Molly Cranna for TIME
Wellness

How to Save Time and Money—and Still Eat Healthy

March 23, 2016

You’ll get to log some bonding time with friends, too

Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Plated. Healthy ingredient-delivery services are great—except for the fact that once the parsnips and onions show up at your door, you actually have to peel, chop and cook them up. And that’s after you get past spending roughly $10 per meal—per person. Tell us, how big is your family?

That’s where meal-exchange clubs, a.k.a. freezer-meal clubs, come in. They allow you to spend less time cooking, save hundreds of dollars per month on food and still serve your family the whole, healthy, home-cooked meals you want.

Here’s how they work: You cook a huge batch of one freezer-friendly meal, divvy it up into family-sized portions and then meet up with your friends once a month or so to swap filled freezer bags. As a result, every club member walks away with a variety of meals to thaw and serve as needed, explains Rachel Tiemeyer, the blogger behind Thriving Home. The mom of three joined a meal-exchange club nine years ago when she and her friends found themselves struggling to feed their families healthy, homemade meals on a budget, both in terms of time and money.

“By meal planning and buying in bulk, we cut down on time spent shopping, prepping and cooking—and saw our grocery bill go down significantly,” says Tiemeyer. “Plus, having ready-to-go meals within reach kept us from spending money by eating out. I’d wager we saved at least $100 to $200 a month by cooking this way, even part of the time.”

Subscribe to the Motto newsletter for advice worth sharing.

While some clubs opt for cooking everything prior to their meet-ups, others make their monthly swaps into cook-and-mingle social events. For instance, when Courtney Hall, 29, a California mom of two, meets with the other seven women in her meal-exchange club, they each come armed with ingredients and utensils to cook their meal of choice. Then, once everything is finished cooking, the women divvy up dishes, pack up their coolers and head home with eight different healthy meals for their families.

“First and foremost, we get a ladies’ night to hang out one night a month with no kids,” says Hall. “And second of all, we are able to get dinner on the table quickly with no hassle. After our club meets, I usually leave one meal out to warm up the next day and freeze the rest. It’s so convenient.”

Ready to start a meal-exchange club of your own? Round up your friends, follow these tips and get cooking.

1. Get everyone on the same culinary page
“You may be surprised at the different food expectations members have,” says Tiemeyer. Maybe others are more focused on price per meal or ease of cooking. And even if you all decide that yours will be a healthy meal club, every person has a slightly different interpretation of what “healthy” means, from vegetarian to low-carb. Meanwhile, Hall recommends taking an inventory of any food allergies or dietary restrictions before anyone starts cooking. By aligning everyone’s expectations, you’ll help guarantee that everyone goes home happy.

2. Settle money matters up front
Since saving money is top of mind in every meal-exchange club, it’s important to discuss how you’ll handle the cost of ingredients before anyone starts planning meals, says Tiemeyer. “Will everyone try to keep each meal within a certain price range? Will you save receipts and split the cost at each meeting?” Whatever your deal, buying in bulk and clipping coupons can help keep everyone’s bottom line low, says Hall.

3. Count how many meals you need
The more meals you want in your freezer, the more members you need in your club, the more meals each of you need to make—or the more often you should meet. And with everyone’s changing needs and schedules, it’s important for all of those details to stay flexible. At times, everyone will be able to bring one dish each. In other instances, two or three might be doable, says Tiemeyer. Sometimes you’ll be able to meet more frequently, and other times, you’ll want to take a month or two off. Use Doodle to survey your club’s members on the best dates and times to meet, or decide during each meeting when your next one will be.

4. Size up your servings
No two families have the same appetite, so it’s wise to determine ahead of time how large a “family-size portion” really is. Does it contain four servings? Six? And how large is a serving? To solve that quandary and make sure no family member goes hungry, Tiemeyer and her group have even drafted guidelines as to how many pounds of chicken or fish should be included in different meals.

5. Don’t forget the fun
Whether you decide to turn your group’s meetings into cooking parties or come to them with all of your meals prepared and packaged, meetings should always include a little fun. Hall recommends bringing your meet-up’s host a (healthy) dessert and some wine. Board games, movies and air-popped popcorn are also welcome.