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Food Swap Ideas - what you need to know before your first food swap

Yesterday, I attended one of my favorite foodie type events: the Chicago Food Swap. Emily Paster founded our local swap in 2011 with Vanessa Druckman, and I attend swaps whenever I can fit it into my schedule. I love coming home with all sorts of items that I don’t make myself and the sheer variety of food swap ideas and things I can choose from make it worthwhile.

If you’ve never attended a food swap before, it can be a little daunting. What do you bring? How much? What should it look like? What do I do? Fortunately, it really is easier than you think it will be, and it is so much fun whether you’re an expert cook or baker or someone who needs a little push in the kitchen.

Every food swap has a different personality and a different set of people who attend, but there are some common denominators that apply for food swap ideas regardless of what food swap you attend.

Food Swap Ideas: What Do You Need to Know?

What do I bring?
There are so many food swap ideas for great items. Pretty much, if you enjoy making it, someone will enjoy eating it. I will say the one exception to that tends to be things like chocolate chip cookies simply because everyone makes them all the time. That said, what you think is an every day item is something special for other people. For example, I don’t can and love to bring home as much jam or mustard or pickles as I can get my hands on even though others do this on a regular basis. It’s that interchange of ideas that makes food swaps work perfectly.

Savory items tend to do better than sweet items just because so many people are dessert-ed out. That and dessert items tend to last for less time than other items, and you can only eat so many brownies or cookies in a single day. There is always the exception to this, as things like gorgeous tarts or homemade marshmallows tend to go over very well. Again, those are things that people tend to not make themselves. This time around I was in a rush and made some chocolate drizzled caramel corn. I was able to trade for some amazing items, as this again is something people don’t eat all the time.

Food swap ideas - caramel popcorn

How do I package it?
When you make you item, you want to keep in mind that you want your item tradeable. Because no money changes hands, you want to have a fairly even trade. If I fill a 16 ounce mason jar with homemade preserves, I might not want to trade for a four ounce jar or hummus. I think about trades for trades. When I made my popcorn, I filled a cello bag, which was about 8 ounces of popcorn. That is a decent portion size without being too huge.

If you’re making preserves, most people do a half pint jar, but it’s your call. If you do a soup or a syrup, a larger jar is probably more appropriate. Those whose food swap ideas run into the more labor intensive like homemade empanadas or crab cakes tend to package them smaller because the value is higher.

You don’t have to put your items in a mason jar. They tend to look more professional that way and can attract more interest if your items are in a mason jar, but people also put them in disposable containers for liquid items or package them in takeout containers or wrap them in wax paper, because it fits well.

I do recommend labeling your item, as again it makes it more attractive, and we eat with our eyes – especially in this type of situation. I failed utterly in labeling this time around because I simply ran out of time, but printing out a quick label to share what your item it (and proudly state who made it) really adds to your item. It also helps to include any necessary directions on your tag to give swappers a heads up. Does it need to be refrigerated? When is it best by? Does it contain nuts? Is it vegan? All these things help others decide whether to swap with you or not and ensure they enjoy it when they get home.

How much do I make?
This is sometimes the hardest question to answer. The quick answer is to bring as much as you want to take home. If you bring twenty items to swap, you may end up bringing home twenty items. Do you want that much, or would you be happy with eight or twelve items instead?

Haul from the Chicago Food Swap

Beyond that, having a sense of how large the swap is helps, too. If there are fifteen people there, you might want to bring fewer items. If there are 50 or 90, you might want to bring more, knowing the variety to swap will be greater. You don’t always know how large a swap will be, but it never hurts to ask others who’ve been in the past how many people attended or to reach out to the organizer to get an idea.

The other great suggestion is to create a sense of scarcity. Many swappers create two or three different items for a variety of reasons. They then have only three or four of a given item to swap. If it’s something people are interested in and they know there are only a few of them, they often head to that station to swap first, meaning you have a chance at your first choice of items.

How should I prep my area?
The good news is that you don’t have to do anything fancy. While some people will bring stands to display their food or runners to decorate their area, that is definitely in the minority. You don’t need to bring any decorations of any kind, so relax on that front.

When you have a large swap in a not so large area, please be cognizant of how much room you take up. If people are struggling to find a place to set up, can you consolidate your items a bit to provide room for them? After all, the more people who set up to swap, the more choices you have. If they have a bad experience and don’t want to come back, that’s no good for you either. And if you’re the one who arrived a little bit late and don’t have anywhere to go, ask the organizer for help or see if someone might be willing to squeeze you in.

My other suggestion is to set up a sample of your items. We all want to know that when we bring home is something we’re going to enjoy. Is that jam too salty? Something that my kids won’t truly enjoy? Are those brownies to die for and I have to bring them home even though I’d sworn I wasn’t going to? Put out samples so that everyone at the swap can enjoy your food and better determine if they want to swap with you. Make sure you have a way to share your item – little sample cups if it’s a drink, toothpicks for cheeses, a small spoon to try jams, a spoon to put in your granola or popcorn, etc. No one wants to be reaching in a jar to grab a pickle, right?

How to prepare for a food swap - provide samples

What if someone has the same thing I do?
It happens.

Seriously, I was swapping and no one had brought granola in three or four swaps, at least. I made granola, and there were five varieties of granola that swap. But that’s ok. Because it’s shelf stable, people could pick up more than one kind of granola and bring it home for later.

Best of all, even though we all had granola, it was still different. We had different flavors of the granola, and that worked out. At yesterday’s swap, there was strawberry lemonade and minty limeade, yet they still worked out just fine, and people wanted both. This is where creating multiple items and having just a few of each item helps, too! No matter what, don’t panic though. It works out.

What if no one wants to swap with me?
That very, very rarely happens. In fact, I’ve never seen that happen. That doesn’t mean that every item you bring will get swapped – I brought home 4 of my 15 bags of chocolate drizzled caramel corn (partly because I had only intended to make 8-10 bags and got carried away but brought them anyway) – but I’ve never seen anyone unable to trade items.

That said, be aware that there are people with dietary restrictions. Vegans who come to a swap (and there are plenty of them) tend to not be willing to swap for any items that have any animal products. There are plenty of people with nut and gluten allergies, amongst others, who aren’t able to enjoy those items that you might bring. Or in my case, I made caramel corn and one couple has dental work that doesn’t allow them to enjoy it, so they couldn’t swap. And that’s ok.

What if I don’t want to swap?
That’s easy. The swaps are always completely voluntary. If you don’t like an item, you are under no obligation to swap for it. Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but just like you understand and don’t take it personally, know that others won’t either. We all have different tastes, which is why the variety of food is so great. Just gently say no, thank you, and apologize briefly, then move on. “I’m so sorry, I can’t take any more sweets.” or “I’m so sorry, but not this time.” work just fine as explanations.

My other rule of thumb is that I always make something that I would be happy to take home with me. Near the end of the swap yesterday, there were still items remaining that I hadn’t swapped for but that didn’t call out to me as ones I had to bring home. I was fine with packing up my four extra bags and bringing them home to share with my family (and the office staff at my kids’ summer school).

Do I have to swap one item for one item?
Nope! While generally that is how the swap works, there are times when your item is more (or less) valuable than what someone else is offering. You are completely able to negotiate your own trades. You might say that you will give one jar of your jam for two plates of three cookies. Or you might offer two bags of two crabcakes each for some infused vodka. It’s up to you and the other swappers to decide what is fair.

You are never obligated to swap. You can always turn down a swap. And you can always ask for or offer more to ensure everyone involved in the trade walks away happy.

How do I know what I want to trade for?
Before the official swapping begins, most food swaps have a period for you to wander all the offerings and see what’s out there. This is why it’s important to show up on time. You want to be able to get your items set up so that a) everyone else can see them and b) you have time to see what you might like.

As you walk around sampling the offerings and checking out what’s up for grabs that day, you definitely want to check out the swap cards everyone has filled out. Some food swaps will provide them, while others ask you to bring your own. On them, you include what your item is, the ingredients (really important for allergies!), and how it might be used, along with your name. There are also lines for people to indicate that they’re interested in swapping with you and what they have to offer. The same holds true as you’re browsing. If you spot something you like, put your name on the list and suggest what you’d trade for their item. This isn’t a guarantee or a promise, but it helps the swapping go faster when you know someone wants your items and that you are interested in theirs, as well.

My suggestion is to figure out your top three or four items that you’re most interested during this period. Those are the ones you want to hone in one once the swapping officially starts to give you the best shot at the items you most want. When the swap is large, I’ll actually make a note on my phone of what the item is and where it’s located so that I can easily find it again. I have sat there wandering the aisles in the past trying to remember where those amazing bread and butter pickles were only to find them after they were all gone. That was a bummer.

This browsing period can last anywhere from a half hour to an hour, depending on the size of the swap. The organizer will let you know when you can start browsing and give you a heads up before the actual swapping takes place. During the browsing period, it is frowned upon to actually start trading. It’s sort of cheating in a way. You can figure out what you want, but wait for the organizer to say go!

They just said to start swapping. What do I do?
There is usually a flurry of activity when the swap is officially live. Some people pick up two or three of their items and head to swap. They’ll go directly to the “home” of the items they most want and start negotiating. They’ll ask if the swapper wants to trade with them, explaining both what they’re interested in and what they want. Because the most important part at this point is to confirm that someone wants my items (obviously I’m there and want theirs), I typically start out by saying, “Hi, I brought X. Any interest in swapping today?” which gives them the opportunity to politely say no or jump at the chance because they know what I have to offer.

From there, it’s a negotiation. Again, no one is obligated to swap, and you don’t have to swap one for one if that isn’t a truly fair trade. That said, the vast majority of trades are done on a one for one basis, to expect that to be the standard offer.

Other people – especially those who know they have hot items – will stay by their stations and wait for people to come to them. I find that a combination of this works best. I’ll head out to make some trades while keeping an eye on my area. If I notice someone hovering near my things, I’ll swoop back over in that direction to do my negotiations. If you head out somewhere and that person isn’t at their station, you can choose either to wait for them to return (which generally they do because they only take a few items with them then return to drop off their traded items and restock) or head to the next station of someone you wanted to trade with. That is your call based on how badly you want their item versus other items people brought.

A great combination is to tag team. On occasion, I’ll bring one of my children (old enough to be responsible and not run wild) to the swap because my husband is busy elsewhere. Others bring friends or siblings or spouses with them so that one person can man their station while the other person heads out to do trading.

One of the cool things I’ve seen – but that I’ve yet to do – is to bring a basket. I’ve seen people put some of their items in a small basket and use that to carry them around to trade. It helps because you can put more in it and you’re less likely to have a clumsy hands accident and drop the items you brought to trade or just traded for. That would be a disaster. It definitely isn’t a requirement, and most people don’t do this, but it can be helpful depending on your preferences.

How much does the food swap cost?
Traditionally, the food swap costs nothing. You bring your items and it’s purely a trading market. This operates under the barter system, and no money exchanges hands. Some swaps will have a registration fee to discourage last minute drop outs and help cover the cost of renting space or printing, etc. The actual swapping, however, is meant to be free.

What do I bring with me?

  • Your items to trade: Bring your swap items already packaged and labeled. You don’t want to have to mess with them once you get there.
  • A pen: I find it helpful to have a pen so I can write on swap cards what I want without hunting around for one – I simply carry my own with me!
  • Swap cards: These share information about your item – what is it, what’s in it, how do you use it, as well as letting people indicate interest in potentially trading with you (which is not binding in any way but gives you an idea of where to start). Some swaps provide them for you, while others ask you to bring them with you.
  • Samples: Make sure you have a container to offer your samples and whatever serving items required to go with them
  • A reusable bag or cooler: When it’s time to bring your items home, even if you brought all small things like bundles of herbs, you’re likely to have some larger items you’ve traded for, and you want to be sure you can carry them to your car and home again. I like to use an insulated bag or cooler so I can keep cold any items that need to stay cool.
  • A good attitude: Nuff said, right?

Ok, you sold me. I want to do a food swap. How do I find one near me?
Food swaps are all over the country. They’re growing in popularity, which means it’s likely that there’s one near you. I go to the Chicago Food Swap which happens monthly, but there are plenty of others. You can find a listing of at least some existing food swaps on the Food Swap Network.

If there isn’t one near you, try googling your city or a major one near you and food swap if it isn’t on the Food Swap Network site as interestingly, the Chicago Food Swap isn’t. If you still can’t find one, it may be time to start your own!

Food Swap Ideas: Items That Tend to Be Popular

Infused alcohol
Pasta salad
Pasta sauces
Fresh produce

This was a collection of my food swap ideas based on my experience. What other questions do you have?

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  • Pamela M.

    Wow! You’ve written an excellent, very thorough piece that I wish I could’ve read before going to my first swap. Complete with sample guidelines on portion size and good tips on packaging. Overall, great post. I look forward to swapping with you. 🙂

    • Michelle

      Awww, thank you, Pamela! It’s funny – when you’ve done something for awhile, it’s hard to remember all the things you need to know. Glad you find it thorough. If there’s anything missing, I’d love to know so I can add it. Definitely looking forward to swapping! 🙂

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