Many a friendship has soured from the overstepping of bounds when one assumes the generosity of a housemate and “borrows” a snack from the fridge. Living with other people has many advantages; cheaper rent, cheaper utilities, and a potentially lower food expense. That said, if the housemates don’t clearly lay out from the start what food they expect to share, bitterness, passive-aggressive notes, and even open hostility may ensue. When you first move in with roommates, among the many things that should be candidly discussed, is the protocol of food sharing and use of kitchen facilities.
Have a meeting. Talk about what each person’s eating habits are in order to determine what kinds of food could be considered “staples” and purchased jointly. Eggs, bread, milk, butter, coffee, sugar, bananas, onions, garlic, canned beans, and rice, for example, are all things that I have shared equally with housemates in the past. They are easily shared if housemates agree to promptly reimburse the person who purchased the items last. Also, this meeting is a good time to discuss cleanliness of the kitchen, since your idea of “timely clean-up” might not always meet other’s expectations.
Consider Community Supported Agriculture. If you live in area with local farmers, consider paying as a group for a share of a Community Supported Agriculture program. CSAs support farmers and feed large amounts of people. At the beginning of the season, or sometimes months beforehand, farmers collect money, maybe a couple hundred dollars per share, from groups of people who in turn will be entitled to a weekly produce pick-up for the entire duration of the harvest season. Among 4 or 5 housemates, paying a one-time payment of $40-$60 each for fresh, local produce every week for months works out to be a great deal!
Save your receipts. If you are purchasing food that is shared with your housemates, make sure to save the receipts. In my apartment we would put receipts for shared items on the refrigerator door with our name and the amount owed by each person. When a housemate pays their share they cross their name off the receipt. Often, receipts from multiple purchased would cancel each other out, complicating the tallying of who was owed what. With the addition of utilities and rent, keeping track of money changing hands can be tricky. Fortunately, there are sites online that help housemates calculate these very debts.
Or use the “karma” approach. If keeping track of receipts is not your strong suit, there is always the “karma” approach, where grocery bills, chores, and meals cooked are repaid in turn by each person in the house. Note: this only works in theory unless each person in the house is truly open about telling others what they feel is owed. Little gestures go a long way in a shared living situation; offer to share a meal with a hungry housemate or offer to do the shopping and it will come back to you twofold.
Make labeling your food an exception, not a rule. If you are able to decide with your housemates what food you will all share, then there is only a need to label food if it is a special or personal item and doesn’t fall into the “shared food” category. Keeping a roll of masking tape and a permanent marker hanging on the fridge makes it easy to label food that you want to save as your own. Or, instead of writing your name, buy a multi-pack of colored stickers, like they use at yard sales, and have each person in the house have their own color with which they can “tag” their food.
Another approached in a house with only a few housemates is to designate one section of the refrigerator to each person in the house and a section for shared foods. And if you are dying to taste someone’s tagged item, ASK! You may be pleasantly surprised. Just remember, generosity can quickly run dry when not reciprocated.
Cook together. Cooking dinner with friends is fun, and if you don’t know your housemates well, eating together is a great way to become better acquainted. When cooking a Sunday night dinner, my housemates and I would sometimes go to the market together and buy what we wanted to cook and split the cost right there, allowing us to have a decidedly more lavish dinner for the price than if we were to cook alone or go out for a bite around the corner. Talk about how much you each are willing to spend, then budget your meal appropriately. Inviting other people over for dinner parties is also good fun, but make sure you okay it with your housemates. Generally, when I would cook for a dinner party, my housemates would contribute some money for the food, but since it was my idea I would feel more comfortable taking on a larger portion of the food cost. Again, hosting and funding a dinner party will hopefully lead to you being the one treated to a nice meal in the future.
We all (I assume) strive for a certain level of harmony in our home lives, and food can be a uniting factor among friends. Unfortunately, it can also be a source of major conflict, depending on how you as a group decide to handle it. (I know from experience. Sorry I ate your soup, Phil.)