The Beloved Family Meal Exchange

The meal exchange idea emerged nearly twenty years ago when my friend Paula and I began sharing desserts—and who wouldn’t love that! We live across from each other on a quiet neighborhood street, we each are married with three children, and we each have family members who consist of “easy eaters.” (There isn’t ONE picky eater in the bunch, which I’m sure makes this idea easier AND more sustainable.) When Paula made a blueberry crisp, for example, she would make two and bring one across the street for our family to enjoy (often with some vanilla ice cream, that’s what a great neighbor and friend she is!) Then the next week, when perhaps I made a chocolate cake, I would make one (or half) for her–usually in the same pan–and return the dish to her. It was wonderful, it was uplifting, and it became something our whole family looked forward to. Don’t you find there is something so amazing about sharing food with people we love?

After several months of weekly dessert exchange, we broached the idea of each of us sharing a complete meal with the other family once a week.  (At this time Paula and I were both working part-time, which of course makes this easier, but I think with planning on the weekend, this could work for full-time folks.)

Here’s how we launched and the basic guidelines we followed:

  1. On Sunday, each of us shared our idea for the meal we were planning. (We usually looked at the Sunday sale flyer for our local grocery store and had an idea of what we wanted to buy and fix.)
  2. We tried to provide variety with the dishes, so, for example, one of us would fix chicken and the other might fix pork or beef.
  3. We discussed what dishes or pans would be needed. (For the most part, we each have two of just about everything, so we simply needed to label with the family name.)
  4. We agreed upon the day and approximate time of meal delivery.
  5. We informed each other whether the meal would come pre-cooked and ready-to-eat, or whether the dish would need to be cooked.
  6. We provided a complete meal, including a vegetable, fruit, main dish, and a dessert. (Often we included a special bread and sometimes even a bottle of wine. Pretty awesome, right?)
  7. We gave weekly feedback to each other: How did our families like the meal? What would we change? Were the amounts okay? And so on.

And so we began, and it was wonderful. Here’s why: we found that we only cooked once during the week! Yes, we cooked twice the amount, but it was once a week. (I liked making an event of the cooking, buying a new votive scent to burn while I cooked, listening to music, sipping a glass of wine…you get the idea!) We found that with two full meals, we had leftovers for two additional nights. Because our families usually ordered pizza on Friday Night, that meant ONE MEAL prepared during the week!

If our budget was tight (mine ALWAYS was), I could buy foods on sale. I know I saved money by buying sale items AND by planning. Additionally, I knew my family was eating nutritious, home-cooked meals, and these meals became a shared, anticipated experience.

The meal exchange era lasted approximately two years. We did eventually add a third family, also family friends, and Susan contributed immensely to the quality of foods our families enjoyed. (With three families, we found there were enough leftovers for the whole week, including weekends.)

As the children grew older and entered middle school, our schedules changed, and, sadly, with the addition of athletics and other extra activities, the meal exchange gradually faded away. My children (now all grown-up and launched) remember these meals with great fondness. “Remember that casserole Paula used to make?” or “Mom, that was so great when Susan joined the meals and used to bring the fancy pasta with the white sauce.”  Yes, Susan added a gourmet element: delicious sauces, unique seasonings, amazing homemade breads. She’s a FABULOUS cook, and it would have been useless to try to compete—I just appreciated and enjoyed.

Dennis and I now find the tempo of our family life has slowed to a reasonable pace. We share simple meals at home (heavier now in fruits and vegetables), and we relish the treat of a weekly meal out. And Paula and I are once again sharing desserts…

It’s a Fine Life

So it isn’t exactly Mayberry, but living life in a small Southwest Michigan town is pretty close. We are surrounded by rich farmland, small lakes, carefully tended hardwoods, and good schools. Our Rockwell-ish village centers—once the hub of rural life–badly need a new vision and economic investment. We grumble about the weather but love hunkering down for a snowstorm which closes schools, brings neighbors together, and encourages family games and hot dinners.

No, it’s not perfect, but it’s been perfect for me.

It’s a fine life.

Metabolism and Menopause


As I eased into my fifties, the menopause gremlins, scurrying and snickering, turned my metabolism switch way, way down. I think it happened while watching Scott Pelley smile at the camera or Alex Trebek annoyingly correct the smallest error. (As new empty nesters, my husband I had morphed into our parents—most nights contently eating our supper while watching “The CBS Evening News” followed by “Jeopardy.”) I had never monitored my weight, and with the introduction of leggings and “stretchy pants,” the extra twenty-five pounds silently slid to my waist, my thighs, my upper arms, and—of course—my neck.  There were a few indicators: button-down blouses started puckering, so I stopped wearing them; the clasps of dress trousers pinched, so I switched to the popular tights and free-flowing over-sized shirts; the roll under my chin appeared in photos, so I hid it with the right selfie angle. But sooner or later, of course, these pounds were revealed in the digital read-out on the scales at my desperately-delayed physical.

My woman’s health professional (also named Kathy) is about my age. She is petite: I tower over her. Kathy looks like a runner—tight bodied—like she could spring from the stool, drop to the floor, and pump out twenty pushups before I could even get my feet from the stirrups—particularly bothersome when wearing a paper gown. I’ve always been taller than most people—I’m used to that–but until my middle fifties, I never felt like an Olympic shot putter. During my last physical, Kathy and I went over my various health indicators, and she ended with asking me if anything is concerning me.

Well, yes: my weight.

She suggested some things I could do (things I already know, of course, including diet and activity levels), but what really stayed with me were her final words, gently delivered, her hand on my shoulder. “Here’s what I know–don’t be so hard on yourself. Be patient. Be kind to yourself.”

As I learn to navigate this new stage of my life, this advice has been a comfort and something I think we should all practice.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself”: Forgive yourself for the unraked leaves, for the cluttered closet, for the Christmas cards un-mailed.

“Be patient”: Forgive yourself for past mistakes, for unkind words, for inaction when the situation called for action.

“Be kind to yourself”: Forgive yourself for the extra pounds, for the second slice of pie, for the lapses in judgement.

As my fifties near the end, this has become my mantra, and I encourage my friends to repeat it with me:

“Be kind to yourself.”

My Holiday Confession

I always—quite smugly—profess my needs to be so simple: family, friends, food, and shelter. My adult kids roll their eyes then smile at me. They understand my marquee message: “Oh yeah, we know, Mom,” they sigh. But when the holidays loom, my satisfaction with our 1960s three-bedroom tri-level dissolves. The space suddenly seems so inadequate. I quickly go from, “I don’t need anything for Christmas except time together” to dreaming on Zillow for a massive home, complete with a commercial-grade kitchen and showplace dining room. I could graciously greet my family at the door, calmly inviting them into House Beautiful. A graceful staircase would lead them to bedrooms staged with fine furniture and sumptuous linens and window coverings, each adjoining bathroom sparkling.

My house would be orderly. Elegant. Lovely. PERFECT.

Most of the year I can beat these feelings down and remember that 95% of the women of the world would be amazed by my home; for most of the year my house is more than enough for the two of us.  But during the holidays, my values are skewed by Hallmark ads and the colorful displays that this year began even before Halloween. Oh, how I secretly covet a huge old Victorian, complete with built-in buffet and resplendent butler’s pantry.

Rockwell’s Thanksgiving painting is imprinted permanently in my brain. The family is so obviously appreciative. The relatives circled around the table are radiant; their freshly scrubbed faces glow. The table so tasteful; all the dishes of the meal exactly timed and on display. But when my turkey comes out of the oven, my serenity is shattered.  The gravy needs to be started and stirred; the turkey needs to be pried from the roaster and sliced; the forgotten relishes need to be opened and arranged; the water needs to be iced and poured. Calgon, Take Me Away.

It’s only when my dear family converges that my galley kitchen and dinette area seem Barbie sized. Yes, I know I could make some things easier. I did some research this year about how to create a stress-free Thanksgiving meal. I even tried a make-ahead gravy for my gluten-free family members. (I obviously added too much corn starch and the gelatinous, disgusting lump never reached the right consistency when I reheated it—even with my daughter’s determined attention with a whisk and serious brow.)

I meticulously set the tables ahead of time, but as the turkey and sides and rolls and beverages were moved to our dining area the buffet table was too small. I didn’t allow enough room for the cornucopia display I so carefully created with colorful fruits and vegetables flowing from the horn of plenty. This year it was voted off the table in the pre-serving rush and plopped on top of our wood burner, the beautiful red pears and glossy apples bouncing to the floor in its transit.

So no, it wasn’t an amazing Martha Meal—but some things made it pretty darn close:

All four of our parents were still able to attend

My husband still smiled at me from across the room

Our adult children still enjoy one another’s company,

and our grandchildren still think I’m the best Nana ever.

Not perfect. Never will be.

But it’s a fine life.

My Father’s Blessing

During our early years, my brothers and I were insulated from the world on our family farm, a snug cocoon wrapped carefully by my parents’ love for each other and for us. I thought all parents spoke gently to one another, all mothers calmed their children’s fears with tender hands, and all fathers appeared cheerfully at every meal. I thought all children went to bed at 7:30 and were up by six, that all children had red pop and popcorn on Sunday nights, that all children had shady yards and brothers to play with.

We children were each other’s best—and sometimes worst—friends. We played together, rode bikes together, built forts together, and eventually worked the farm together. Even my mother and I—the meal-preparers, the cleaner-uppers, the piano-players—were needed, usually during July and August. Crops of rocks sprouted from ground my parents purchased in the early 1970s. If fieldstones had been a cash crop, we would have been rich. Instead, we were drafted to walk the fields, picking up this bumper crop which could damage our expensive farm equipment. One person drove the old John Deere tractor with a bucket on the front we used for everything from cleaning the barns to hauling a dead animal—while the rest of us walked beside it, finding rocks and throwing them into the bucket. Tractor driving was a no-brainer. Dad usually assigned my youngest brother this job: picture a freckled five-year-old in a hat sitting happily as the tractor inched along. When we reached the end of the field, my father would hop on the tractor, dump the rocks in the fence row, and turn the tractor around. Then we would walk the length of field again.

These natural treasures were many shaped; some were beautiful—which my father liked to save—and some were HUGE. These my brothers and I couldn’t budge. We would dig around them, estimate their size, and call for my dad who would have to empty the bucket and come back to remove it with the invaluable “loader tractor.”

The days spent harvesting stones were, in my memory, the hottest days of the summer. One day stands out. I must have been in middle school, so my four younger brothers would have ranged in age from five to twelve. We spent the humid afternoon “picking stone”: bending, lifting, walking—occasionally sitting in the fencerow’s grassy shade drinking water and eating cookies—then bending, lifting, walking again. Dad worked with us, encouraging us and motivating us with his total commitment to the land and the job. “The purpose of these trees, kids, is to hold the soil in hard rains.” Or “See how the field slopes? When I drill the wheat this fall, I’ll plant a curve along this angle. See?” Or “Have you ever seen so many stones? You kids are helping me so much.” Or “Do you know why more stones keep coming up? The glacier deposited these as it scraped across Michigan millions of years ago.” And finally, “What do you think Mom is making for supper? I’m getting real hungry! How about you?” Science lessons, conservation tidbits, and personalized compliments—my Dad managed his children like a championship coach. We were undefeated, exhausted, and ravenous by our last walk of the field.

At the end of the day, we crawled into the bucket or sat on the tire fenders, and Dad drove us triumphantly home—home to my mother and a meal for the team: roast beef, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, tossed salad, glass after glass of cold milk, and ice cream. Our freshly washed faces glowed as Dad recounted the day for Mom.

My parents’ optimism equaled their youth. They were so young and so beautiful and so committed to each other and to us. They were a handsome couple—my tall, athletic father with a head full of luxurious, dark-brown hair and my shapely mother with her snappy brown eyes and ready smile. So they were radiating towards each other from the ends of the long dining room table as we five children puffed our chests with pride at a job well done. Dad’s sunshine warming us, we lingered at the table, Mom and Dad drinking coffee, we kids eating and laughing and teasing and eating some more.

My Dad leaned in, his strong, gentle hands wrapped around his coffee cup, his eyes twinkling. “So, if you kids could be anywhere right now, where would you want to be?”

Hmmm. We looked at one another, full of fantasy and dreams.

“Disney World!”

“I think a Tiger Ball game.”

“No, I’d pick Yellowstone. I want to see that geyser!”

“How about the Field Museum in Chicago? I love it there.”

“I’d pick the cabin. Fishing sounds great.”

We dreamed and debated and dreamed again. One by one we turned to Dad. He was enjoying us and my mother, celebrating his good fortune, his good health, his wealth of a loving spouse and children.

“Dad, where do you want to be?” my youngest brother asked.

Yes, where would he want to be? He always loved baseball and pitching to us in the front yard. He loved fishing at the cabin and building fires for marshmallow roasting. He loved adventures and friends and foot races and meeting people. He did love country music. Maybe he dreamed of the Grand Old Opry? Dad, smelling like Old Spice and shoe polish, loved Saturday night dates with my mother. Perhaps he would take her to Rome or to Paris? He had never considered Dad’s dreams. It was unimaginable.

His eyes were moist, sparkling at my mother and the five of us. Attentive, waiting, expecting, we looked at him.

Dad smiled, his gaze direct. “You know, kids, I don’t want to be anywhere else. I want to be right here with all of you.”

My body filled with warmth, my cheeks colored. I felt like a precious gem, a lustrous pearl, treasured and held high.

Some people spend a lifetime searching for validation, for a sense of who they are, for a feeling of acceptance. I didn’t have to look any farther than our dining room table.

This blessing, this love of a father for his family, will last my lifetime.

This piece appears in the Tournament of Writers Small Town Anthology III available through Amazon.