Worker bees -- that's most of us -- spend our days buzzing around, so busy that by mealtime we're famished for convenience. Yet our fast-food and frozen standbys may not only lack nutrition and ruin our waistlines, they're woefully short on new tastes -- and leave us hungry for an old-fashioned sense of community. Maybe that's why the phenomenon of supper clubs is spreading from coast to coast.
"A supper club is a group of people who enjoy great food and friendship," says Maelynn Cheung, managing editor at Cooking Light magazine. "It merges all kinds of people with diverse backgrounds -- and then creates lifelong friendships. On our message boards, we've counted several hundred clubs."
From California to Guam, from Australia to the U.K., people have discovered that a regular gathering of food-loving friends can be a relaxing, healthful way to savor novel cuisine, learn new cooking techniques, and feast on two of the greatest gifts: time and companionship.
Being part of a supper club "definitely improved the quality of our lives," says Suzanne Lilbell, a graphic artist in Phoenix. "It opened up doors to new friends and experiences that I will always cherish. It really felt like a 'Common Bond Salon.'"
So how do you start your own "salon"? Finding fellow foodies is as easy as posting a message on the bulletin board at work, at your gym, in the neighborhood newsletter, or on the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic message boards. Or look within your church, book club, or sports team. "Most people belong to something," says Cheung.
Learn to Love Low-Stress Dining
After you gather a group and set the date for your first supper club gathering, avoid the stress that comes with hosting a party by remembering: This isn't a party.
A supper club is informal, a time for friends (new and old) to relax and enjoy one another's companionship. Some groups ensure that vibe by holding their first meeting -- or all of them -- at a restaurant. Most meet at private homes, however, and a great way to keep things low-key there is to follow one simple rule: The hosts don't cook.
"Hosts provide the beverages," says supper club member John Lilbell, a transportations manager in Phoenix. "Everyone else cooks!"
Even if you get the jitters the first time out, "over time, supper clubs just naturally become less stressful," says Cheung, herself part of a monthly club. "Basically, you keep it low stress by not being stressed about it ... people aren't coming to rate your food!"
Ah, food. That's the hub around which these gatherings form, so what's on a supper-club menu? Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, WebMD Weight Loss Clinic's director of nutrition and a 20-year-veteran of her own supper club, says that theme menus not only ensure culinary variety, but "allow you to add your own fun and personal touches."
Themes can touch on common passions (a sport, the Oscars), new tastes (Caribbean, Thai), or just a desire to eat healthfully.
"Our 2-year-old club has had just about every ethnic and/or region as a theme," says Indianapolis resident Nancy Smith, a graphic designer. "Favorites have been Italian and Mexican," and have also included "Mardi Gras (Cajun/Creole), breakfast for dinner (brunch-style foods), January beach party, Kentucky Derby, and soup samplers. ... Tomorrow night we're having our first food-on-a-stick dinner: shish kebab and fondue!"
Dealing With Different Dietary Needs
While variety may be the spice of life, what if someone in your club dislikes spice or is eating low-carb? Menus with multiple dishes fit the bill. Vegetarian Suzanne Lilbell always brings a dish that she can eat, although she's not expecting anyone to convert to her diet. Yet "more often than not, one of the dishes that others provide is vegetarian-friendly, which is very nice!"
That flexibility is one of the best features of a supper club: Even if you're not verging on becoming vegetarian or have no curiosity about carb-cutting, clubs are the ideal environment to expand your taste horizons, as well as to share and reinforce goals -- like maintaining your weight.
No matter what's on the menu, be sure to follow basic food-safety precautions -- something that's easy to overlook when you're transporting food and serving it to a large group.
"I'm pro anything that gets people cooking again," says Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, and WebMD Weight Loss Clinic's "Recipe Doctor." But, she says, "I'm neurotic about not keeping perishable food out at room temperature. Anything with animal protein or animal fat is at risk, including fish/shellfish."
The basic rules for any meal-based gathering: Keep hot food hot, cold food cold, and everything should be put away after two hours.
Cooking for a Cause
Once a supper club settles into a core group, most people find they've developed a network of dependable friends.
"Our club built a community," says Ginger Stinnett LaRose, an entertainment specialist in Atlanta. "We began helping each other with house projects and errands."
Others find new passions to share, such as training for a marathon or taking yoga together. Some clubs kick the community aspect up a notch by undertaking neighborhood service projects.
"We cooked a dinner for our Ronald McDonald House," says Nancy Smith, and "raised over $400 from family, friends, co-workers and employers, and served 90-plus residents [of the House] a taco and fajita bar, salads, and an ice cream sundae bar." Nancy's club even had some of the $400 left over to donate to the Ronald McDonald House.
For those hungry to hitch their club to a cause, home appliance giant KitchenAid, along with Gourmet magazine, sponsors Cook for the Cure. By encouraging fund-raising dinner parties -- and supplying a kit to help plan them -- the program offers those "with culinary passion ... an opportunity to support the fight against breast cancer," Brian Maynard, director of integrated Marketing for KitchenAid, says in a news release. Through such outreach, KitchenAid has raised more than $1,000,000 for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
As the fast-food jingle says, you gotta eat. In a hectic world where we can end up stalled in a food rut or find ourselves alone in our efforts to eat right, a supper club can offer a respite at least once a month. On that night, we can stop our frantic buzzing, slow down, and savor healthy foods seasoned with care, creativity, and community.