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The Budget-Friendly Weekly Ritual That Keeps Me Grounded, Happy, & Well-Fed

As I sit here and write this, I am finishing off the rest of my red “cooking” wine. I say “cooking” wine because it was bought with the full intention to be used primarily as drinking wine, but with the excuse of a “cooking” wine. My hands smell of thyme and garlic, my kitchen is a disaster, and I am eating a leftover caramel brownie (homemade, no less) for dinner. This has been a great night.

Several months ago, a friend of mine started asking people over for dinner on Friday nights. He lived alone, worked from home, and rarely got out aside from playing the organ at church on Sunday mornings. He has a background in culinary arts, so naturally, dinner was more than pizza and beer (but really — who argues with pizza and beer). He brought many different dishes to the table, and each week, he invited along someone new. Pretty soon, Friday Night Dinner became a staple on the calendar. And what had at the beginning been a humble group around a small table grew to a minimum of 9-10 per week. The same base crew would attend, and an occasional visitor would tag along — always welcome, always with a place setting. Each member brings something different to add to the main dish: a salad (not simple iceberg and ranch — hearty greens and zesty dressing, with lots of goodies added in), a side veg, and of course the dessert. Some (myself included) simply bring their service of cleaning up after. We always gathered at the same friend’s house, and he always fed us happily. But then, he got tired.

Who wouldn’t? Cooking for 9-12 people every week! It is draining not only on the physical body, but also mentally and financially. In his kindness he said nothing, but eventually, we began to catch on. So, the rotation began. One week here, the next week there…a new location, a new spotlight dish, always a new experience. Our group varies in demographics. Our original host is a white, gay male in his 60s who not only has a background in culinary arts, but was also a traveling pianist for a large chunk of his life. We have a young black family whose 17-year-old daughter even enjoys our company. Our oldest member is 87 and still sprier than my 29-year-old self. Our friends have included an elderly Cuban couple, young aspiring musicians, wacky old neighbors you only think exist in stories, six-year-olds, and pastors. As a rule, we have a retired teacher, an actor, a retired nurse, a current teacher, a truck driver, a musician…. You begin to see how it comes together. The food is always delicious, and the conversation never dull.

Not only does this add to my social life, it helps tremendously in my budget:

1. Saving on groceries:

There is at least one meal’s worth of food each week I do not have to factor into my meal plan/food budget. Even when you are the host, you generally only provide one component of the meal — the main dish. I personally have a budget of around $50/week for groceries, and we eat a great deal of beans, rice, and pasta at this house. But even the addition of a special ingredient (in this case, lamb — which is not cheap) does not break my budget. It is an expense that only comes around once a month or so, and that makes it super easy to move a little money around.

2. It provides the going-out experience without the going-out expense:

When you are bouncing between different homes each week, it still feels like going out. I bring my partner, friends from outside the regular group, and occasionally my six-year-old son. We eat outside when the weather is nice, we sit around and have drinks beforehand, and whoever is the host always takes a little time to make it special — flowers or cloth napkins, candles, music, etc. Someone else’s dishes, a new environment, drinks, appetizers, and dessert. Plus, you know whose hands have been in it. Win-win.

3. You get a variety of foods outside the norm:

Okay, maybe this only applies to foodies, but I love trying different foods and getting a taste of things I do not often see (or, frankly, know how to cook). Since most everyone brings a side dish, there is always something new. Veg prepared in new ways (I still cannot bake my carrots like my friend did), meats wrapped in other meats, espresso-infused balsamic vinegar (yes…it was delicious), and that wine that is slightly above what you feel like is okay to spend on grocery store wine.

4. You make sure to see your friends (and even make new ones):

Sometimes friends can be expensive. Especially when you have a lot of them, and they all like doing something different. Eating is natural, primitive, and essential. So is socializing. And when you are trying to get everyone together, something as basic as food is a pretty good way to get everyone on board. You aren’t going to 15 different places to spend time with 15 different friends, doing 15 different activities. We all know it can become somewhat (slightly) tedious at times keeping up with everyone, but this way, it truly becomes something you look forward to and know to expect. I have even made a number of new friends solely through this group, and the ones I knew before I have only become closer to. We teach each other, borrow advice, and become a place of support.

We haven’t completely solved the world’s problems, but we have come pretty damn close. As we have moved around to each person’s house, we have grown in communion. With each house we visit, we learn more about one another than we ever thought we knew. Acquaintances become friendships, and these friendships become family. We share, we laugh, we debate, we disagree, we support, we encourage, we plan, we scheme, we love. There has not once been a night I wish I had been somewhere else.

*****

So tonight I prepared for my host dinner tomorrow night: traditional shepherd’s pie. I am 29, months away from being divorced, a mother to a young boy, living on a pharmacy tech salary (which, admittedly, is nothing to cry about), and I just bought lamb for 10. This Friday Night Dinner ritual has become my single most anticipated occurrence of each week. Not only because it leads to weekend freedom, but simply because I know I will be well fed with people I love. Why is this considered a past time? I would argue that my sanity rests on the execution of this dinner week to week. It isn’t only that I have interesting friends (although, they truly are the most interesting), but there is something to be said about connecting with others over one of the most basic of all necessities. Everybody has to eat. You might as well enjoy it.

Sam is an almost-thirty single mother striving to get her sh*t together better every day. She is a pharmacy tech, foodie, hippie, and wanderlust based in the tiny town of Bremen, Georgia. 

Image via Unsplash

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