The What, Why, and How of Planning a Meal Swap


Let’s start by making sure we are all on the same page. What is a meal swap and why is planning a meal swap a great way for busy families to eat better with less effort? And, before you do a Google search for “meal swap” and come up with a few different things, let me share what I consider a meal swap and what has made them fun and successful for me.

A meal swap is when you gather with friends and bring a collection of meals to trade with one another.

Furthermore, when planning a meal swap, each participant brings a number of meals to trade (usually individual or family-sized portions of the same dish) and takes home the same number of meals (made by other people) that they brought. Easy peasy, right? Well, not entirely. But it is entirely worthwhile.

two women preparing food on a kitchen counteropStarting a meal swap can be life-changing. I say life-changing because it seems like our lives as moms revolve around food much more than I ever thought possible. And I am a chef and it still seems like a lot! But between meal planning, grocery shopping, meal prepping, and actually getting my family to eat the delicious food I make then, I sometimes feel like I do very little that doesn’t involve food.

In my experience, planning meal swaps can make this huge part of our lives much easier.

It also helps my family eat at home, saving us money, and it saves time because while I have to make a meal large enough for my family plus however many families I am meal swapping with, I make only one large meal and end up with several different meals made by friends. My family isn’t fond of leftovers, so this is a win-win situation.

You’re probably wondering how this actually works. You might even be thinking that a meal swap sounds like more work, and why on earth would you want to do that? Bear with me here. I won’t lie. Planning a meal swap is work… but it’s not as hard as you might think. And the payoff is significant.

three women sitting at a kitchen counter

How does a meal swap make my life easier? I have to make a ton of food!

A few years ago, I decided to start this tradition with my friends and while it seemed like a brilliant idea to me, it was a hard sell. Because at first, it seems like a lot of cooking! And it is, but hear me out.

You make one recipe. But, you make multiple servings of it.

You also get to pick whatever recipe you want to make. Want to make your Grandma’s classic ziti? Go for it! Want to try a new Moroccan Chickpea Slow Cooker Stew? That’s up to you! People love trying new things!

You spend one day cooking (instead of the entire week). It’s one afternoon of your time in exchange for not worrying about dinner for a few nights. I think it’s worth the effort!

How does a meal swap work?

Here are the steps for planning a meal swap for you and your friends:

1. Generate a list of friends who want to participate in the meal swap

It can be anywhere from 3-30 friends! I’ll show you how it works with a larger group. It’s also important to keep in mind the dietary needs and restrictions of your group of friends. You may want to choose people with similar eating habits to keep it simple (and safe) for everyone.

2. Set a date for the meal swap to take place

You can do it at your house and then rotate homes as the meal swaps go on throughout the year.

3. Communicate the meal swap guidelines with your friends

First, make sure that any food allergies are shared. You can determine if you want to avoid allergens altogether or just label specific meals that have allergens. You’ll also want to determine how large each meal should be. I suggest 6 servings as a standard size.

4. Make the number of meals that you’re supposed to bring to the swap.

Let’s say there are 5 people participating in the swap (including yourself). My suggestion (at least in the beginning as you’re getting the hang of things) is to make 5 meals total. Then, when you attend the swap, you will bring 4 to “trade” with the 4 other participants. So you would get one meal from each of the other 4 participants. And then the 5th is yours to keep for yourself!

If you have a much larger group (like 8+ people) I suggest designating the same number of meals for everyone to bring. This prevents needing to make an enormous amount of food! For example, if it’s a swap with 8 people, each person brings 4 meals to the swap and then brings home 4 meals.

gallon sized freezer bags with stew in them on a countertop

5. Then the swap happens!

You all meet with your prepared meals and you get to bring home a few meals while exchanging the ones that you made. It’s a great opportunity to meet with friends, have a glass of wine and some snacks, and come home with a bag full of meals!

a family having dinner together at the table

Helpful Tips

Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re planning a meal swap and prepping the food.

  • Keep a Google Drive document with a list of meals and links to the recipes to share with your friends. That way you can make ones that you really liked again and always have a link to the recipe.
  • Make sure you have freezer space before you come home with a stack of meals.
    Have appropriate containers or quality ziplock bags for freezing your meals.
  • Pinterest is a great recipe resource. You can search freezer meal recipes or meal swap recipes and find a ton of options.
  • If it’s a family or handwritten recipe, tape a copy to the meal when you bring it or email it to the group.
  • Make sure that you label everything! It’s really important that you always label any food with allergen info and the date the food was made. Also, write heating instructions on the packaging, too.
  • Make recipes that freeze, travel, and store well. The best meals are ones that can fit into large freezer-friendly bags. They store really well in the freezer without taking up too much space.
  • Make smart and healthy choices in the kitchen. Always be sure to clean your hands and wash your ingredients and tools appropriately. Prepare raw meat and fish safely. Try to keep dirty little fingers out of the food that you are making for friends. No one wants any yucky cross-contamination!
  • Bring a cooler bag or box to the swap. Nothing is worse than trying to carry 5 freezer meals out to the car and having them all tumble to the ground.

a bowl of soup with a side of rolls

Top 5 Meal Swap Recipe Ideas

Here is a quick list of my favorite recipe to make while planning a meal swap:

Chicken Parmesan Casserole – It’s the ultimate comfort food and a much easier way of preparing this classic recipe.

Freezer-Friendly Breakfast Burritos – The meals don’t always have to be dinner. Having these breakfast burritos ready to go make our mornings so much easier.

Immune-Boosting Chicken Soup – A good chicken soup is always handy (especially this time of year!). Plus, soups freeze so well and you could add a bag of rolls to go with the soup, too.

Breakfast for Dinner Quiche – We love having breakfast for dinner and quiche is a really easy recipe to make for a meal swap. It’s even easier when you don’t need to make the crust! A side of muffins is always a nice touch.

Simple Chili – This is always a great go-to recipe when you’re stumped as to what to make. I like to add a box of cornbread mix to the meal when I make chili for a meal swap.

Now you’re ready to have a successful meal swap!

You’ve got the tips and tricks for hosting your own meal swap. It’s also a really fun social occasion once you move past the idea that you’re cooking 16+ portions at a time! If you enjoy spending time in the kitchen, I think you’ll really like this concept. And if you don’t like cooking, you can suck it up to cook up one meal and then avoid cooking a few others down the road.

Have you hosted or participated in a meal swap before? What did you like about it? I’d love to hear what worked and what didn’t work for you!


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