Fall is about over. I've vacuumed the car, purged the closets, dropped bags of pre-owned luxury items (junk) at Goodwill, and defrosted the freezer. My ducks are in a row.
Spring cleaning? Phooey. This is fall bliss.
But then my freezer looked so cavernous that I got a bit nervous. Summer is fine for endless burgers in the backyard and pizzas at the pool, but fall, well ... don't we have to hunker down, fill the coffers, prepare for hibernation? I think somewhere in there I'm supposed to kill a deer and make a stew.
Not being the stew-making type, I did the next best thing: consulted my girlfriends. And the unanimous advice? Prep and freeze, honey, prep and freeze.
Trends come and go, especially in the retail food world. Sometimes they're gone for good (deep inside, don't you miss Tang?). Sometimes they go ... and come back around again (think Tab, or Capri Sun). And sometimes they linger even though we know better (aah, Krispy Kreme). But one trend currently sweeping the country seems to have surprising staying power: dinner-prep franchises.
At least 319 companies are operating around the country with more than 900 locations. In the Triangle, the stores go by several names: Dinner Savvy, Dream Dinners, Easy Life Meals, Meals by Design, My Girlfriend's Kitchen, Super Suppers. (We don't get any of the really kitschy names here. Consumers in Idaho have Home on the Range; Floridians can choose between the perky Thyme for Dinner! and the tantalizing Your Secret Pantry; and, while Flint, Michiganders, not known for their subtlety, are stuck with You're the Chef, in Scarsdale, N.Y., foodies can text-message "Let's Dish!, 2:00").
Dream Dinners originated the "home-meal-solutions industry" in 2001 in Washington state. The general routine at the Big Three (Dream Dinners, My Girlfriend's Kitchen and Super Suppers) is the following: Sign up in advance for six or 12 meals at a cost of between $18-$24 per six-serving meal, show up for a two-hour session at which you assemble the raw pre-chopped ingredients in transportable disposable containers, then go home and freeze everything, removing a few meals at the beginning of each week to thaw in the fridge and cook at your convenience. If you find yourself needing more, sometimes the stores have pre-made dinners available, and My Girlfriend's Kitchen will even deliver them for an additional $10. Convenience is obviously the goal—to get you hooked and to buy more each time (which will of course make the country safer for democracy). As Sarah Rivers, co-owner of the Raleigh and Cary Dream Dinners stores, reminds customers: "Very much like shopping at one of the warehouse clubs, the more you purchase, the lower your cost per serving is going to be."
I scheduled my appointment for a sunny Saturday at Dream Dinners on Lake Pine Road in Cary. About half of the 12 participants were repeat customers; all but one were women. The décor is faux-Italian-cucina, very Pottery Barn, very Parade of Homes, and everything has been painstakingly considered, from the cubbies for handbags (or man-purses) to the little hook by the unisex restroom on which you can briefly hang your crisp maroon apron. Each of the dozen dishes offered each month has its own glass-and-stainless prep station, with the recipe posted at eye level, the proper dry ingredients above, the wet ones sunk in a refrigerated "salad bar" below, and frozen meats cleanly stacked on freezer shelves underneath. It is shockingly clean; were 12 other people really here three hours ago to make more than 100 other meals?
The prep itself is, well, fun, like chemistry class without the explosions. It is not chummy, though. Each participant has her own list of meals to make in only two hours. So the clock is ticking, and we are all business about our ingredients—don't want to misread T for t. At one point a mutiny seems likely over the Classic Lasagna station, as it appears we have all registered for one or two lasagnas each. But they are so time-consuming, all those noodly layers. Can we do it?
Indeed we can. And we do. By the end of the session, the 12 of us have filled our well-marked freezer shelves to the brim with hygienically nested plastic bags and aluminum pans. Out come the coolers and laundry baskets to transport this enormous amount of food home; we each check out with an employee (to be sure we haven't snagged an extra Basil Pesto Tilapia) and pack our cars and return to our 12 expectant freezers. We sigh deeply as we envision our assembled families, fattening themselves for the long winter.
Though fat, to be honest, isn't a staple here. While nearly all of the meals are meat-based, the steak is reportedly "lean," and fish and shrimp recipes are offered in addition to the three or so standard chickens. Nutritional information is available on the Web site when you register for a session, and if you want to leave out an ingredient like cheese, well, you're the chef. But are their meals a bit healthier than you'd want? The Rosemary Chicken Penne Pasta in a cream sauce was decidedly lacking cream (and the mushroom soup-base didn't fool my husband for a second). The Arroz Con Pollo had a sprinkling of low-fat cheese on top, but no other lubricant to help meld the rice, beans and corn.
I'm sure it's hard to anticipate the tastes of Americans—to find a national average. I wonder, do the recipes at franchises nationwide vary in style or content? Do they offer more black beans in Arizona than, say, Minnesota? Do they push tempeh in California, avoid pork in New York, ramp up the gravies in Alabama? No, says Rivers. "We have tasting panels [but] ... all stores are serving the same 14 meals every month," she says. "The benefit of that is when we are purchasing things at such a volume we are able to get a locked-in price that we would not be able to offer if we were doing separate menus in different parts of the country."
What I've enjoyed most of my Dream Dinners meals are the marinades and roasts. They seem universally tasty, as at home in a Carrboro sublet as in a Durham split-level. I've struck a home run with two of their marinated pork chop recipes (one with spiced apples and raisins), and while at the butcher I'm positively intimidated by a four-pound roast, when it's hermetically sealed with a little, typed sticky-note of directions and a seven-spice marinade, all of a sudden I'm Julia Child.
Julia Child, of course, had a well-heeled husband to support her habit. I calculate that I could probably pay about a third less if I bought the raw ingredients at a grocery store (though of course if I bought six No. 1 ValuMeals or got Chinese takeout, I'd spend a fourth more). I decide to ask Sarah Rivers at Dream Dinners how much she thinks the convenience of kitchen prep is worth.
Here's what I imagine she'll say: "Our lives are busy. Cooking from scratch takes so many hours ahead of time, shopping, chopping, boiling—and then what do you do with the other three-quarters of a block of aged Parmesan, stick it in the back of your fridge to mold with the other pricey leftovers? Then the cleanup takes you away from your family, scrubbing prep bowls and restocking all your ingredients. Isn't your time worth a few extra dollars?"
Here's what she does say: "We're totally customizable. If you go to Harris Teeter and pick up their pre-made lasagna, or the Stouffer's or what have you, and somebody has put mushrooms in the sauce, and your family doesn't care for mushrooms, you are going to have paid that money to pick mushrooms out. The customization aspect is really a huge benefit."
OK. I'm still not totally satisfied, but by dodging the point, another point is made: If you have to really, really ask, you should probably keep clipping your coupons and making your great-aunt's meatloaf. If you want to eat Kraft mac'n'cheese every night, you will save money. It's a fact. But if you have made the choice to serve full-on three-course meals to your family at least a majority of the time, and if you want them to taste pretty good and to try out some new flavors, and if you want to go have a little fun playing home ec once a month with your girlfriends, well, the dinner-prep industry is waiting for you.
And so is your freezer.