Dinner's Ready; Some Assembly Required

It’s a daily dilemma for many Americans — and one that has them feeling like they could eat their hats. It’s that old quandary about what to have for dinner.

In these whirlwind times, putting food on the table after a long day doesn’t seem as simple as it used to be. Now, the fledgling-but-growing “meal assembly” industry is helping the cook in the house solve the problem without hitting a drive-thru, slaving for hours over a hot stove or heating up a Lean Cuisine.

The companies — among them, Seattle-based Dream Dinners (search), Minneapolis-area Let’s Dish (search) and What’s for Dinner (search) in Fargo, N.D. — provide recipes, ingredients and work-stations for busy people to throw together enough meals to feed their family for an entire week or more, in just a couple of hours. They then take the food home, freeze it and heat it up when it's time to chow down.

“This is about making life easier for people,” said Dream Dinners founder and co-owner Stephanie Allen. “Three nights a week if you’re doing soccer, baseball and piano lessons you know you’ve already made dinner and you don’t have to worry about it.”

Though they're all a bit different, most of the meal assembly services work a little like cooking classes — except clients come to a store (instead of a school) and put many meals together that can be frozen and cooked later. The concept takes the pre-cooking preparation, like finding a recipe, shopping for food and chopping ingredients, out of making dinner.

Meal assembly customers can choose to make about eight to 12 entrees for their family. They sign up for a time-slot to use a work-station and pay a fee, usually totaling under $200. All this is done in advance, on the Internet.

When customers arrive at the store, there are about a dozen other people, each assembling their own meals. The ingredients they need are washed and chopped, but customers measure everything out for the meals, then take them home in baking pans or takeout-style containers.

So, for example, if you chose to make Let's Dish's "sundried tomato pesto roast chicken," you'd arrive at the shop to find prepared raw chicken, sundried tomatoes and the ingredients needed for pesto. You'd make the sauce, combine it with the chicken and then cart it home. When you want a yummy dinner, bake the chicken for an hour and, voila! — a flavorful, fresh meal.

Working mom Susan Loftus of White Bear Lake, Minn., said she latched onto Let’s Dish because her husband, a stay-at-home-dad, doesn’t like to cook and she found herself scrambling to figure out what to put on the table.

The legal professional has gone to the Let’s Dish store near her house four times with a group of friends. Loftus says she and her husband are hooked. Both are vegetarians who eat fish, and many of the menu choices adapt well to their diet.

“It’s a million-dollar idea,” she said. “I was wanting to save time and have good meals … We’re just blown away by it.”

One food industry analyst said the meal assembly trend is in line with a larger-picture shift in the way people are consuming food.

“The movement is toward less and less preparation on your own but still eating at home,” said Harry Balzer, vice president at the NPD Group (search), a consumer marketing research firm.

And though NPD's research shows 90 percent of all take-home meals come from a fast-food restaurant, with 105 million households in the country there's room for niche markets like this one to flourish.

Balzer said the trick is to balance convenience and cost with taste and variety.

“This is trying to take care of the issue,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a market for it, but is it going to be mass? That’s the big question. I’ll be shocked. Is this the next McDonald’s? No.”

Those who swear by meal assembly dinners say taste and variety are indeed part of the draw. Among the October Let’s Dish choices, for instance, are chicken in cranberry chutney and chili lime marinated beef kabobs with Spanish rice.

“This is a guilt-free way to provide a convenient meal for your family,” said Let’s Dish co-owner Darcy Olson, who launched the company a year ago with partner Ruth Lundquist. “You’ve had a hand in making it, and you take it home … You can focus more on your family than just trying to pull a meal together.”

The social aspects are also appealing because, like in a cooking class, everyone in the room is preparing meals at the same time. Dream Dinners even has background tunes on while customers assemble next week's supper.

"There's fun music playing, with people doing a little dance step while they're standing there," Allen said.

Most of the meal-assembly clientele is female, though a few men or couples show up.

Let’s Dish has two locations in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and another two on the way in Baltimore and Washington state. Dream Dinners, which opened more than two years ago, has 53 locations in states including Washington, California, Arizona, Massachusetts, Georgia and Texas.

Dream Dinners’ Allen said her company was an offshoot of the catering business she owned.

“We basically opened up my catering kitchen — I thought, I’ll help my friends get dinner on the table,” she said.

It grew fast from there; Allen said she gets 400 requests a week to open franchises.

“It’s convenient. They save money — lots of money. And they lose weight,” she said. “Some people say, ‘This is like being a chef in my own show.’”