Saturday, January 06, 2007

Better Food, Just as Fast  

Do you find yourself going out to dinner a lot, or bringing home takeout food more often than you should?

We sure do. Even though we've been making an effort to eat lighter meals at healthier places -- our faves from around here include Panera, Chipotle, Zoup!, and our local Heinen's grocery store -- it's just not the same as cooking and eating at home. There's a real difference in quality, quantity, and healthiness. And it's expensive, too!

Worse yet, it's a slippery slope. Once you get into the habit of getting takeout for dinner, it's easy to slip and start eating less healthy fast food too. (cough KFC's beautiful-but-deadly mashed potato bowls, I'm looking at you.)

My wife Nancy recently came up with a solution. She'd heard about this place nearby called Simply Done Dinners. Apparently -- and I had no idea this even existed -- places like this are a growing trend around the country. It's basically a place where you can come in, put together homemade dinners, bring them home, and toss them in the freezer to cook later.

Simply Done Dinners is local to the Cleveland area, and they have only four stores right now: Parma, North Olmsted, Twinsburg, and Medina. If you're not from around here, don't worry. There's probably a similar store near you. Take a look at this HUGE directory of easy meal-prep stores. See? I told you it was a growing trend. :-)

Our First Taste

The first time we tried it out, Nancy simply ordered six dinners online ($109) and had the store in Twinsburg assemble them ($29) so that all she had to do was pick it up. There was no preparation involved: she simply walked in and grabbed the prepared dinner packages. We got one of each of the following:

  • Apple Pork Chops with Sweet Potatoes
  • Cheeseburger Noodle Casserole
  • Cod Provencal
  • Lemon Garlic Chicken
  • Pasta Broccoli Bake
  • Southwestern Meatloaf

Each dinner package is designed for 4-6 people. For our family of three -- papa bear, mama bear, and baby bear, with proportional appetites -- we found that we got just under two meals per person out of each. Either two dinners from each, or dinner plus a tasty lunch of leftovers the next day. The meatloaf actually lasted much longer: I used it for lunch sandwiches for almost a week, but that was balanced out by the pork chops which got left out for too long and had to be thrown away. All in all, I figure that we got roughly 30 meals from the order.

If you do the math, that works out to $4.60 per meal per person: a little more expensive than buying all the ingredients yourself, but without any of the hassle. It's also about what you'd pay for a fast food "value meal", and maybe 50 cents to a dollar more than a frozen TV dinner at the grocery store. Really, a surprisingly good value for the kind of quality that you get.

Of course, these are just main courses and don't come with sides. (Some other chains do provide sides, but they also charge a little more.) So we'd add rolls, or a salad, or some veggies as needed. That adds a bit to the cost-per-meal, strictly speaking, but we already had all that stuff around the house anyway so we didn't factor it in.

The dinners come in a big disposable pan, the kind that you can just toss in the oven. There's a sticker with cooking directions on the side. Some needed baking, some needed broiling, and other stuff could be done in a crock-pot. (We avoided the crock-pot ones the first time, since we didn't have one.) In all cases it's pretty much drop-it-in-and-wait; no skills required. A bachelor could do it with one hand tied behind his back. :-) They're all designed to be stored in the freezer, but you have to remember to pull them out into the fridge to thaw 48 hours before you want them. We pulled out one or two a week, and eventually started a rotation where every time we used one we'd move another into the fridge so that it would be ready in a couple of days.

What about the taste? Well, we have a diverse set of tastebuds in our family: I'll eat anything, but Nancy can be a picky eater (to put it mildly). And even though Olivia's pretty darn adventurous for a 10-year-old kid, eating sushi and cow tongue among other things, she doesn't like everything. Sometimes she opts out of dinner and just gets a veggie burger instead.

But even in our divided household everyone unanimously agreed: the food was delicious! I guess that's the benefit of having a professional chef selecting the recipes.

Better still, it was all stuff that we either wouldn't have made, or something that was a unique flavor that we probably wouldn't have thought of. So it didn't actually conflict with any regular cooking -- we still made our simple family-friendly foods like nachos, pizza, salads, burgers, soup, sandwiches, pasta, etc. It was more like a supplement to our regular meals which pushed the fast food out of our diet for a while.

Cooking Too: Electric Boogaloo

Today we received our second order. Nancy is now nine months pregnant (!) and we're anticipating that eating will be a little bit hectic for a while once the baby comes, so we wanted to stock up on easy and nutritious food. This time instead of ordering 6, we ordered 12. And we figured we'd skip the "pick it up" option and try preparing it ourselves. Here's what we chose:

  • Balsamic Thyme Chicken
  • 2 x Apricot Chicken (Heart Healthy)
  • Crabmeat and Swiss Cheese Bake
  • 2 x Creamy Potato Soup
  • 2 x Down Under Chicken
  • Rice Vegetable Cheese Casserole
  • 2 x Tropical Pork Chops
  • Onion Bacon Crusted Cod

Preparation was really a lot of fun. Nancy and I went together, and we both agreed: it was all the fun parts of cooking without any of the hard stuff! No chopping, no searching for bowls, no scavenging ingredients or trying to work out what you can substitute because you forgot to buy something, and of course the best part -- NO DISHES!!

Working together we finished making our twelve dinners in just over an hour -- that's about five minutes each. Here's how it works:

Each store has a fixed menu which changes every month. There are different recipe stations around the room, one station per recipe. Each station has containers of the ingredients you need at waist level, with the appropriate measuring cup for the recipe already in it. Cheese, mayo, chopped onions, chili sauce, apricot jelly, cooked bacon, etc. (If you want a visual, think of the scene behind the counter at a Subway restaurant, but one that is customized for just a single sandwich.) Some ingredients are pre-packaged in containers that are just the right size for the recipe: for example, one casserole had a bag of exactly the right number of bread squares ready to go. Herbs and spices, sugar, oil, seasoning salts, etc for the recipe are all at shoulder height, and each one has the appropriate measuring spoon next to it. The meat is in a big refrigerator on one wall: thawed, pre-cut, and also ready to go. Along the side there's a sink for washing your hands, and a big rack full of all the utensils you could want and all the pans you need. Oh, and there's yet another station with ziploc bags and a big roll of plastic wrap.

To make your order, you simply find an open station (there was only one other couple there, so this wasn't hard) and start working. Since everything is already prepped for you, you basically wind up dumping stuff together. It's not hard at all. You're free to tweak the proportions if you want; we only did this a little bit since the recipes seem to have a good mix to begin with.

I'll admit that our very first one (the Down Under Chicken) was a little intimidating simpy because it was a new experience. We took it pretty slowly to make sure we were doing everything right. But once we figured out how it worked, we got into a groove and it couldn't have been easier -- we banged out the rest without a hitch.

When you're making it yourself you can also split the orders, so that instead of one meal that serves 4-6 you can make two meals of 2-3 each. We did that on many of the orders, in an attempt to reduce the amount of leftovers. We'll see how that works out.

At one point Nancy commented, "Geez, I feel like we're on a TV show!" You know how in cooking shows they just describe what you'd do, and then whip it out already done? And dirty dishes aren't even discussed? It was exactly like that. Almost a magical experience.

Net cost: $197 for twelve dinners, plus about two hours of our time on a Saturday morning. If the previous ratio holds and we get 60 meals out of it, that will come out to $3.28 per meal.

I'd love to tell you how the food tastes, but since we just made it this morning I can't say yet. But boy, did it ever did look good when we made it!

By the way, in case you were wondering: I'm not affiliated with these folks in any way, nor do I know the guy who runs the store. (Although we chatted afterward and he seemed pretty cool.) I just think it's a great service. And it's the kind of place that's just awesome for families, and which I even kind of wish I'd had access to as a bachelor -- because sometimes you just want a nice dinner without a lot of effort.

The verdict? Two thumbs way up. The dinners are cheap, fun to make, delicious, and easy ... and we're back to eating at a table, instead of from a paper bag.


  • Anonymous said...

    I'll give you some better recipes if you can tell me how to target MIPS systems without any Intel hardware to run pre-fab SDKs made for this purpose. Won't do your dishes for you though ;)