bn Joani Blank
An Experienced Cohouser Reports From Common House Kitchens and Dining Rooms across North America
This article appeared originally in the print magazine Cohousing in the Winter of 2001 It is followed by excerpts from a short piece published on this website in 2008, and by an Update posted in February, 2014
Twenty-seven and counting. That's the number of North American cohousing communities I've been privileged to visit in the last five years. Then there's the one I inhabited for eight years (Doyle Street), the one I stayed at for a two-week summer vacation (Pioneer Valley), and my present cohome (Swan's Market Cohousing) to which I moved in the Spring of 2000.
In almost all of these wonderful communities I've sniffed around to learn about the arrangements residents have made for common meals. I've been fortunate to eat common meals in perhaps a dozen of them. For me, cohousing without at least one common meal each week isn't cohousing, and I can't imagine living happily for very long in a community that made a decision to abandon sharing meals. But I wondered how communities across North America handled their common meal systems.
To satisfy my culinary and organizational curiosity, I facilitated the common meals workshop at the 1999 North American Cohousing Conference, during which residents of eight cohousing communities shared information about their meal systems. I also collected information on common meals this Fall through an e-mail survey posted on Cohousing-L, the Network's listserve. I received data from eleven additional communities this way, for a total of 19. So what did I want to know?
I wanted the scoop on questions like: How often do you have common meals? Who cooks and who cleans? How do you sign up to cook? How do you pay? What do you like and dislike about your system? The actual survey questions are listed in the accompanying survey box, as are some useful community statistics, and a list of participating communities. The data collected from the survey, what folks told me, and observations from community visits over the years have confirmed my intuition that common meals are for most, if not all residents, "the glue that holds us together."
I share these findings with you here, along with [including] direct quotes from people I have interviewed in person, or those who responded to the Cohousing-L survey. The comments are not all-inclusive, but I do hope they are helpful and representative of the many approaches being taken by communities for common meals around North America.
Who Cooks? Who Cleans? Who Eats?
In about half of the communities I surveyed, every adult is expected to plan and prepare and/or clean up after common meals. In the other half, common meal preparation is voluntary. Well, in a few of the former, common meal prep is hypothetically "mandatory" but in effect is dependent on volunteers, and in some cases that's nowhere near everyone. In most of the communities where meal preparation is voluntary, every resident is welcome to eat any number of common meals. But in two, only people who cook/clean, and their families, are permitted to eat any common meals.
A resident of one of those communities says: "We did a good thing when we separated meals from all other community activities. Those who wish to dine do so, and know that they need to pay for the privilege, both through work and by paying for their share of the meal cost."
"I'm so glad we started out assuming that everyone would cook or clean up. I think it would be kind of hard to reverse direction if we'd started out with volunteers. "
Another person who lives in the same community has a different idea. He thinks that those who opt out of the common meal system are not nearly as connected with the community as those who participate. He also sees more potential for community polarization related to common house use. My own observation that those who live in communities where everyone cooks or cleans are more likely to be satisfied, dare I say pleased, with their meal system. Still, it is interesting that even people who never cook, and who rarely eat common meals, say that common meals are important to them.
The following statements are typical of residents in communities which depend on volunteer systems:
"I wish that we had a few more people who liked to cook and clean, especially clean, so that the rotation wasn’t so frequent, or so that we could have more common meals. "
"When we began three years ago, everyone was gung-ho to cook, then gradually people got busy with other stuff and stopped volunteering so much. Now, sometimes it's a real struggle to get a couple of people to fix even one common dinner in a week.”
How Many People Eat Those Yummy Common Dinners?
Communities whose common meal preparation is voluntary typically have fewer common meals, and the meal schedule tends to be more irregular. Attendance at common meals is also significantly lower.
Smaller communities tend to attract a higher percentage of eaters. [more meal participants.] In the three largest communities, an average of 43% of residents enjoy common meals, while in the six smaller communities the average meal attracts over 65%.
"Since our community is small, common dinners feel pretty much like family dinners to me. "
And a resident of a 100-member community says:
"Even though we serve most of our dinners family-style, and the food is much better, eating in the common house too often reminds me of meals in summer camp or in my college cafeteria."
"Our common meals are usually pretty tasty, but our dining room is so noisy that I don’t eat there as often as I'd like to. "
It has occurred to me that in a really large community, common dinners might work better, and therefore attract more diners, if the group were divided in two. One group could cook and eat together on two week-nights, the second could cook and eat on two different week nights. Perhaps then, to round out the week, a Sunday buffet lunch or dinner for everyone, extending over a couple of hours could be prepared. Has any community tried a system similar to this?
How Often Shall We Break Bread Together?
Of the 19 communities I surveyed, 13 have either two or three common meals per week, about evenly divided between those who do two and those who do three. One community has four, and one tops out at five meals weekly. Several others have one or two "regular" community dinners plus one or more potluck(s), pizza night(s), leftovers dinner(s), and in one case a couple of specialized eating groups (e.g., vegan, carnivore, all-adult). Although these groups are open to all residents, they manage their cooking/cleaning and eating separately from the “main” system.
Whatever the number of common meals served, in any given community some residents think it's way too many, while others think it is not nearly enough. As a rule, families with one or more school-age children and single adults are those most desirous of frequent common meals.
"When we moved in, our common kitchen wasn't finished, so for many months we held potlucks every night of the week. When our kitchen was done and we started having meals prepared there, several families continued the potlucks on non-common-dinner nights, and we still have some kind of shared eating going on in the common house five or six nights a week. "
All but two groups have a notebook or sheet posted where residents and their guests can "sign up" to alert the cooks how many will be eating a particular meal. The two remaining groups have a sign-out system whereby you are assumed to be attending every common meal unless you sign yourself out. Not surprisingly, in these two communities more residents eat most common meals.
"A two-year old in our community used to earnestly ask each of those she saw gathering for a common dinner, 'are you signed up?' She kept us honest and on our toes. "
One community has a system of no-sign up, those who wish to eat that meal just show up. Their payment system is described in the "Paying Up" section below.
Never (or Always) on Sunday
With so much discussion in my own own community about the best days to hold dinners, I wanted to know how other groups handle their meal scheduling. Some communities are devoted to having one of their common meals on Sunday, either because it provides an opportunity for their 9-to-5 working adults to prepare a common meal on other than a work-week evening, and/or because they enjoy spending that particular part of the weekend time with their neighbors. Others feel that Sunday is the best time for a quiet at-home dinner with their individual families. Needless to say, these folks are doggedly opposed to any Sunday common meals.
Whether or not Friday is a "good" night for a common meal is warmly contested in some communities. The pro-Friday crowd thinks common dinner is a great way to start the weekend, and may plan after-dinner board games, or a video night. The anti-Friday folks either want to collapse at home after a stressful work week, or they want to go out on the town to celebrate that the stressful work-week has come to an end! Differences about the scheduling and timing of common meals are most often apparent between those households that include one or more school-age or younger children and those that do not.
"We tried to change our meal nights but ended up going back to the original schedule because we were so used to it, and because those days worked better for more of us."
“It's unpredictable when I have to stay late at work, and I'm really exhausted when I get home, so I appreciate [d] it when those with less demanding jobs or those who work at home leave a Sunday cooking slot open for me.”
Most groups I talked to extend flexibility among community members when it comes to scheduling, spotting each other, and filling in when there's an emergency.
At first we tried a system like I understand they use in Danish cohousing where everyone reimburses the cook—for the groceries bought for that meal—in cash right after the meal. That was not very workable since one diner always had to go home to get her checkbook, another needed change for $20, and another asked me to remember that he owed me for the dinner.
Then someone worked out a simple spreadsheet which keeps track of what meals are eaten by whom, at what cost per meal. Periodically, the total is added to or subtracted from the amount spent on groceries by each cook during that same time period. Then each one of us is reimbursed or billed for the difference. "
How much do common meals cost? Here's a hint: It's way less than any restaurant, including most fast food joints. In communities with a set price for meals, price ranges from $2.50 to $3.50 per person, usually with half-price for most children.
Where meal prices vary based on the amount of money spent on groceries, the average cost of meals generally falls within the same range.
In those communities, the occasional pricey meal—prawns in garlic butter with chocolate mousse for dessert comes to mind—may cost up to $5.00 or even $5.50 per person.
In only one community that I've heard of is the cost of meals added to a households' homeowners' fee for the following month. All others prefer to keep common meal accounting separate. In two communities I surveyed, diners pay a flat fee for a whole month or a quarter, and eat as many or as few meals as they wish during that period. The cooks are reimbursed for food purchases out of the treasury. One community charges $3, $2 and $1 for adults, big kids and small kids respectively, while another simply allows its residents to note on the sign-up sheet whether each diner is eating a large, medium or small meal, without regard to his or her age.
I was impressed with the simplest payment system of all, which requires absolutely no bookkeeping. Cooks share equally in the cost of preparing their meal. (If you are looking for numbers, every six weeks or so the three cooks collectively spend $75 to $100—that's $25-$33 per cook—to feed 30-35 diners.) Everyone else just shows up to eat any one of the six or seven meals served per month. Residents pay only when they cook.
I thought about this some more, and although I'm really attracted to the simplicity of this system, it doesn't seem all that fair. Let's say that the three cooks collectively spend $85 to feed 30 people dinner. But two of them eat all 8 meals in a six week rotation, so their average meal “cost” is $3.54 But the third cook eats only 3 meals in the six week rotation, so his or her average meal “cost” is $10.62
How Much is Enough?
"It took us a while to figure out how much to cook. Now most of us are getting the hang of it, but once in a while there's not nearly enough or, more typically, too much of at least one dish in a meal. "
Although cohousers get pretty good at judging amounts after making a few really big mistakes in this area, leftovers are a ubiquitous feature of common meals. Some groups distribute leftovers right after the meal, or the cooks and cleaners take them home themselves, depending on the quantity left. Some groups ask their members to pay for leftovers at least that evening or during the next day, although usually leftovers are free for the taking either the next morning or later the next day. Generally speaking, cohousers don't like to see food wasted, so if the leftovers are plentiful, cooks will urge everyone to take food home with them, or will confer with cooks for the next meal about a creative way to incorporate the leftovers
Sorry, I Can't Eat That
All communities are attentive to some degree to special food needs and allergies. Almost all maintain a list of these considerations posted in the kitchen. Everyone in the community is made aware of life-threatening allergies. And after a while everyone remembers, without looking at the list, who can't eat dairy products or wheat, who is a vegetarian or a vegan, for example.
Some communities require that cooks list every ingredient in every dish. Minimally, diners want to know whether or not meat or dairy products appear in a dish. What seems to be important to most cohousers is that special food needs are acknowledged and respected. I found that most do not feel that every special food requirement needs to be indulged at every common meal. Of course, if the cheese or chicken or nuts are not integral to the recipe, cooks will often just serve them on the side.
"If the main course of a meal is something I can't eat, 1'll usually bring a plate of leftovers from my house to the common house, so I can hang out with my neighbors during dinner. "
"To be honest, I find that catering to everyone's special food needs the way we do here is a pain. I wish that people would just not sign up for dinner if the menu includes something they can't (or don't ¡ike to) eat. That's what I do."
Enough vegetarians live in cohousing that most groups include a vegetarian main dish at all or virtually all meals. Even when a minority of members are vegetarian, many of the common meals include no meat. All but a few of our cohousing carnivores are quite willing to eat vegetarian meals several times a week.
"Although I'm a meat eater I really like that so many of our common meals are vegetarian, because I think it's a much healthier way to eat. I have gained weight since I lived here though, because there's so much food and because we have sweet desserts much more often than is good for me. Then there's that pesky box of ice cream sandwiches that often resides in the common house freezer. "
Kids Eat Common Meals Too
Anyone who has served meals to children knows that their idea of a tasty "balanced meal" may not be the same as an adult's. In a few of the larger communities which have a lot of children, a kid-friendly meal is sometimes or always available alongside the adult meals. It may be a completely separate meal, or a separate main dish. In others, peanut butter and jelly sandwich makings and plain pasta or rice are routinely available. There are parents who feel that their children should learn to eat adult food, and wish that "kid food" was not quite so readily available at every common meal, but for the most part these same parents would rather see their children eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich than nothing at all, so they are pretty relaxed about it.
"Some kids rarely stop moaning, mine included—she hates 'hippy' food. I'm encouraging the older moaners to join a cooking crew. "
"My parents were cooking together last night, and at my request they made
homemade macaroni and cheese for everyone. Some of the adults thought it
was really weird that I like ketchup on mac and cheese, but a few of the braver ones tried it and thought it was pretty good."
Some of the negotiations a round common meals for kids have more to do with the level of noise and activity than the food:
"We instituted a rule that kids who are allowed to leave the table earlier than others may not pester the slower eaters to leave the table to play. "
"We encourage kids to sit with their parent(s), but at certain ages they are really insistent about sitting with their age mates. "
At several communities, the parents tried a kids' table, but found out that the children eat better if they are sitting with their parents or other adults.
Family-Style or Buffet?
Most cohousing communities I've surveyed and visited prefer to serve common meals family-style. In the larger communities, family-style serving is virtually a necessity, since no one likes either the image or the actuality of long lines waiting to get to the buffet table or counter. Cohousers seem to prefer that common meals evoke eating with friends in our homes rather eating with mobs in a school or workplace cafeteria. On the other hand, family-style dining utilizes more serving dishes, to which those responsible for serving and cleaning up after the meal sometimes object.
"In theory we like family-style dining because it is calmer and cozier than the buffet, but most chefs and cleanup crews don't want to deal with divvying up food and gathering and washing all those extra bowls and platters, so we usually don't serve meals family style."
Funny Thing about Cleaning Up; You Have to Do it After Every Meal
Big meals make big messes. Or at least they can. In about one third of the communities I've visited and/or learned about, a team of two to four people plans, prepares, sets up, serves and cleans up after a meal. In the other two thirds, cooking and cleanup are signed up for separately. [new paragraph]
Certainly having the same people preparing and cleaning up makes a long evening for those doing the work. However, residents who do it this way perceive two distinct advantages. First, they like the fact that this system requires fewer nights "on-duty" per month or per rotation. Second (and in most people's minds more importantly) no one likes to clean up after a messy cook. The inclination to leave the common kitchen untidy might be just a bit stronger if you know someone else is doing cleanup.
"It's stressful enough to cook and serve dinner. After all the food is out, I just want to sit down, eat, and chat with my family and/or my neighbors. I can't imagine also having to stay around until the last dish is in the dishwasher, pots and pans washed and the floors swept. I'd rather leave cleanup to those who don't want to cook or who really enjoy cleaning up. "
"Here cooking and cleaning are separate jobs, but some sign up for both on the same night because it works better with their schedules, or because they like to get their common meal obligations out of the way, and have more meals where they can eat and run, or just sit and visit with neighbors. "
Communities with a coordinating kitchen committee find that both cooking and cleanup go more smoothly.
"We have a kitchen committee separate from the daily cooks that keeps tabs on cleanliness in the kitchen. They also replenish staples when they get low, replace broken or disappeared items, and purchase items requested by cooks. The kitchen committee's work makes the cooking/cleaning tasks easier, and is an important factor in having the meal system run smoothly. "
Of course, getting cleanup crews is not always easy if your community has a system where cooking and cleaning are separate tasks.
"It's really hard to get people to sign up for cleanup, and it seems like many
of those who do it, do so grudgingly."
Where cooking and cleanup are done by the same two or three people, the cooks find that careful planning ahead makes the job much less onerous:
"Even if I have to work on a day when I'm the head cook, I can do most of the preparation for the main dish the night before, and I ask my assistant cook to set the tables and start the salad. The two of us are responsible for the cleanup too, but even with that, we are usually finished well before nine."
But I Can't Cook
Every community starts out with a person or two who insists that he or she cannot possibly learn to cook, especially for a crowd. But in communities where everyone is expected to cook, I've found that there is always willingness to bring "non-cooks" up to speed by pairing them up with more experienced, or at least more fearless, cooks. One timid cook who had overcome her "fear of cooking" said:
"At first I found it very stressful to cook a community meal. But over time I learned how to plan a meal around basic dishes that most people like and are easier to prepare for a larger group."
(Watch out now, simple multiplication system doesn't always work—better to use a recipe book with recipes meant to serve large groups—Moosewood Cooks For Crowd is a cohousing favorite. If you don 't believe me, just try cooking five pounds of spaghetti in a big pot the way same way you'd cook half a pound but with 8-10 times as much water.)
In preparing this article, I realized that we still have a lot to learn about common meals in cohousing communities. For example: How is the scheduling of cooks/cleaners managed so that every planned meal is appropriately staffed? What kinds of "special occasion," "holiday" or "new tradition" meals are taking place? Is there a common meal "code of etiquette" emerging from our collective experience? To what extent is a principle of fairness manifested by balancing the pleasure of eating common meals with the work required to prepare them? How do the physical characteristics of communities' dining rooms and kitchens contribute to, or hinder, successful common meals? [new paragraph]
And finally, if we agree that a common meal system that works well is fundamental to a strong sense of community, how can cohousers help one another to design an effective system when a community is new, or to make changes in an established community's meal system if it should start to unravel?
Where Are We Now; Where Are We Going?
I have included here experiences from only one third of our up-and-running communities. Surely, some communities not surveyed have creative solutions to common meal challenges not even mentioned here. However, from my experience and the information sent in response to our survey, I suggest that in communities where the greatest number of residents seem most satisfied with their common meal systems, and where the attendance is highest are likely to share the following characteristics:
- Meals are regularly scheduled on the same nights every week.
- Every adult resident participates in preparation of (and cleanup after) common meals on a rotating basis.
- A minimum of two (non-potluck) common meals are prepared every week.
- Meals are usually served family-style (most or all courses).
- The same people who plan and cook a meal are responsible for cleanup after the meal.
- Folks are flexible, willing to help one another, tolerant of an occasional disappointing meal (even then appreciative of the cooks' efforts), and lavish with their compliments to the cooks when praise is warranted.
The following was posted on this website June. 2008
What More Do We Want To Know About Common Meals?
If we agree that in cohousing a well-functioning common-meal system is fundamental to a strong sense of community, how can we help new communities create an effective common-meal system as they plan their life together in their future home? And how can we help an established community modify its common-meal system, should it start to unravel?”
This is the question that led us in 2001 to survey 19 of the 55 cohousing communities then built about how their common-meal systems were structured, and about how satisfied they felt with their current arrangements.
More than 100 cohousing communities are now  established in North America, and Coho/US plans to survey us once again to see if the earlier conclusions still hold, and more importantly, to widen our inquiry into areas only lightly touched on or not asked about in the previous survey.
In addition to updating the information we collected previously, we have ideas about some other issues we wish to explore this time:
- How are common meals managed financially?
- How do we deal with the common-meal needs and desires of children and their parents?
- How are special food needs handled?
- Is a common meal code of etiquette emerging from our collective experiences?
- How do the physical characteristics of the dining rooms and kitchen contribute to or hinder successful common meals?
- To what extent is a principle of fairness achieved by balancing the satisfaction and pleasure of eating common meals with the work required to prepare and serve them?
Fast forward to 2014:
Over the years, quite a few communities have found the information collected in the 2001 article very helpful. But more than 60 communities have been completed since and 36 out of the 55 communities up-and-running in the year 2000 did not participate in the original survey.
Unfortunately, the common meals survey planned for 2008-9 never got off the ground, but we would like to try again in 2014 for publication here by early in 2015. I (Joani), did the first survey “all by self” as my now-adult daughter said when she was a toddler. This time I cannot move ahead on it until I find at least one, and preferably two and/or three cohousers or graduate students to work on it with me. If someone wants to be the “principal investigator”for this research and let me take a consulting role, I'd really welcome that,
A phone conversation with me will get you the information you need to decide whether or not you want to collaborate with me on a new and improved common meals survey or take it on “all by self” as I did fifteen years ago. If you'd like to speak with me about this, please email me at jeblank [at] swansway [dot] com including your telephone number and some good times to call you. Please remember to let me know what time zone you live in.
Joani Blank has lived in two cohousing communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville from 1992 to 2000, and Swan's Market in Oakland from 2000 to the present. She has visited more than 70 other cohousing communities in the US (and five in British Columbia) over the last 22 years.