March 2, 2014

Hash out cooking duties on a group vacation

Sharing a vacation rental? Don’t forget to discuss menu-planning and divvy up meal preparation duties.

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Renting and sharing a vacation house with friends or family usually sounds like a terrific idea, but forgetting to make meal-planning a big part of your preparations can be a recipe for disaster.

There are obvious topics, like allergies, budgeting, finicky kids and the division of labor. And then there are those unappetizing issues, like what to do if one participant is a reluctant — or rotten — cook.

“I don’t do anything domestically ever,” says David Lando, a financial adviser in Washington, D.C.

So when his large family gathers for an annual vacation at a house in upstate New York, everyone picks a night to cook — except Lando. When it’s his turn, he buys takeout for the group.

“The last couple of years the grocery store near our place has run a special on [prepared] lobster,” he says. “It works out so well that it’s hard to argue about it.”

Not every group trip goes so smoothly, however.

Alyson Stoakley, of suburban Richmond, Va., used to be an event planner, so when she and her husband went to Wintergreen Resort with four other couples, she says she took charge of dividing the cooking and cleaning chores for the weekend.

She asked for volunteers for appetizers, dinners and breakfasts. (Lunches were eaten out.) The problems began immediately.

There were too many volunteers for the dinners, and two of them were complete opposites: One was known for quick and easy comfort food, the other for making fabulous health-conscious meals from scratch.

Stoakley made the assignments in the order people responded, and so ended up dining on offerings like Stouffer’s ready-made lasagna, Texas toast and even romaine lettuce from a bag.

And the gourmet cook? She made Saturday’s breakfast, cooking two egg casseroles, one with sausage and one with vegetables.

As it turned out, that plentiful meal gave people some choices, and the leftovers saved them on Sunday when the next meal was reduced to just bagels after the assigned chef realized she’d forgotten the eggs and left the bacon unrefrigerated in her shopping bag all weekend.

Despite the gastronomic goofs, Stoakley says they managed to take it all in stride.

“We really had a good weekend,” she says. “It didn’t ruin the friendships and we all made it through.”

To help things go smoothly on your own shared-vacation outings, consider these tips:

• Pick one person as the coordinator who can find out what staples the vacation rental provides, compile shopping lists, collect money or make dinner reservations. Consider rewarding the coordinator with a pass on cooking or cleaning.
• Plan how duties will be shared. Is a person responsible for an entire day’s meals, a single meal or just part of a meal? Decide who will clean up.
• Discuss allergies and dietary restrictions. A peanut allergy, for example, might also mean no peanut oil, which can be found in a variety of foods, from pesto to chocolate. Depending on your crowd, chefs may be perfectly willing to accommodate vegetarians, vegans, Paleos and others — or they may find it a great imposition. Either way, best to hash it out in advance.
• If you, or yours, are picky eaters, bring your own food and make sure others know it’s not up for grabs.
• Figure out how to manage shopping and expenses. Will it be done jointly or is each individual responsible for his or her own ingredients?

“You have to be laid-back and go with the flow,” Stoakley says. “It’s just for a short period of time. It’s not forever.”

And, if coordinating cooking seems daunting, another helpful option is to consider hiring a private chef for your group.

That’s what Maureen Bee of Fort Collins, Colo., enjoyed when she and her family vacationed in Acapulco, Mexico, with five other families.

“They cooked all of our meals, did all of our grocery shopping, got all of our booze, everything,” she says, adding that the pros also provided snacks during the day, bartenders at night, several cooks in the kitchen plus servers. “It was like having a restaurant in our villa.”

At the end of the trip, the group calculated in the gratuity and split the bill.

To find a private cook, check with your rental company or call caterers at your destination. Many chefs also maintain websites.

Prices vary by menu and location. For instance, is a company that handles rentals in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, and spokeswoman Julie Byrd says a full-service catered dinner would start at $35 per person, while breakfasts begin at $15 and lunches at $25.

For cooking-aversive vacationers like Lando, who eats out routinely, it’s a real pleasure to savor the home-cooked meals that come with his summer getaway. And the icing on the cake?

“The real treat is being able to have dinner with my whole family,” he says.

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