Making Dinner Easier
The meal assembly industry aims to take the heat off for busy cooks.
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
The investment: About two hours of your time and $195. The idea: You assemble a batch of meals at a store that provides recipes, pre-prepared ingredients, and cooking facilities. The result: 12 entrees, ready to take home, freeze, and bake at your leisure.
Those are the basics behind the self-service, meal-assembly stores that are popping up all over the United States, both as franchises and as single-store businesses.
Industry representatives say they offer an alternative to takeout, allowing customers to enjoy home-cooked-style meals and convenience, too. And you don't have to be a chef to prepare these "make, take, and bake" entrees.
"Most of our customers don't know how to cook or don't like to cook," says Sam Lee, owner of the Full Plate meal assembly store in Walnut Creek, Calif.
At most of these businesses, you select your preferred entrees and sign up for a time slot over the Internet. When you get to the store, there are stations set up to assemble each entree. Instructions are spelled out step by step. Pre-cooked and pre-chopped ingredients, measuring cups and spoons, and freezer-friendly takeout containers are on hand.
You put your entrees together, adjusting the ingredients as you wish for your family's tastes. Then place them in the cooler you've brought along (for food safety's sake, do this as soon as you prepare them), and you're done! And here's the best part for many customers: There's no cleanup.
The concept seems to suit the busy lifestyles of many Americans. Consider the case of Dream Dinners, a franchise meal assembly business. In 2003, according to the company, there were six Dream Dinner outlets. By 2006, the number had increased to more than 195, including new stores in the works.
This dovetails with the findings of a study recently published in Food Technology, which showed that takeout and convenience foods have become increasingly common on our dinner tables. While most Americans eat their evening meal at home, only one in three actually makes it from scratch, the study found.
But are the entrees available at meal assembly stores really more wholesome than most takeout foods? The offerings vary from store to store, but many provide nutrition information about their dishes, and most have some healthier options. And since you assemble the dishes yourself, you can go lighter on high-calorie ingredients if you wish.
One member of the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic says she's had good experiences at her local meal-assembly store.
"The store I go to doesn't have nutritional information online for all of their items but does for quite a few, which helps when I'm ordering online," member kmsj0505 posted recently on the "Daily Journaling: Friends Talking" message board.
"Being able to assemble the meal myself means that I can choose to use less cheese or oil and sneak in a few more veggies," she wrote. But, she adds, "I would like it if more options were available for using low-fat sour cream instead of regular, for example."
To give you an idea of what's available here is some information on a few franchise meal assembly companies and two independent outfits:
Meal Assembly FranchisesMy Girlfriend's Kitchen
What's cool about this company: This business stresses the "getting together with your girlfriends" aspect as much as the "prepare 12 entrees fast" aspect. There is fun and whimsy everywhere, from their recipe titles to the graphics on their aprons.
Location: 32 locations in 15 states, with headquarters in Salt Lake City.
Typical entrees offered: Chicken and Mexican dishes tend to be their most popular offerings, but they have all sorts of options, including Chicken & Dumplings, Meatball Submarine Sandwiches, Swiss Steak, and Sweet/Hot Beef Enchiladas.
Assembly only, or available already prepared? Both options are available.
Is nutrition information available for entrees? Yes
Are there healthful options? Yes. They tend to use "smart oils" such as canola and olive oil, and meats trimmed of visible fat. Chicken & Dumplings, for example, contains 379 calories, 11 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat per serving; the Meatball Submarine sandwich contains 447 calories, 9 g fat, 6 g saturated fat.
What's cool about this company? Former caterer Stephanie Allen, a working mother of two, is credited with creating the whole meal assembly concept. She opened the first store in 2002 with partner Tina Kuna, and it exploded from there.
Location: 146 stores all over the nation; headquartered in the Seattle area.
Typical entrees offered: Offerings include Stir-Fried Chicken with Cashews, Asian BBQ Pork, Turkey Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes, and Bacon & Swiss Cheese Quiche.
Assembly only or available already prepared? Assembly only.
Is nutrition information available? Yes.
Are there healthful options? Yes. While some items are higher in fat and saturated fat (like the Bacon & Swiss Cheese Quiche with 495 calories, 27 grams of fat, and 11 grams saturated fat) other choices include Stir-fried Chicken with Cashews (217 calories, 10 g fat, 2 g saturated fat) and Turkey Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes (313 calories 10 g fat, 3 g saturated fat).
What's cool about this company: Super Suppers started as part of an established culinary school, and has dietitians on staff to do nutritional analysis. The operators say they don't just look at Super Suppers as a food operation; they see it as a healthy lifestyle change.
Location: First store was in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. They now have about 200 locations in 38 states (including stores slated to open soon).
Typical entrees offered: Fish Tacos, Chicken Chili Enchiladas, Rosemary Balsamic London Broil.
Assembly only or available already prepared? Both available.
Is nutrition information available? Yes.
Are there healthful options? Yes.