Group cooks up a food swap

Clark County mothers prepare, trade meals to save money, cut time spent preparing food while ensuring participants enjoy healthful, homemade dinners

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoYellow Chicken Curry is one of the seven frozen, homemade meals Julia Schetky has on hand, thanks to a meal swap she organized in Vancouver last month. A group of moms prepared a variety of meals, including stir-fry, chili and enchiladas.

(/The Columbian)

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Planning and preparing a family dinner can be a challenge, especially in homes with a new baby or a mobile toddler.

Salmon Creek mom Julia Schetky learned that firsthand when she and her husband, Jon, had their son, Ethan. They tried to be conscious of the food they were eating, but on busy evenings, it was a challenge to not give in to fast food.

Then Julia Schetky read an article about a mommy food swap. A group of about 20 mothers prepared meals, then met and exchanged prepared dinners.

Schetky took the idea to her moms group — a Facebook group of about 75 Clark County mothers that stemmed from a Baby and Me group at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.

Schetky got seven other moms to commit to a local food swap. Each person selected a meal they planned to make, shopped for and prepped the food, and assembled seven family-sized servings of their meal.

The group developed ground rules to make the swap easier. Every meal had to include all of the components of a complete meal, including spices and seasonings, and a list of all ingredients. The meals then had to be packaged in disposable containers and frozen flat to make storage easier. The meals also had to feed a family of four.

"It ends up being cheaper to make one meal seven times than making seven meals," said Schetky, adding that the cost came out to about $3 per meal.

The group also made accommodations for families with dietary restrictions. One family has a child with a rice allergy, so that family required rice substitutes. Another family doesn't eat red meat or pork, so alternatives were necessary.

For the first swap, which took place in April, Schetky made chicken stir-fry.

She marinated chicken and divided it into sealable plastic bags. She then packaged carrots, onions and snap peas into separate bags. Finally, she packaged family portions of rice (she used orzo pasta for the family with rice allergies). One of each bag of ingredients was put into a larger sealable bag and frozen.

The preparation took Schetky a couple hours, but she was able to do the work when her husband and son, now 17 months old, were out of the house.

"Efficiency-wise and timewise, it's awesome," Schetky said.

On April 28, the moms traded the frozen, homemade meals. Schetky went home with Thai yellow chicken curry, spaghetti, broccoli casserole, chicken enchiladas, sesame chicken, verde casserole and chicken chili.

"It's really fantastic," she said.

Orchards mom Nicole Andrell also participated in the swap. She has a 15-month-old son, Jackson, who likes to be in the kitchen when Mom is there.

"It's really challenging to do a lot of cooking prep work with a toddler," she said.

The group's first swap did reveal a few kinks in the preparation process, Andrell said. For one, they learned not to fill the sealable bags too full. Otherwise, when they freeze and expand, the bags break, she said.

Andrell also realized the importance of remembering to thaw the meals in advance. The first meal she cooked didn't warm all the way through because it was still frozen when she threw it in the oven.

"I think it's a little bit of a learning curve for all of us," Andrell said.

The group already has a second swap scheduled for mid-June and plans to continue holding the swaps every six to eight weeks, depending on how quickly families go through the meals, Schetky said.

Andrell plans to save some of the meals from future swaps for this fall, when her second baby is due.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.