Joani Blank on Common Meals: Part 2

Part 2: Common Meal Systems, What's Typical? - 2016 Interview

A continuation of my interview with Joani Blank. I had the privilege of interviewing her by phone a few months before her passing. For part one, visit Part 1: Common Meal Practice Run

Though common meal systems share similarities from one community to the next, each cohousing has unique approaches. Some trends emerged from Joani 2001 survey (to view her write-up on results, click here.).

How often? The number of meals cooked per week varied greatly. Of the 19 communities surveyed, most averaged 2 or 3. Joani believed a successful system’s minimum number is 2 a week, but 3 is even better. 4 is wonderful, but probably a max to expect of communities. It’s key, she indicated, to decide early on what the target number of meals per week will be. It’s very hard to increase that number once chosen, so set the bar high and lower if necessary. [Editor's note: many successful communities enjoy only one common meal per week, underscoring that every community is unique.]

What about potlucks? Some communities like Wolf Creek Lodge in Grass Valley, CA have weekly resident potlucks in the common house. Joani warned that potluck meals don’t facilitate the same type of bonding. However, if they’re just an “extra meal” on top of say, three already happening, it’s not such an issue. But if your only meal is a potluck, it just won’t bring the same community-building benefits. “Cooking together is so crucial!”

What’s expected? There’s usually an unwritten rule in communities (but not a requirement) that every adult cooks, and the task rotates. Older folks may choose to contribute in alternative ways if cooking is hard for them. However, the meal system runs most effectively if all able-bodied people are on the cooking rotation. Then everyone can enjoy the meals their neighbors make.

What about food preferences? “Don’t expect vegetarians to eat around the main course.” Dealing with food preferences can be an overwhelming process, especially at first when groups are still getting to know each other. Joani suggested keeping things simple, but always having vegetarian and gluten free alternatives available if you have members with these preferences. Your goal should always be to maximize the number of people who can eat a meal, at the very least accommodating meat eaters and vegetarians. Salad options are a great go-to, and chicken is a good meat staple (seafood allergies and red meat avoidance can complicate things). For meals with a lot of kids, yummy and familiar veggies are a good bet. To avoid driving cooks crazy juggling many preferences in one meal, Joani suggested offering gentle notices when announcing a meal’s menu. For example, “There’s not a gluten free option for this meal, but that doesn’t mean we don’t respect your needs – we just can’t accommodate them in this particular dish.” Your gluten-free residents can join for the next meal, or bring their own meal to a common dinner so they can still sit and enjoy the company.

You're vege-glut-soy what? But how do you track of who’s gluten free, vegan, dairy free, nightshade intolerant, etc.? An easy way to keep them front of mind is to have everyone list their preferences/allergies before move in, then post a list on the fridge in the common house.

How many of you are coming? Having a clear number of servings in mind makes shopping easiest for cooks. It’s not fair to expect them to buy extra just in case. Groups typically post a dining schedule with a closing date (either on paper or online) so residents can sign-up. And those who sign-up have a chance to indicate their preferences for the meal (i.e. 15 meat-eaters, 4 vegetarians and 1 gluten free).

What about cleanup after meals? It may sound like a huge chore. “So many dishes and no one stays around to help! Will our dishwasher be able to handle the load?” Joani suggested purchasing commercial-residential dishwashers, even 2 or 3 if you need them, rather than purchasing an industrial-style one. With that larger size, communities may fall into the trap of being considered a restaurant by the health department and charged extra fees.

You’ve signed up for the full package. Joani recommends that cooks perform all the meal’s tasks, from shopping to cooking to clean-up. No one wants a mad scramble to gather helpers as they’re leaving, belly full. This adds a bonus incentive to keep tidy too, since the people making the dishes clean them up. An easy dishwasher tip - after the meal, turn it on as you leave the kitchen. Once it’s gone through its cycle, the next meal preppers can then unload directly onto the tables for the next meal, which saves an extra step in-between.

Doing it differently. There are unique systems too. Pioneer Valley Cohousing has separate meals just for kids on occasion. The community also asks cooks to choose recipes from a master file of collected favorites. Some communities with families choose to eat “kid free” meals occasionally, to try out special ingredients and let parents socialize while their kids keep occupied in the playroom or with a sitter.

Stay tuned for Part 3 coming soon!

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