Meal Swap

Last Fall, in the midst of my crazed-nesting/get-this-baby-out-of-my-belly phase, I did a weekend of freezer meal cooking. I had never attempted such a feat before and even though I survived it (and we enjoyed most of the food), I wasn’t sure I would ever do it again. It was a LOT of work to cook twelve different recipes over the course of one weekend and the whole thing left me feeling a bit crazed.

Flash forward a few months, past the arrival of Miss Raegan, to a MOPS meeting that just so happened to be about freezer cooking. I was proud that I not only knew what freezer cooking was but that I was also a veteran of such cleverness. Actually, I was just happy to get the little collection of recipes that they gave us (after demonstrating one for the group) because, unlike my own foray into freezer cooking, these were meals that someone I knew had actually made/tested/survived/enjoyed. That’s not to say that my first twelve were all duds, but some were met with less than enthusiastic plate cleaning.

During that meeting, a friend who sat at my table mentioned a blog she had read where some women did a freezer meal swap. This meant that each participant made one meal five times over – enough for her own family and one to give to each other family. Then, when they got together, they walked away from the night with five different meals to toss in the freezer. “Brilliant!” I thought. Because making a whole bunch of meals is confusing and messy and slow. But making the same meal over and over again sounded so much easier.

So, when said friend sent out an inquiry email later that day, asking if anyone was interested in forming such a meal swap group, I was all, “Yes, Please!” Five others felt the same way, and so our little group of seven was formed.

Our first swap took place last February. It was a whole new ball game making that many meals in one go (actually, I spread it out over several days/nights/weekends), and, to add to the fun, we decided we would each make not one but TWO main dishes to swap. As my son would say, “Holy Moly Cow!”

And even though there were moments of Holy Moly Cow in trying to make seven pans of enchiladas and cook up seven batches of pork tacos, there was also a bit of excitement (I mean, hellooooo – look at these pork tacos!).

There was also a bit of wonder, as in, “I wonder if everyone else will like my cooking. I wonder if we’ll like theirs.”

Well, not to worry! The swap was a huge success. First, it allowed me to have my first girls’ night out since Raegan was born. You see, when we set our date to swap, one group member hosts at her house while another one brings dessert. Then we get to have wine and time to chat before hauling out the coolers. We’ve talked about our various mass cooking experiences and laughed at how some people just look at us like we’re nuts when we try to explain this group. (We also laugh because we are a teensy bit nuts, and we look really funny when we show up at someone’s house for a swap, all lugging our big heavy coolers!)

Second, the meal swap has allowed some awesome food to find its way to our table. I have two words for you: Elegant Chicken. That dish, made during our first exchange in February, is probably still my favorite thing about this whole experience. I don’t know how you could go wrong with a name like Elegant Chicken (it so had me wondering what it would be), and as a bonus, it is a lot like a dish that my mother-in-law makes (that I had never had), so Ben flipped when I served it for dinner.

But really, all of the meals have been fantastic and I always look forward to what I get to pull out of the freezer next. I consider myself a decent cook but I tend to make the same stuff all the time, so this has been a great way to add some variety to our dinner table.

Now, when we first started emailing, trying to plan the meal swap, we thought we might do this once a month. Ha! I actually just snorted a little bit when I typed that because I think all of us quickly realized that this is not an easy thing to do and not something we want to stress out over each and every month. We decided during our first exchange that every other month – at the most – was plenty and would allow us a couple three (I’m sorry, I know that makes no sense, but I love that expression) meals per week from the freezer. Excellent!

In the time since, we’ve had some fun and experimented a bit with how the group works. We’ve done a round with a main dish and a side. We’ve added a couple members and had one member sit out when her schedule didn’t allow for the extra cooking. We even took a longer stretch between exchanges this summer, because, frankly, all of us were busy and who wants to be doing a ton of cooking when it is 101 out every day?!

Thanks to a few tiny hints of cooler weather added to the fact that both school and MOPS have started up for another year, we are back at it with our freezer meals. Our next exchange is set for later this month and I am pumped. I think I only have one meal left from our last swap (because I have been totally hoarding it), so my freezer is all set to be loaded up with deliciousness again. This time we’re doing one dish that is kid friendly and one that is more geared for adults. I picked taverns (Sloppy Joes for you NE folk) and Baked Bean Chicken (because it sounded like something my hubby would like).

The taverns are done and done, thanks to some clever usage of my electric skillet (only had to do two batches of actual cooking to get all eight meals done). The chicken is another miracle that I’ve discovered since starting with this group – freezer meals for the slow cooker! This means that on “cook day” all you do is prep and toss in the bag; then the CrockPot does all the work for you when it is time to actually make the meal. I love my CrockPot, so this has been a wonderful revelation.

That being said, when you have to make eight of something it doesn’t really matter if you’re cooking it or not, it still takes time. OK, having to brown the chicken first would have been worse, but this meal was comical from the very get-go.

First, I had to go to Walmart to get my supplies. I’m not thrilled with the fact that I do so much of my shopping at Walmart, but it helps stretch some dollars for us and is (usually) one stop shopping, so I do it. Because I knew I’d have a cartload, I did this last night while Ben was putting the kids to bed (bless his heart). I crisscrossed my way through the store, collecting all the items from my list (except for the bread, which I forgot, dang it!). Here’s the thing about making Baked Bean Chicken – it takes a lot of beans and a lot of chicken! My cart was so heavy by the time I got to the produce section, I was having a hard time rounding corners with the darn thing. Right then, I started to get the giggles a little bit (which, when shopping alone, really just makes you look like a crazy person).

So I finally got my big, heavy cart to the checkouts, only to realize that even though the parking lot didn’t look too full when I got there, everybody and their uncles decided to check out at the exact same time. Holy Moly Cow – it was a lot of people and most of them had a lot of stuff.

As a former BigK cashier, I’m a big fan of the self checkout, so that is where I headed amidst all the chaos. I hopped in a semi-short line behind two other ladies, thinking I’d be out of there in no time. Silly me. The first one was done and gone, but then, the second…well, this was apparently her first time attempting the self checkout and she was holding each item so gingerly, swiping them so gently, that nothing was working. It was so bad that the girl who was supposed to be supervising all of the self checkouts had to come over and ring up her whole order! Again, the almost-giggles set in (only because I was there without my kids; had I been there with kids, I would have been freaking out going: oh.my.goodness.get.me.out.of.here!) (And, in hindsight, I should have offered up my BigK skills!).

When it was finally my turn, I attacked my cart as quickly and efficiently as I could. That’s all well and good, but when you have 56 cans and 16 lbs. of chicken (and other groceries and baby stuff) to scan, you’re going to monopolize that checkout for a wee bit of time.

Now, when I had to buy the 8 jars of salsa to make my pork tacos and all the fixings for my enchiladas, I got some funny looks at the register from the people around me, so this time I did my best not to make eye contact with other costumers while I checked out my order. That only worked for so long, though, and sure enough, I caught a few raised eyebrows and goofy grins as people looked at my items and wondered what apocalypse I was preparing for. And, because I laugh at really awkward moments, I had to resist the urge to bust a gut for the third time (and managed to do so, in hopes of not ending up on some People of Walmart website or something).

Finally I made it out of the store and back home where I decided I might as well make my meals. Here is what it looked like before I began (minus the mustard which I forgot to add to the pile before snapping this picture):

 
Again, I have to laugh a little bit at the absurdity of all this (and the fact that I now sometimes cook with garlic and onions). But I love it all so much. The food and the friendship and the fellowship are what make the crazy all worth it. 
And while I don’t have a picture of the finished bags, I can promise you girls – it looks like a good one!
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