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Food for thought: Friends travelling together need common cooking expectations

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. - It can be a recipe for disaster: renting a vacation house with friends without talking about meal planning.

There are obvious topics, like allergies, budgeting, finicky kids and the division of labour.

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," said David Lando, a financial adviser in Washington, D.C.

So when his large family gathers for their annual vacation at a house in upstate New York, everyone picks a night to cook — except Lando.

When it's his turn, he gets takeout.

"The last couple of years the grocery store near our place has run a special on (prepared) lobster," he said. "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 took charge of divvy up the cooking and cleaning 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 Stouffer's lasagna, Texas toast and 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 not only gave people a choice, but the leftovers saved them on Sunday when that meal's chef realized she had only bagels, having forgotten the eggs and left the bacon unrefrigerated in her shopping bag all weekend.

Despite the gastronomic goofs, by taking it all in stride, "We really had a good weekend," Stoakley said. "It didn't ruin the friendships and we all made it through."

To help things go smoothly, consider these tips:

—Pick one person as the co-ordinator who can find out what staples the vacation rental provides, compile shopping lists, collect money or make dinner reservations. Consider rewarding the co-ordinator 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 said. "It's just for a short period of time. It's not forever."

Then again, if co-ordinating cooking seems daunting, a private chef might be the answer.

That's what Maureen Bee of Fort Collins 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 said.

There were snacks during the day, bartenders at night, a team of cooks in the kitchen and even servers.

"It was like having a restaurant in our villa," she said.

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 with the menu and location, but a full service dinner prepared by a caterer hired through CaboVillas.com would start at $35 per person. Breakfasts begin at $15 and lunch $25, said Julie Byrd, spokeswoman for company, which handles rentals in Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

Still, for Lando, who is so averse to cooking that he eats out as a matter of course, it's a real pleasure to savour 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 said.

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