IMG_4529(pineapple beef kebabs – we prepped the veggies, beef and marinade at cooking club, and assembled into kebabs and marinated when we were ready to cook)

A few weeks ago, I helped the owner of my beloved boot camp, Happy Hour Fit Club, come up with a multi-dimensional meal plan for a new concept she wanted to get off the ground. She had toyed around with various meal plans before, including having participants swap recipes and even doing a few successful salad swaps, where ladies would prep big batches of their favorite salads to swap with others. But she wanted something new, which would hit a few goals including distribution of healthy meals, camaraderie and community, and of course making life easier for those participating. She came up with the Happy Hour Cooking Club.

The final concept reminds me a bit of Dream Dinners, but put a bit more power in the hands of the participants. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  • Groups of 3-4 participants are placed together to make up their own cooking club.
  • Each week a new leader is designated, and the leader is responsible for choosing the meals (with feedback from her group members of course), doing the grocery shopping for all members of her group, and hosting the group at her home to prep the week’s meals. Participants divide up the cost of groceries and of course pay back the leader that week.
  • The members get together at the host’s home and prep at least 2-3 meals for the week ahead.
  • Prep work involves chopping and dicing, and browning/braising meats where applicable. All members stay to help the host clean up the kitchen 🙂
  • Emphasis for our cooking club was on healthy meals, which were also family-friendly.

Each week’s cooking sessions lasted about 2.5 hours from start to finish, which when you think about it doesn’t save you a ton of time in the “meal prep” department, but it saves the mental energy that goes in to trying to figure out what to cook each night, and eliminates dinner-time stress. Since we’ve only been doing this for a month, I can’t say we wouldn’t get more efficient as time went on, but since the main objective wasn’t to save time, but to make access to healthy meals more achievable, I say we won big time.

A few words about choosing the meals, because it can be tricky. I volunteered to help develop the meal plan options because I have access to so many great, health-conscious cookbooks, and through all my research and writing, I’ve got a good grasp on truly healthy meals, versus those disguised as such. A challenge from previous healthy recipe swaps was that some would submit recipes that were for instance, low in calories, but quite high in processed foods like “lite” dressings as marinades and “corn flake” crusted cuts of meat, which were “gluten free” but still full of questionable ingredients. The objective therefore wasn’t necessarily low-calorie, but nutrient rich whole foods free of processed ingredients.

IMG_4675(cooking club ideas I distributed each week. Notes on ingredients and make-ahead prep tips included to make things a bit easier, but not necessary)

When I assembled the meal plans, I broke recipes down into several categories; meat (beef & pork), poultry (chicken & turkey), seafood, slow cooker and vegetarian. Each week I included 3-4 recipe ideas for each category, so that participants could pick for themselves from the section. I deliberately chose recipes that involved prep work we could get out of the way during the cooking club. For instance choosing to roast a chicken wouldn’t be that great of a selection because it typically involves a simple basting then popping in the oven. But a stew that called for a bevy of chopped veggies, or a meat dish that required an involved marinade were all great choices. Does that make sense? Most of the meals were ones I’ve been gathering for years on Pinterest, have used in previous meal plans, my own recipes from the blog, and because it was a small private group (i.e. not for profit), I even photocopied a few fave recipes from my own collection of cookbooks to share with my group.

What should you do if you want to replicate something like this with your own group of friends? Easy! Here’s a few tips to make it more manageable:

  • Keep your group small, like 3-4 people, to keep things as simple as possible. This will make it easier choosing a date each week, and make the grocery shopping less cumbersome.
  • Pick a date each week and stick with it.
  • Not everyone in the group has to be a “star cook!” In our group of 3, two of us were very comfortable in the kitchen and performing tasks like quick chopping, while one of us declared themselves a “non-cook.” I tell you though, she did just fine and held her own. There were plenty of tasks to go around and she always found something to do which she felt comfortable with.
  • Shopping for 2-3 other people seems like a pain, but I promise you when it’s your turn to sit back and just show up, it is such a treat! While you each could do your own shopping, I highly recommend you first try the “leader shops” technique before dismissing it. It was really awesome.
  • Don’t agonize over choosing the meals to cook. Either put one of you in charge or just put a bit of trust and faith in each member and just go for it. Each week in our group, the leader chose the meals and just double checked that we were all okay with it, and then went for it. One week we made a salmon dish, and one member’s family didn’t eat salmon, so she just swapped the salmon out for chicken, instead of choosing a whole new meal. And of course, everyone’s idea of healthy differs so just choose based on what will work best for your group!
  • When deciding on a time, either do it at night when your significant other can be home to help manage the kids, or do it during the morning when the kids are at school (or summer camp considering the current season). It makes things a bit more hectic when kids are running around, so keep that in mind when scheduling.

Lastly, have fun! I think I’ve answered any possible questions you may have, but of course feel free to ask in the comments, any I may have missed.

  • So excited to see that a few of my recipes made the cut! 😉