For those of you who are already loyal customers of one our area meal prep stores (like Dream Dinners, Dinner MyWay), this post is NOT for you. You don’t need it. You’ve already decided – for good reasons as MomsOutLoud.com learned in September – that you are a fan of this service. For those of you who cook meals from scratch every night for your family, providing a variety of healthy, tasteful options in your menu repertoire – AND enjoy doing so – this post is NOT for you, either. You’re cooking and time management skills have surpassed the need for a convenience offer such as this.
But – if you’re like me, you should read this post to see if meal prep might be a good addition to your household routine. What is “like me”? For instance, I get take out more often than my wallet or stomach would like, just for the convenience of it. I feel guilty about serving my kids chicken nuggets for the 3rd time in a week, but lack the knowledge, skills, or time to figure out a healthier option. And then, after making my kids something they will eat, my husband and I figure something out for ourselves later…..for me this is often a choice between cereal boxes on my pantry shelf.
If the above sounds anything like you, then read on. But before I get ahead of myself, let me describe to you what “meal prep” stores are for those of you who may be entirely new to the concept. In a nutshell, these outlets provide you with all the ingredients you need to assemble a meal to take home, freeze, and heat up later. To start the process, you create an account online and pre-register for a set 90-min session, selecting the meals you wish to prepare during that session. When you arrive to make your meals, the ingredients are all fresh (except the meat, which is frozen), chopped/prepped, and waiting for you at various “stations” around the store. You move between the stations, assembling the meals you’ve pre-ordered to take home. Sounds like a dream come true, right?
Well, with all the honesty I always give (and always will give) to my Moms Out Loud readers, I have to admit that the first experience I’d had with meal prep was not a good one. I was the recipient of 3 mediocre and small meals from a friend just after my first son, Jack, was born from a meal prep store that is no longer in business. (Of course, I’m not sure anything could have made me happy in those early weeks of new motherhood, when I was quite sleep deprived, totally overwhelmed, and not adjusting well to life with a newborn.) I was not overly impressed with the meals themselves, and the idea of having to go to a place to prepare these somewhat bland and small dinners myself did not appeal. So, even though that was three years ago, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical about using meal prep services for my family.
But after our Moms Out Loud Mom’s Nights at Dinner MyWay (Sept 18) and Dream Dinners (Sept 26), I am now a happy convert. At Dinner MyWay, we dined on very yummy Cheese Ravioli with Red Pepper Pesto and Bread Pudding for dessert, and had the choice of to make and take home either Greek Baked Chicken or Pecan Crusted Tilapia. At Dream Dinners a week later, the group enjoyed delicious Pulled Pork Sandwiches and had several options to make and take home, including Arroz con Pollo, Baked Chicken and Apples. And I was not the only happy customer. Several ladies at both evenings took “extra” meals home (already prepared by the staff at both locations) and signed up for future sessions to return.
So what did we experience that made us all happily sign up to come again? Well, several things:
1. You can “chop” your food bill.
Moms I’ve spoken with in the last few weeks who use meal prep stores consistently swear they have reduced their overall grocery bill by utilizing this service. A recent survey done in May 2008 by the International Association of Meal Assembly Businesses (wow – talk about a mouthful) of almost 2000 meal prep customers in the U.S. and Canada found that 48% say they’ve reduced their overall grocery bill and another 46% say they spend the same amount on food but enjoy greater diversity using meal prep.
I did a simple calculation. An average adult casual restaurant meal (for us) costs $8-9, with a kids meal costing $4. For us, that means $20-22 a pop (assuming my 2 kids split the kids meal which they usually can), plus the cost of gas to pick it up and a tip to the server. The average cost of a 3-adult serving meal from either Dinner MyWay or Dream Dinners is around $12, to which you need to add a vegetable or salad for a few extra bucks. That’s a savings of almost 50%. The cost is actually more comparable to fast food….but the health benefits relative to that option are huge (see below).
2. You won’t have to “chop” vegetables.
As you may have guessed by now, I am not a fan of spending time in the kitchen. A huge benefit of these stores is that you can bypass all the food prep activities of washing, chopping, slicing, mincing, etc. When you arrive, all of that time-consuming work has been done for you, and all you need to do is measure how much pre-chopped carrots (for instance) you need to assemble the meal you’ve chosen.
3. It’s Not Just Casseroles!
A misconception I had with the meal prep stores was that all they had were casseroles. One of the meals I took home from Dinner MyWay was Luau Pork (basically pork tenderloin in a sweet teriyaki-flavored sauce) and my husband and I both commented (between very yummy bites) how it was the best meal we’d had in a long time. Out of their menu of 14 items, eight are proteins with “no disguise” (as my husband calls casserole cooking). For Dream Dinners, their current menu includes options like Soy Glazed Salmon, Carribbean Jerk Chicken, and Grilled Steaks with Carmelized Onions (of course, there are also more “casserole-oriented” choices like Beef Pasta Bolognese or New Orleans Jambalaya).
4. There are Lots of Healthy Options to Choose From.
One of the best surprises I had when attending the sessions was how healthy most of the meals are. I say “most” because, of course, there are decadent selections (like the Cheese Ravioli mentioned above….which was worth every calorie!). However, if you are eating healthy and watching calories and sodium, you’ll be able to include many of these dinners in your diet. The nutritionals are available in store or online, and there are several options under 300 calories at Dream Dinners. Kira Gray, the manager of Dinner MyWay and also a certified nutritionist, pointed out that there are eight items on their menu less than 300 calories as well.
5. So If You’re Heating from Frozen, Why Not Buy Frozen From the Grocery Store?
This question did cross my mind, after all, frozen dinners from grocery stores are cheaper than you can buy from a meal prep store. BUT, the question was dismissed as soon as I actually went through the process of making my own meal at these locations. Because I assembled the meals myself, I saw the actual quality of the ingredients. I got to inspect the meat, I got to control the amount of salt (and other spices) I used. And these are all ingredients I would have used myself at home to make the meal….had I the time to find the recipe/shop for them/and then make it at home. No questioning why the chicken in a frozen dinner tastes different than chicken in a meal I cook myself – because with these meal prep stores, it tastes the same.
6. Planning Your Meals Ahead of Time Reduces Stress
For a few years now, I have promised myself that I would plan my meals on a weekly basis, using that menu plan to drive my grocery list and never again feel that familiar panic around 4pm, thinking “what in the world are we going to have for dinner?” And for a few years now, that’s never happened. UNTIL I tried out these meal prep places. To be honest, maybe there were some other factors that have provided a catalyst to my new approach to dinner planning (like my oldest son going to a new school that does not provide his lunch – adding another meal of responsibility into my mix – and my younger son growing into table food about the same time). But, I’m loving having my menu laid out on Sundays and not having to question it during the week. Knowing that I can drop 2-3 meals into a given week that are largely prepared already (because I’m using meal prep stores!) and just need heating is a huge piece that enables me to actually execute against this plan.
7. Psst!…..You Don’t Actually Have to Prepare The Dinners Yourself!
This is where these stores really hooked me. Both Dinner MyWay and Dream Dinners will assemble all your meals for you – meaning you place the order and then pick it up. No other action needed on your part (except the heat up/small prep at home). At Dinner MyWay, this service is FREE. At Dream Dinners, there is a small $25 fee for the convenience. Both require you to buy a minimum of 6 meals at a time to prepare them for you – but I say Hurrah!! What a great option!!
In summary, I personally have found these meal prep solutions to truly provide a “solution” to a nagging problem I’ve had – a responsibility to feed a growing family with no cooking skills or interest. If you haven’t tried them, or tried them lately, you should sign up for a session. You might come away a happy convert – like me!