Cooking in bulk so you have ready-to-eat meals is a good strategy, but it can get boring if you wind up eating too much of the same thing.
Engaging neighbors, friends, or co-workers in a Healthy Meal Exchange is a great way to add a variety of healthy foods and cooking styles to your diet, while still cutting back on time in the kitchen.
Plus, a group can create accountability and a community to cheer each other on as you work on better eating habits!
Let me walk you through how to do it.
1. Find Health-Minded Friends
Arrange yourself into a group of 4 (ideal) or group of 3, with similar interests in healthy eating. Limit food restrictions to no more than one request per group (e.g. gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, not spicy, etc.).
Workweek Lunch Version:
Groups of 4: You will be batch cooking 16 portions of a single healthy lunch, for a 4/4/4/4 exchange. So each of you would come away with 4 portions of 4 different meals.
Groups of 3: You will be batch cooking 15 portions of a single healthy lunch, for a 5/5/5 exchange. So each of you would come away with 5 portions of 3 different meals.
Family Dinner Version:
Groups of 4: You will be batch cooking 4 healthy dinners of a single recipe, for a 4/4/4/4 exchange. Each of you would come away with 4 different healthy dinners.
Groups of 3: You will be batch cooking 3 healthy dinners of a single recipe, for a 3/3/3 exchange. Each of you would come away with 3 different healthy dinners.
2. Pick a Date
Select a date, time, and location where your Healthy Meal Exchange group will meet up for a food swap. Ideally arrange to meet up 1x/month, but you can exchange food more or less frequently to suit your schedule.
3. Use Quality Foods
All meals should be homemade with real, wholesome food. Bring your “A-game,” or at least try your best to make a meal that is healthy, but also satisfying and delicious. Remember, these meals need to be freezer friendly as well!
4. Keep it Balanced
Your meal should include...
unprocessed high quality carbohydrate (e.g. brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, squash, wild rice, etc.)
freezer-stable vegetables hidden in your recipe (when appropriate)
When planning and eating your meal, try following the Hand Portion Guide. Add a side salad of extra veggies to your reheated meal whenever possible for extra goodness.
5. Keep it Clean
Cook with safe and clean food handling practices. Wash your hands and the ingredients appropriately, and avoid cross-contamination of food allergens.
6. Don’t Get Stingy
Batch cook enough food to serve your agreed amount. If your “family dinner” group agrees on servings for 4 adults then there needs to be enough to feed that many. For a “workweek lunch” group, be sure to completely fill all your single-serving containers (16 portions total in a 4-person group, 15 portions total in a 3-person group).
7. Speaking of Containers
Container selection should be agreed upon by the group members in advance so everyone uses the same serving size.
Short-Term: If doing a one-time exchange, rectangular (recyclable) take-out containers are acceptable (example 1, example 2).
Long-Term: If your group makes a long-term commitment, invest in reusable glass containers that are oven, microwave, and dishwasher safe to save the environment from unnecessary waste and reduce costs. One group went with 3 cup Pyrex rectangular glass containers (64 containers in total, 16 per person, ordered online).
8. Label It
Once your healthy meal is batch cooked and portioned out, label your containers with the recipe name and date it was prepared on. Masking tape or blank envelope labels work well.
9. Keep it Fresh
Use a cooler or insulated freezer bag to transport your meals to and from your meeting spot.
Exchange your Healthy Meals with your friends, and enjoy a variety of nutritious options that are quick and easy to reheat on busy days. At your swap, feel free to bring a photocopy of your recipe to share with each group member.
Workweek Lunch Version:
Groups of 4: Each person will keep 4 containers from each of the 4 recipes prepared (16 meals total per person).
Groups of 3: Each person will keep 5 containers from each of the 3 recipes prepared (15 meals total per person).
Family Dinner Version:
Groups of 4: Each person will keep 1 container from each of the 4 recipes prepared (4 meals total per person).
Groups of 3: Each person will keep 1 container from each of the 3 recipes prepared (3 meals total per person).
Select your recipe and adjust the ingredients to serve 3 - 4 times more.
Set aside a prep day to chop and cut any veggies or meat.
Precook any grains if you’re using them.
Break up the cooking into several steps. This will help you not get overwhelmed if you aren’t used to cooking on a larger scale.