With over 1 million followers on social media, lifestyle blogger Megan Gilger of The Fresh Exchange gets asked a lot: “What do you actually need to throw a gathering that is beautiful?” Turns out it’s conversation, community and seasonal food that fits right in.

From their hillside home in Leelanau County, The Fresh Exchange—the husband-and-wife creative team of Mike and Megan Gilger—inspire fans and followers all over the world. Mike photographs and Megan candidly chronicles what they describe as intentional living in Northern Michigan’s seasons. “For us,” says Megan, “everything from food, to rituals, to clothes, to gathering—all became better when we became more aware of the seasons around us.”

It started from Megan’s parents’ basement when Megan hit the publish button on the first blog post in 2010. Mike and Megan were newly married, just out of college with creative degrees and trying to find a way to make ends meet in the recession. Doing design work they were not so passionate about by day, they craved a space for creative freedom. With Megan as the visionary and Mike as the business mind, they began partnering with brands of all types and crafting lifestyle content for their own blog, Instagram and Pinterest.

The Fresh Exchange was born. And soon was their son. At that time they were based in Raleigh, North Carolina, traveling the world to grow their lifestyle brand, and they made the decision to make Northern Michigan their home. Because it was home: Megan’s parents reside in Manistee. Her family, particularly on her mom’s side, has been in Harbor Springs for generations. Megan herself lived in Harbor Springs for her first seven years, returning every summer in her preteens and teens to stay with her aunts, uncles and cousins.

Coming back to Northern Michigan in adulthood, Megan found the seasons grounding, and as she describes it, life-giving. Wanting others to feel that acute sense of home, she started sharing more, and narrowed her blog content for The Fresh Exchange to what life was like for her as a new mom and creative spirit in a seasonal place. The Fresh Exchange found its true footing—and with it, a giant fandom (a following of 40,000+ solely on Instagram)—and together Megan and Mike put down roots on 10 hilly acres in the Leelanau County countryside. “When we purchased our land it was with the intention that it would be a space to bring people together. We know the joy that a seasonal life has brought us so we want to share it … in hopes it gives even an ounce to others,” Megan says.

A culture of gathering imprinted strongly on Megan in childhood—she credits her summers in Harbor Springs and being raised the daughter of a pastor. Attending church events and having people over for meals and fellowship was part of life. “It taught me to be open, and to go beyond making small talk,” she says. “Make people feel welcome and see everyone as interesting.”

Megan’s grandmother, who came from an English background, entertained her own five children and all of their families at her home on Crooked Lake and later in Boyne Highlands. There were big home-cooked dinners with crisp linens and formally set tables. “I helped at our family gatherings and watched my grandmother feed the hoards of us at her house. She always had a precision to it, and I found it fascinating. But she did a good job of keeping things balanced between proper and laidback. Something I admire in her and still do.”

Thus, Megan’s gathering style: “I’m a huge believer in the act of gathering regularly, without expectation. I urge people to ask, ‘What if we didn’t cook it all and instead asked others to help? What if it was about the coming together, and not about one individual feeling all the pressure?’”

Whether it’s a dreamy sit-down dinner or blankets spread in the backyard for a potluck, Megan champions an easygoing mindset and intentionally rides along with the seasons. “For me, it’s about being present and being far from perfect, because those perfect moments never happen in anything too neatly put together… but rather where simplicity meets reality. That’s my theory anyway.”

Case in point, her annual women’s gathering. “It’s becoming a thing!” Megan laughs. “It’s a favorite gathering of the year. It’s a potluck—a table full of inspiring and amazing women in the area… they don’t necessarily know each other to start, but afterward, they definitely do.”

Megan says she cherishes the moment their talk switches over from basic chitchat to real conversations. “We talk about growing businesses, chasing dreams, trips that changed our lives, where we found beauty in ourselves and women that inspired us and why. Once you ask the right unique question, people open up. That makes me feel really good.”

And because everyone brings something to share or sip, at the end of the evening, there might be just a few blankets to fold and even fewer dishes to wash. Says Megan, “Focus your attention on each other, I promise your gatherings—and life—will unfold far more beautifully that way.”

5 Questions for Your Guests

  1. What is the most meaningful trip you have ever taken?
  2. What does success mean to you?
  3. What women inspire you?
  4. What do you find the most beautiful about yourself?
  5. If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?

The Recipes

For her women’s gathering, Megan Gilger shares recipes inspired by spring, and her own grandmothers. “A large part of who I am comes straight out of England—both sides of my family can be traced back to coming over on the Mayflower as pilgrims.”

Her update on traditional British mushy peas, typically served with fish and chips, is delectable with locally smoked salmon. Next up, a fruit fool, an old-fashioned English dessert classically made by folding stewed fruit into a sweet custard. Megan’s is minimalist, gorgeous and quick—using softly whipped cream and crushed rhubarb. “The flavors that spring brings are tender, gentle, bright and sharp all at once,” she says. “The beauty of eating with the seasons is most of the flavors complement each other—it is hard to go wrong.”

Emily Tyra is editor of Traverse Magazine. // Mae Stier is a lake-lover, writer and photographer living in Empire. You can find her on Instagram @maestier.

Photo(s) by Mae Stier