Making dinner a community affair
How three families on one street started a rotating weekly feast.
It’s dinner time — again. Wait, didn’t we just make dinner last night? How is it that we’re here again today, trying to figure out an interesting, healthy meal, made from scratch, that the kids will actually eat?
If you’re like me, that’s the internal monologue that comes with the daily grind of dinner. Don’t get me wrong: I love food, and I love the ritual of gathering to eat with family at the end of the day, but the daily tasks of planning meals, shopping, prepping ingredients, cooking, and cleaning can start to feel overwhelming. I want to feed my family well, and I don’t want to resort to ordering in, but I sometimes (read: often) wish a healthy, delicious, free dinner would magically appear at my door once a week.
Amazingly, that wish is a reality for three Thunder Bay, Ontario, families who live on the same block.
Tonight, for example, Will Fredrickson is in his kitchen, assisted by his six-year-old daughter, Astrid. As Astrid slices cucumber (“Make sure your thumb is out of the way, like this,” her dad tells her), Will crumbles feta into one salad bowl, then another one, and one bowl more. He tosses 12 hamburger patties on the barbecue; slices pickles, onion, and tomato — and arranges them on three platters; pours salad dressing into individual Mason jars; and lowers a dozen ears of corn into a pot of boiling water.
When the burgers are grilled, he and Astrid and his wife, Erin Beagle, pile platters and serving dishes into their arms and carry them down the street. They drop one complete dinner at the home of Maggie and Vince Rutter (Maggie also happens to be Will’s sister) and their two kids, and then travel a little further down the street to deliver the remaining food to Airin Stephens, Charles Levkoe, and their two daughters. As each family finishes dinner, the appreciative texts begin to roll in:
The weekly dinners were spearheaded by Will, a high-school teacher, who was inspired by friends in a different neighbourhood doing the same thing. “Basically, I was jealous that my friends were doing this cool thing and wanted in. So I suggested it to this group.”
The families have been sharing weekly dinners for about a year and a half. Each week, one adult takes on the task of planning and preparing a meal for all three households, which means that everyone cooks approximately once every six weeks.
Sharing dinners means eating and cooking a greater variety of food, says Will. “I’ve tried new recipes — like chicken pot pie, or meatloaf, or pork tenderloin. I definitely step up my game: it’s exciting to cook for other people, so you make more effort than you would on your own.”
“It’s food that we love to eat but we wouldn’t necessarily think to make ourselves,” says Erin. Dinners have included everything from spaghetti and meatballs to butter chicken with naan, Ramen, or vegan quinoa bowls. Around Passover, Charles and Airin made chicken soup with matzoh balls.
The arrangement works in part because it’s flexible, say Will and Erin. If someone is too busy in a certain week, they simply take on the following week’s meal, and everyone understands. “There are no rules about what a meal looks like, or how much money you have to spend, or food restrictions. If you wanted to make noodles and Parmesan for dinner one night, that’s what you’d make — although no one ever has. You trust that everyone will return your dishes.”
“I love that it’s something we do as a block,” says Erin. “I love that we’re building community.” The arrangement, she says, also helps reduce the pressures of modern family life. “We all work, and we’re all busy, but we still want to feed our kids and ourselves healthy food, made from scratch. It takes pretty much the same amount of work and energy to make three meals as it is to make one. This is healthier and cheaper than ordering pizza, and better for the environment: there are no take-out containers to throw away, no cars delivering our food. It’s way more satisfying.”
SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.