There are many right answers to how to design a cohousing meal program and some will depend on the size of the community as well as the demographics. We are a 9 household community with 17 adults and 11 children. We have 2 vegans, about 5 vegetarians and the rest are omnivores with some strong preferences for meat too. We also have medical food allergies to accommodate.
Last summer a woman named Heidi from cohousing in Australia stayed in our guest room for a week and ate with us several times. She declared that our meal program is “BRILLIANT!”.
We made an early decision while forming that the meal program would be our community “glue” or as our founder Grace Kim says in her TED Talk, our “secret sauce”. We created an expectation during the recruitment period that everyone would participate in 3 meals a week. With the small size of our community this was critical or it wouldn’t work. We designed our Common House to hold ALL our members with enough room for guests. Our kitchen has two ovens and two residential dishwashers. We often have guests. Our first Thanksgiving we accommodated about 40 folks at tables.
Initially we created a small team who researched how our area cohousing communities organized their meal programs. We took notes and talked at meetings a lot. Most communities do some variation on a theme that includes taking reservations, tallying, shopping, reconciling accounts and charging those who attended, etc. You know the drill.
We decided we wanted something inclusive and not complicated. We set a mission of “nutritious and delicious meals for all” which means we accommodate all food needs as best we can.
To make it inclusive our schedule alternates M-W-F one week and then Sun-Tu-Th the next. That means if I have a recurring event every Thursday I still attend 5 out of 6 meals in that two week period and request a late-plate for the sixth if desired. Dinners are typically at 6:30 PM but the Sunday crew can choose to announce their meal as a brunch.
The lead cook sets the menu, posts on Facebook, shops and pays for the meal ingredients and does the preparation. The 2 assistants come an hour before dinner to help with chopping prep and room setup and then stay afterwards to do clean up. The lead doesn’t usually do any clean up. Everyone loves this arrangement. If someone can’t do their assigned time once or twice it’s on them to locate a sub and trade. The table arrangement varies with the lead cook and there is no designated “kids table”. Sometimes kids sit with each other, sometimes with adults.
To simplify accounting we don’t track money. Some meals are simple and inexpensive and some meals are more complex. It’s purely up to the cook. It comes out of their pocket. We recognize not everyone has the same resources and that’s OK. As long as everyone gets something nutritious and delicious, we’re happy. The value is in being together at meals and not the cost of the food. We wanted everyone to feel they could bring a guest anytime so we always fix more than enough food. That way guests can attend because it’s an extension of your home. As Mike Mariano, one of our founders, wrote “No money changes hands, no bookkeeping occurs. To me, this makes it feel like a dinner party hosted by friends.”
We have a Facebook private Group which we use for a lot of our internal communication. It’s free and nearly all were already there regularly. We use the FB group to announce every meal so people can RSVP. That way we know if people have to miss a meal or are bringing guests. These events are also added to our Google Calendar and when someone gets a sub that is noted on the calendar so we can always look there for accurate information.
Our Meal Team re-configures the cook teams every 18 weeks so we get to work with a variety of community members over time, deepening our connections. In an 18 week cycle I’ll be lead cook 3 times and assisting 6 times. That means for the remaining 45 meals I can enjoy a worry-free meal then sit around and socialize as long as I want.
Happy to answer questions.
Your mileage may vary!