Think about what you ate last week. Did it include any takeout? Did you drive through? Thaw any frozen entrées? How many times did you actually sit down with your family over a tasty dish you prepared in your own kitchen?
Chances are, the answer to that last question is a pretty small number, if a number at all. Hoping to help families get back to the table and add a little pizzazz to household dinners, a number of innovative franchises have been created, from Super Suppers to Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating to Snohomish.
Washington-based Dream Dinners franchises have also popped up across the country with meal delivery, pickup and assembly centers, where haggard home chefs can take back a bit of control of their busy lives and make more time for good food.
To see what all of the buzz was about, a few of us at NUVO stopped in at the Dream Dinners in Fishers. Founded by working mothers Stephanie Allen and Tina Kuna in 2002, Dream Dinners now has almost 150 meal prep centers in 27 states. Does it save time? Is it cost-effective? Does it taste good? Here’s what our team thought.
The busy wife: a well-balanced meal
By Shannon Tankersley
Because our schedules are so crazy and inconsistent, it’s hard for me or my husband Rob to find time to grocery shop — let alone make dinner. I was interested in the Dream Dinners concept and how it could allow us at least three dinners together each week.
Rob and I reviewed our choices and selected chicken with lemon and artichoke sauce, chicken and dumplings, pork roast and seafood stew.
It was a Thursday night when I met my colleagues at Dream Dinners to make our food for the week. As you walk in, stations are set up for each recipe. We received our instructions from Amy and then were turned loose to make our dishes. I started with the chicken with lemon and artichoke sauce. It was so easy. The correct measuring spoons were in each ingredient, and vegetables were already chopped. All we needed to do was read the recipe and fill the pans or bags. When we were finished with a recipe, we placed the meal in the fridge. One of the staff members would clean up the station for us, allowing us to move to our next recipe.
OK, so it was easy to prepare the recipes, but that’s only part of the equation. The second part is cooking the dishes at home. My first attempt was the seafood stew. It was a Sunday night. My husband was working late and would not be home until after 8. I took out the ingredients around 1 p.m. Following the instructions, I prepared the dish in my crock pot. Because everything was portioned into bags, I was able to continue working around my house and not worry about dinner. I only needed to add the correct bag at the right time and dinner would be ready.
It was easy to assemble and cook, but now ya gotta eat it. My husband came home and we sat down together for dinner — not something we do often. Supplementing our meal with garlic bread, we ate our stew. And, yes, Mikey, we liked it. It had good flavor to it and lots of seafood. The nicest part about it was that I had made it.
The next recipe we tried was the pork roast. Although it took longer to cook than the recipe had stated, it was very tasty. This was Rob’s favorite of all the recipes. He even brought leftovers to work.
It was nice to have these tasty meals sitting in the freezer waiting to be prepared. And they were much healthier than some of the meals we would normally eat — or drive through to get.
I really enjoyed my Dream Dinners experience. For people like us who have very busy schedules and find it hard to get to the grocery store and cook a well-balanced meal, Dream Dinners is a great way to go.
The dad: sitting ’round the family
By Jim Poyser
Sometimes I think I’m as bad a dad as Homer Simpson; you know, laid-back and non-authoritative to the point of absurdity. Heck, my youngest son calls me Jim instead of dad.
But in truth there are ways I’m even worse than Homer. At least the Simpsons sit around the table at dinnertime.
One of the stated missions of Dream Dinners is to bring families together for dinner. Laudable enough and plausible, too, when you factor in the efficiency of their product. Just thaw, heat and serve.
So, in theory and in reality, this service does provide better meals for family consumption. When I say “better” I mean better than what often ends up as our default decision on a busy night: fast food. Even the “healthy” fast food options aren’t as good as the Dream Dinners repast, and when you factor in all the costs, you actually break even. It ends up a plus, because it feels like you made it yourself, even if all you do is follow the instructions, and you don’t have to wait in some noxious drive through lane collecting food you don’t really want to eat anyway.
But does it get us “around the table”?
We hardly ever eat together as a family. When I was young, we were required to eat as a family, and I don’t remember enjoying it, except the day I planted a tape recorder and played the conversation back to my family. They put the kabosh on any future surveillance after that.
I think the point is that you spend time with your children, one on one and as a larger, family unit, in the ways that work for your family. I think for us the format of not necessarily eating together works pretty well; we find our interactive pods in different scenarios.
It’s akin to the workplace. Sure, regularly-scheduled meetings can be productive, but they can also feel like a chore (yes! even here at NUVO!). It’s those spontaneous meetings that result in eruptions of brainstorming; that’s where the big, creative ideas emerge.
And so it goes at home. At least for us. Dream Dinners doesn’t bring us to the table together; we’re just as separate as always. It’s simply a sensible way to manage a complicated part of the day, so we can more ably enjoy the evening, when the real family togetherness can happen.
If we time it right, we can watch the Simpsons sit around their table and eat. Better yet, we can eat while we watch them eat.
The single gal: good, but you got to plan
By Lisa Gauthier
As a busy, single person, I don’t eat right. I eat when I have the time, usually whatever is available: a frozen dinner, peanut butter or take-out. Between work, theater, class and friends, food is simply not a high priority.
The Dream Dinners experience packed my freezer full of more food than I have ever owned at one time. What’s more, it wasn’t the high-sodium, bland, frozen entrees that usually dominate those shelves.
Meeting up with two co-workers at the shop in Fishers and putting together those meals was a creative and social experience. As someone who never cooks, I enjoyed the evening surrounded by food and folks who let me ask “What’s this?” or “What’s that?” Each recipe was posted in front of me at individual workstations, tubs of ingredients were stocked with the correct measuring spoons and bowls and bags were within easy reach. The staff was super helpful, even when I had to ask which tub held the garlic. The night went quickly — I was surprised how fast I could compile four dishes.
One of the things I liked best was that Dream Dinners provided ingredients I would never be able to stock myself — things like whole basil leaves. If I had a stash of all those herbs, it would take years for me to go through them. I was able to create seasoned food without spending hundreds of dollars on ingredients I would use once then allow to collect dust in my cabinets.
Since I am single, and the dinners are meant to feed four, the Dream Dinners staff helped me break them down into smaller freezer portions so I could thaw less food at a time. This was a relief; the amount of food was staggering.
As I began to thaw and cook each selection (chicken with lemon and artichoke sauce, baked chicken tetrazzini, chicken and dumplings and cranberry apple tart), I found that they were delicious. That tart, meant to serve four, lasted less than three days because I couldn’t keep a fork out of it.
Eating real food was a wonderful experience. However, there were some drawbacks.
The cooking directions, conveniently affixed to each bag or box of food, called for one to two days thawing time and anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours to cook. That means planning ahead. When I want to eat, I want to eat now — not two hours from now. This was very inconvenient for me. Plus, I didn’t have much luck with the taste of re-heated leftovers.
The total for my four selections was $87.70. That is over $30 more than my monthly budget for food.
So, was it a nice experience? Very much so. Would I do it again? No, because I can’t plan two days ahead of time what I am going to have for dinner, and, really, for a single woman, it wasn’t cost effective.
The gourmet: Is this cooking?
By Terry Kirts
I like cooking in all its forms, from whipping up a quick sandwich to all the wrist-work necessary for a risotto or a great French sauce. So, I was looking forward to cooking with other people who shared at least a passing interest in food in what I hoped would be a fun environment. The idea that someone else would do the dishes didn’t hurt. Yet I left Dream Dinners asking myself three important questions: Was this fun? Did it actually save time over what I’d do at home? Was the convenience of prepping meals on someone else’s turf worth the cost?
I had hoped to meet other foodies like myself, but, despite nametags, we weren’t introduced to each other, and the limited space at prepping stations (Dream Dinners allows about as much countertop as the average apartment for prepping two completely different dishes) meant we just got in our fellow customers’ way rather than establishing any rapport. In fact, an employee came by at one point to scold us for hogging too much territory. A few sodas in a fridge and some ’80s funk whistling out of tinny speakers provided about the only atmospheric amenities. Thank goodness I’d brought along my friend Matt, who could make a jail sentence the time of one’s life.
In terms of time, we did put the dishes together swiftly. The whole place seemed oriented toward speed. A woman next to us bragged that she’d finished all of her meals in 40 minutes flat. While this was liberating, given my talent for wasting hours on a single meal, the sacrifices were many. Garlic came from a jar instead of being chopped by human hands, cake mix constituted the “crust” of an apple tart and, most egregious to my gastronomic soul, onions were dried flakes. I had to pause before drizzling liquid margarine (and all those potential transfats) over that tart.
On top of this, the dishes weren’t finished. A breaded chicken dish with an artichoke sauce took an additional 30 minutes of prep at home, though I cheated and fried my chicken breasts rather than spraying them with Pam and baking them as Dream Dinners suggested.
Cost-wise, most dishes ran over $15, several over $20. Not bad for four people, but this is cost before side dishes. Would a flank steak and some herbs really cost $20?
My last word? If you’ve got the money to pay someone else to shop for you, if you need some nudging to get into the kitchen and if you can convince some friends to do it with you, Dream Dinners can be a viable alternative to lonely hours slaving over one’s home stove.