p.m. (much later and they turn into gremlins), which left exactly 11 minutes to get dinner on the table from the time we all got home from work, school and day care. Even Rachael Ray can’t work with that.
What I once loved, I now loathed. Each time I lamented to friends and relatives about my struggle in the kitchen, zillions of “helpful” suggestions from the world’s Martha Stewarts poured in:
“Get a pressure cooker so you can cook whole chickens and potatoes in minutes!”
“Have you tried power cooking?”
“Make a week’s worth of meals on Sunday!”
“You’re a Costco member, right?”
I had heard and tried it all, and was seriously considering hopping on the raw foods bandwagon for simplicity’s sake when Star Tribune colleague Kay Krhin invited me to join her meal swap, a group of 10 busy parents who meet every six weeks. I accepted the invitation, got the family on board and decided to put it to the test.
Once home from Costco with 20 pounds of potatoes, 10 pounds of Italian sausage and a case of chicken stock, I realized my first rookie mistake. In an effort to impress my new club members, I chose a recipe that required a lot of chopping and had to be fully cooked before freezing.
This was my first inkling that the meal swap model is far from perfect.
My fiancé and I spent nearly five hours one evening cooking 10 batches of soup, cooling them, double-bagging them into Ziplocs and then cleaning our disaster of a kitchen.
But once home from exchanging my soup for 10 other dishes, my freezer suddenly became a frozen buffet of choices. I spent little time at the grocery store over the next six weeks, mostly needing only produce, milk, eggs and bread. We supplemented entrees with salads or steamed vegetables.
As for the food, I’ll admit it felt a little weird — at first — eating food cooked in someone else’s kitchen. And while not every meal was a family favorite, nothing was terrible, and most dishes could be altered or seasoned to our liking.
Meal swap veteran Noelle Hawton reassured me that in more than 10 years of exchanging meals with others, she remembers only twice having to toss out the food and order pizza.
“If it was consistently like that, then I’d have a problem,” the Bloomington mother of three said. “Meal swap is more about convenience.”
We ate our freezer meals during the week, and I continued to cook on the weekends. Now that I only have to do it once or twice a week, cooking has become fun again.
Since joining the meal swap group, we cut $200 from our monthly budget, we stopped eating fast food and we throw out less spoiled food. We rarely have a refrigerator without leftovers, we have tried many new things and we always know what we’ll be having for dinner. As a result of not having to cook during the week, I have extra time to play with my kids when we get home and more energy to tackle stacks of paperwork and piles of laundry.
“The evening feels longer,” my fiancé said one night after we ate a meal swap dish of beef tips. It was only 5:45 p.m. and we were already done with the dishes.
“Saner, too,” I said. “But the freezer is getting low again. Thank God we’re swapping meals again next week.”