By Andrea Belcham
A batch cooking group provides the opportunity for both connecting with your community and living frugally. Batch cooking is the preparation of a recipe in a large quantity. You’ve likely done this in some form already, making ten jars of strawberry jam after a berry picking trip, or cooking a big soup on Sunday afternoon that will cover a few lunches during the week, for instance. Now imagine more hands chopping and peeling, stirring and scooping. Imagine bigger pots, more food, laughter, and conversation mingling with the sounds of cooking. When you gather with others to cook in batches, you make enough food to split among yourselves.
In my house, we practice the ritual of “take-out Fridays.” By the time the end of the week rolls around, my energy and creativity in the kitchen are waning. We used to bring in take-out food from restaurants, but the mounting expense and limited menu choices for the suburban vegan cut that practice short. Meals from the grocery store’s frozen food aisle, while cheaper than restaurant offerings, were low on taste and high on additives and preservatives. Looking for a way to keep my Friday nights labor-free, I hit upon the idea of filling my freezer with family-sized portions of meals. Take-out Friday morphed into take-it-out-of-the-freezer Friday.
I could have devoted a day every month or so to putting together several nights’ worth of meals for freezing – an industrious but lonely prospect. Or I could have squirreled away portions from the meals I typically made during the week. However, leftovers – the next day’s lunches at our house – were already spoken for. Instead, I approached a few friends and neighbors (whom I knew followed a similar diet to ours, and whose families were of a comparable size) with the proposition of a shared batch cooking session.
The plan was as follows. The six participants would meet for a cook-in on a Saturday morning. Each person would bring a recipe and the groceries needed to make it. The recipe had to be vegan, a meal unto itself (with at least one source of protein) and not likely to turn to mush after being stored for a few weeks in the freezer. Each person would make twelve servings of their recipe (easily done, as many entrée recipes produce five to six servings, so we’d merely have to double a recipe and perhaps add a little extra), meaning that at the end of the morning, with our dishes divvied up among us, we would all come away with six different two-serving portions of some delectable entrées.
The event was a success. For three hours, we chopped and seasoned, mixed and cooked, the air in our rented kitchen filled with the blended aromas of our various foods and our contented chatter. Music played in the background, tea was sipped and refilled. Each cook, having chosen an old favorite to make or having at least tested the recipe in advance, was confident in its preparation. Yet each was also willing to lend a hand with another’s prep work when their own dish simmered on the stove or baked in the oven, or to lend suggestions regarding seasoning, when requested. Dishwashing was done communally. When the last storage container was filled and labeled, we packed up and left for home, our car trunks stacked with “take-out” meals for evenings to come.
Cooking is work – it’s chopping, measuring, stirring, and refining – but these are enjoyable and almost automatic tasks when tackled in an atmosphere of smiles and conversation.
I’ve since organized more batch cooking events following that general structure. We now make it a practice to bring photocopies of the recipes we use (scaled back to the original portion size) so that meals can be recreated at home if desired. We also do some advance coordination regarding recipe selection, ensuring that we don’t get, for instance, four tofu dishes out of the same session, or two versions of shepherd’s pie. And when we’re using a rented kitchen, everyone brings the tools – and sometimes even small appliances – that they’ll need for their recipe, never assuming that the rental space has everything in stock and in good condition.
So who else can take up batch cooking in a collective setting? Anyone! Singles sick of buying frozen meals from the grocery store. College students who have never had to cook for themselves. Young moms who need to have a real conversation with other adults. Retirees who miss the social aspect of their former jobs. Parents who have children with severe food allergies. New immigrants eager to share their culinary traditions and to pick up the language and foods of their new home. Teens who love cooking and who want to help put food on their families’ tables. Anyone who lives paycheck by paycheck, or who receives social assistance and finds the end of the month a particularly challenging time to keep the household fed, will appreciate having a freezer stocked with healthy and filling meals to see them through.
Batch cooking sessions can take many forms, suited to your needs and your resources. (Even the name batch cooking group is amorphous; they’re also referred to as collective kitchens, community kitchens, or cooking clubs.) A batch cooking event is a project that meets an immediate need: feeding yourself and your family. Yet it also produces less tangible but equally as important benefits, such as encouraging feelings of accomplishment, self-empowerment, confidence, and pride. When you cook in the company of others, cooking becomes less of a chore and more of a joyous occasion in which skills are learned, new approaches shared, and wisdom passed on.
As when you’re painting the walls of a room, much of the work involved in a batch cooking project is in the preparation for the event. For your event to succeed, you have to plan thoroughly. Here are some general guidelines and tips to help you launch your own cook-in.
Take a moment to consider how batch cooking can help you. Then search within your network of relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and general acquaintances to identify people in a similar situation. Who else would like to make their own baby food? Who else has homegrown veggies and fruits that they’d like to preserve and swap? A batch cooking group can meet a permanent or a temporary need; it can meet regularly, or a cook-in can be a one-off event.
Batch cooking can also help you to help others – those who are willing and able to contribute to a cook-in effort, and those who can’t. Maybe someone in your close circle of friends is recovering from surgery and could use some help keeping her family fed. Perhaps your neighbors with the new baby don’t have the energy to cook meals. Batch cooking can be a gesture made by people in their community that will fill their freezer and let them know that others care for their well-being.
Building Your Team
Once you have identified your goal, you need to recruit team members. Look for those who have compatible diets and familial situations. If you hope to organize recurring cook-ins, you might seek out participants more likely to commit on a long-term basis.
Make your first session a test-run. If the project is truly cooperative, with communication being open from the early stages to the end, all participants will be aware of the work involved and respectful of others’ needs.
I advise you to keep your group small (three to six members) to begin with. This, plus the selection of simple recipes, makes the actual cooking manageable for people who may never have worked together before. Once you’re in your groove, you can think of expanding or taking on more sophisticated projects.
Hold an introductory meeting to discuss with your group what you will make, how much of it, and how often. Even the smallest of groups should have a coordinator who can lead such discussions and handle communication between members outside of meetings. Other roles to be divided among members at that first meeting include venue liaison, shoppers, menu file administrator, inventory manager, equipment keeper, and bookkeeper. Some of these duties – like grocery shopping – can be rotated; others, like the bookkeeper role, function better as a permanent position held by someone skilled in that area.
You will also need to establish a budget that everyone can afford. And before selecting recipes, find out if participants and, if applicable, their family members have any severe food allergies or aversions that all should know about.
Batch Cooking Formats
You may opt to go the route of my batch cooking group, in which each member is responsible for a dish – from choosing the recipe, to buying the ingredients for it, to assembling the tools needed. Each member shows up on the morning of the cook-in knowing exactly what she’s going to do and she has just what she needs to do it. This still requires some advance coordination so that two or three people don’t show up intending to make the same, or very similar, dishes, or so that not all six members plan to each use the oven to cook their dish – in a venue where there are only two ovens. You might also establish a price cap on the groceries, so that there are no gross inequalities.
Another route is to make fewer recipes, more collectively. This group’s first meeting sees members pooling recipes and choosing a few to make during the event. For a small group that is to meet monthly, with the goal of preparing several meals for their families, this could be a casserole, a stew, a pasta dish, and muffins – each cooked in a large enough quantity so that every member will come away with several servings of each. The group compiles a list of ingredients and the amounts needed. One person is designated the shopper for that month.
Another variation sees members gathering early in the week of a cook-in to look at flyers for food specials, and then devising a menu and shopping list. This means a meeting, shopping, and the cook-in all occur within a close period, which may be too much to request of time-pressed members.
A one-time cook-in is also a possibility. A common example is a preserves-making event when certain produce is in peak season. Even though it’s a one-off event, you need to be just as organized to pull it off. Decide who will buy or pick the produce, how the bill will be divided, where the preserving will take place (a two-stove venue is ideal when very large batches and/or several varieties are being made), and what equipment is needed. Any kind of preserving needs to follow specific guidelines regarding sterilization, so make sure all participants are schooled in correct procedures.
Collaborative cooking can create healthy, inexpensive meals that allow you time away from the stove while creating community.
The hardest job – especially when your cooking group is larger than four – may well be choosing a date that works for everyone. This is especially challenging when a group that aims to meet more than once is just starting out. Eventually, when the participants have seen for themselves the benefits of batch cooking as a group and your sessions become more regular, your cook-in becomes an event around which other things are scheduled. It helps to approach potential participants several weeks before the general time period when you would like to get together. People will need a chance to settle on recipes and schedule a shopping trip for supplies. Weekends have always worked best for my group – as then our partners are available for childcare for half a day while we cook – but this may not be best for yours; an evening may be your only option.
You know what you’re making, who will be participating, and when. Now what about the where? Depending on the size of your group and your cooking intentions, one of your members may offer the use of her home kitchen. The advantage of this setting is that expenses are lower, as you’re avoiding a facility’s rental fee and any damage deposit, and the atmosphere is decidedly homey. On the flip side, the distractions of home are very close for one of the group. As well, you only have one stove, one sink, and limited work space so productivity will likely be less.
Your group may vote to rent a facility instead, with rental fees divided among members. There are several options available to you, some more economical than others. At the top of the range – and at the highest price – is the business that rents out space specifically for cooking classes, parties, cooking clubs, and the like; these come fully equipped with new appliances and gear. Or you can try contacting caterers, especially those with small-scale outfits, for short-term rental opportunities. You can also approach local community centers, legions, arenas, school home economics departments, and other institutions to find out whether they rent their kitchens to the public. I have found church kitchens to be the most affordable rental space in my region. No matter your choice, visit the venues to judge their suitability before committing; don’t rely on second-hand descriptions.
You will likely have to sign a contract when renting any of these facilities. Some may also require a refundable damage deposit. Do your homework before signing on. Note that the cheaper you go, the more flexible you may have to be.
For the most part, batch cooking groups are built quite easily and naturally, once you have identified a group of people who share your goals. Don’t think that you are too inexperienced a cook to contribute anything valuable to a group, as doubtless your strengths in other areas will shine through. A cook-in is a comfortable setting for teaching and learning culinary skills and techniques, and it’s a great atmosphere for swapping other tips about resources and opportunities in your community for the household on a tight budget.
This article is adapted from the book Food and Fellowship: Projects and Recipes to Feed a Community, published by Life Media, under its The Alternate Press imprint, as part of Natural Life Magazine’s Green Living Series. The book provides many more tips and is, in fact, a complete blueprint for starting and running both a batch cooking group and a food buying club. It also contains 100 vegan recipes to get your group started using the ingredients that were purchased together.
Author Andrea Belcham worked in the publishing industry before shifting focus to two long-time passions: food and sustainability. Her hunt for local foods to nourish her young family was not satisfied at the grocery store, so she began to shop farmers’ markets, joined a CSA, and started growing vegetables. When she noticed other friends and neighbors also attempting to become more active participants in food production and distribution systems, she looked for solutions. Two major projects were born: a batch cooking group and a natural foods buying club. When she isn’t growing, gathering, or cooking, Andrea also reviews books on the topics of food and the environment, and teaches vegetarian cooking classes and workshops. She lives in Quebec, Canada.