The basic rules of a food swap are easy to follow, but there are strategies for maximizing success and enjoyment.

Food Swap

Photo © Jasmine Pulley, excerpted from Food Swap

Do you love to cook or bake? Do you have a vegetable garden that produces more zucchini or tomatoes than your family can eat? Do you raise backyard chickens or keep bees and find yourself with extra eggs or honey? Would you like to meet people in your community who share your interest in good food? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ll find great reward in participating in a food swap!

A food swap is a recurring event where home cooks, bakers, and gardeners trade their homemade and homegrown foods. No money changes hands and all the participants bring something that they made, grew, or foraged themselves. From its origins in Brooklyn six years ago, food swapping has developed into a national trend. There are food swaps in every major American city as well as in many suburbs and small towns.

So how does a food swap work? The organizer sets a date and time and asks attendees to register in advance. The participants make something delicious to swap, or gather items from their gardens and package them into individual portions. Upon arrival, participants set up their items and complete a swap card, which explains what each item is and includes space for people to propose a trade. The first part of the event is spent browsing, sampling, and suggesting swaps. At some point, the organizer will announce that it is time for the official trading to begin. Then, final negotiations are made and the goods are exchanged.

Having started the Chicago Food Swap over five years ago, I have a lot of insider tips on how to get the most out of a food swap.

1. Bring two different items.

Photo © Michael Piazza Photography, excerpted from Food Swap

Between food allergies, dietary restrictions, and just plain personal preference, you never know what items will appeal to which swappers. Having at least two different swap items gives you better odds when trying to make a deal with that swapper who has the one item you cannot live without.

2. Think small.

Food Swap jars

Photo © Michael Piazza Photography, excerpted from Food Swap

Hand pies and cupcakes are easier to swap than regular-sized pies and cakes. Many of the typical items come in small serving sizes, such as an 8-ounce jar of jam or a pint jar of pickles. Given how much work it is to make a pie and how many people a whole cake can feed, you may well be reluctant to swap that whole pie or cake for a small jar of jam or hummus. You are much more likely to find a fair trade for items in individual serving sizes.

3. Make your items visually appealing.

Lavender cookies Food Swap

Lavender shortbread. Photo © Michael Piazza Photography, excerpted from Food Swap

At the very least, you should package your items so they will not break, leak, be crushed, or otherwise incur any damage, and be sure to include a tag or label on each item indicating clearly if the item is perishable. But you can also decorate your items to make them more eye-catching. Some discerning food swap attendees have told me that they specifically seek out items that both look and taste amazing. Beyond packaging, samples and a creative display of your swap items are other ways to draw people to your table.

4. Go for savory.

Beet Tahini Dip Food Swap

Beet-Tahini Dip. Photo © Michael Piazza Photography, excerpted from Food Swap

One of the little-known secrets of food swapping is that there tend to be more sweet items than savory. While everyone loves to indulge in sweets, offerings of hummus, soups, salad dressings, breads, and yogurt are always highly sought after.

What do you think? Are you ready to join the food swap movement?

Emily Paster

Emily Paster is the creator of the popular website West of the Loop, which was named a Top Mommy Blog by Time Out Chicago KidsSee Bio

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