Suppertime, and the Living Is Easy

Supper clubs offer convenience, companionship

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

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!"

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!"

"I'm pro anything that gets people cooking again."

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.