Full disclosure: I’ve tried just about every crazy cleanse, diet trend and exercise fad over the last ten years — even committing to that gross saline flush, master cleanse thing. And with each healthy venture, like many out there, I always ended up back where I was, somewhere in between unsatisfied and knowing I could do better for myself. That is, until I tried a meal exchange club.
What is a meal exchange club?
It’s like your book club, but instead of reading books, you meet once a week to exchange meals with each other. You can enlist friends, family members, co-workers, or anyone you’d see on a weekly basis. (Of course, they have to be people you’d actually vouch for in a potluck — you know, probably not the neighborhood bag lady.)
In my club, which was just a small group of four, we agreed to cook two meals each, which resulted in eight prepared meals for the week. Within a month, I started seeing great results. And I have to admit, after all the things I’ve tried, my meal exchange club has shown a lasting effect in the way I eat and view food. Here’s how:
It can be cost effective
Meal prep kits and meal delivery programs are big industries right now. They not only help consumers solve the “what’s for dinner” conundrum, they can also provide healthy options. But committing to another monthly expense wasn’t in my budget, so those fancy meal kits weren’t a viable long-term option for me.
But I quickly discovered my meal exchange club wasn’t a drastic addition to my weekly expenses. In most cases, doubling a recipe to yield enough servings only called for the purchase of extra protein — roughly an additional $5-to-$10 a week. In return, for my four-member group, I would get eight meals for the cost and labor of two.
But the task also challenged me to think cost effectively when selecting my ingredients. Since you decide the recipe, you control the costs. And I was surprised to find just how much you save when you’re preparing dinner in bulk versus splurging on one meal at a time.
The cooking is a fun, new challenge
Normally, if I’m cooking for myself, I’m unexcited and less ambitious. But knowing others would be eating what I chef’ed up put a little more enthusiasm in the process.
Similar to a book club, each week, we set parameters for our meals (low-carb week, vegan week, internationally-themed). Under usual circumstances, these constraints would feel limiting and dreadful, but they became exciting challenges for us to prepare dishes that would impress. This drove us to abandon our culinary comfort zones and search for new recipes, ingredients, and cooking techniques to try.
After a few weeks of trying new recipes, I began to realize eating and cooking healthy wasn’t so hard. I discovered a few new vegetables and low carb substitutes that were actually pretty easy to make; and many of them ended up in a regular rotation.
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You learn to proportion
Portion control was never my strength. I can barely count the times my so-called hummus snack would turn into an empty container.
When I was packing my meals to disperse to myself and my group members, I was actually creating proportions. This practice of proportioning was a habit that stuck with me. Even when my meal exchange club is on pause, I still like to prep meals for the beginning of the week. Knowing there is always a pre-portioned meal around to grab and reheat when I’m hungry helps me to avoid the ravenous binge-snacking trap.
You’re being held accountable
I’m sure you’ve heard this before: accountability is key. And it works here, too. When you’re too tired to cook, it’s easier to convince yourself to order a pizza. However, if you know you have others depending on you, the need to cook becomes a bigger priority and leads you to plan ahead and take additional steps not to fail.
While I’m usually quick to choose any other task over tiresome minutes in the kitchen, if I had agreed to exchange meals on Monday, I knew I was locked into doing it. (After all, who wants to look like the lazy book club member who didn’t read the book?)
My meal exchange group goes on hiatus for months at a time when our group’s schedules aren’t aligned. But even the initial stint has had real impacts on my nutritional outlook. Yes, I admit, I still fall back into some old habits, but I’m proud of the new habits I’ve adopted into my lifestyle. And I’m most proud to say I’ll never do that saline flush thing again.
Nina Reeder is a journalist and media manager, who has contributed to outlets such as Ebony, AOL.com, Marriott Hotels, and more. She’s a self-proclaimed foodie, but also has passions for health/wellness (which doesn’t always work out well). You can follow her on Instagram here.