By Diane Jacobson and Nadine Johnson
Many working mom’s are just this: time starved and tired of takeout. Far too frequently do families eat meals patched together from the dregs of the pantry. Or worse - takeout yet again. When pasta with jarred marinara is like a step up from the norm, it’s time to find other alternative. Don’t despair – there is hope. Hope in the form of a new concept in food is sweeping the nation and serves as a savior for moms who want to have a family dinner around the table. Enter the Meal Assembly Store. At meal assembly stores people assemble meals from pre-chopped and prepped ingredients into freezer ready containers. The dishes are then taken home, stowed in the freezer until needed, then thawed and cooked. Typically anywhere from 6-12 entrees can be made in 1-2 hours.
Avid cooks and avid-non-cooks alike are finding the meal assembly store a great alternative to takeout, delivered pizza and frozen grocery store meals. For the cooks in the world, having everything ”mise en place” makes them feel like chefs on the Food Network. On top of this, knowing what goes into a dish and having the option to customize it to taste offers security that a pre-made frozen lasagna doesn’t. For the non cooks, the simplicity of the process and the security of a freezer full of made-from-scratch options is hugely appealing. Working mom’s of all kinds breathe a sigh of relief as they head home with a cooler full of made-to-taste meals. The pressure of “what’s for dinner?” is relieved.
HOW IT WORKS Most meal assembly stores require making a reservation, either on line or over the phone, before coming to the store. At the store, clients don aprons and move from station to station where they find recipes and all the required ingredients and measures to make them. Triple the galic, leave out the salt – it’s up to you. The meals are packaged for the freezer and labeled with precise cooking instructions.
HOW TO SELECT A STORE Like restaurants, meal assembly stores vary dramatically. Before selecting a store, consider the following:
1. Price. Entrées range in price from $20 to over $50 each. However, just looking at the price does not tell the whole story. Some meals come with side dishes and all vary in quality and size. For example, one store advertises entrees for as low as $3 per serving. But, upon further investigation, you will find that each serving of meat is 3 ounces and there is only one entree on the menu at this price. Others promote servings for four but each portion is 8 ounces. So dig a little before basing your selection on price alone.
2. Quality. All stores vary dramatically in quality. Some stores have one menu for the entire nation and tend to use one supplier, therefore, the ingredients tend to be from cans or pre-frozen. These stores tend to have lower prices. Other stores offer local ingredients and menus tailor-made for a specific areas. One good measure of quality is to determine if any prep-cooking is done on site or if all the ingredients are prepared elsewhere. Ask if the store has a commercial kitchen. For example, dried onions taste differently than fresh ones and caramelized onions add even more flavor. You can do jarred sauce easily at home so determine if any sauce, curries or chutneys are made on site. Ingredient quality and type varies as well.
3. Convenience. Location of stores and times of session are a consideration as well. You might find one located near your workplace is the best option. Too busy to come in for a session? Some stores offer food to go that can be made to your taste. Light on the spice. Leave out the mushrooms. Your to go meals can often be tailored to taste too.
4. Menu. Evaluate the menus. Stores also vary in their offerings. Some stores sell primarily casserole fare while others offer dinner party food. Many offer a variety of things in between.
We recommend following the old adage “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again.” Try a few stores before you settle in with a favorite. We recently spoke with someone who loved her first choice primarily for the convenience. After her friend introduced her to another store, she discovered her family liked that food more. The obvious beauty of the meal assembly business is the convenience. But, at the end of the day, if your family does not like the food, there is always pasta with sauce from a jar.
To find stores near you or your workplace, visit www.easymealprep.com , the industry association.
By Diane Jacobson and Nadine Johnson, co-founders of Sous Kitchen, Inc., a meal assembly store located in San Carlos, California.