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Dinner is served

Assemble-and-freeze businesses let busy people save time while putting healthy meals on the table
by: JONATHAN HOUSE, Diane Price reads the directions before assembling a meal at Dream Dinners in Tualatin.

Dream Dinners, Dinners Done Right, Dinners on the House, Dinners Ready- all of them have the dreaded 'D' word in their names.

It's not that I don't enjoy eating dinner, I'm just not a huge fan of making the meal. There's something about the final feast of the day that strikes fear in my culinary-challenged heart, leaving me more often than not at the kitchen table with a bowl of cereal or a plate of macaroni and cheese in front of me. The exception is when my roommates decide to collaborate with me on something, but that only happens every so often, thanks to our equally hectic schedules.

That's why when I first heard about some of these assemble-and-freeze businesses that are popping up all over I was more than a little intrigued. I wondered, Is it as easy as it sounds? How long does it really take to put these meals together? And most importantly, is the food actually edible?

In order to find out the answers to these questions, I enlisted the help of my sister Miranda and signed on to assemble three meals at Tualatin's Dream Dinners. The food we chose embodied something we would normally be afraid to cook (peanut crusted fish fillets), something we have made before on our own (Santa Fe chicken fajitas) and something that just plain sounded good (Italian stuffed shells). Some of the other choices for this month's meals are pulled pork sandwiches, flank steak, chicken parmesan and pork chops.

When my sister and I arrived in Tualatin on Friday morning, we were both a little nervous. But as soon as we walked in the doors, we were greeted both by co-owner Felicia Rosenthal and the smell of food wafting throughout the open kitchen-area. After getting a quick overview of what the multiple assembling stations held, we were told to don an apron and listen to a step-by-step rundown of how the process works.

Another first-time paying close attention to she spiel was Diane Price, an out-of-towner who stepped in to fill the shoes of her daughter-in-law, who had recently given birth. On her list of selected entrees were meatloaf and Italian stuffed shells, and as Price assembled them, she called the entire experience 'fantastic.'

'It makes me hungry,' she said. 'It couldn't be any better. It's just great.'

And as Miranda and I quickly learned, Price's observations were right on. Not only did each 'station' in the kitchen have all the ingredients, packaging materials and measuring utensils readily available for two or three of the 14 offered meals, they were set up with easy-to-follow assembly directions that allowed for 6- or 3-serving portion sizes. Customers are also encouraged to tweak the ingredients according to their tastes. Like a little extra garlic in your food? Go ahead and add it. Can't stand pesto? Omit it.

Wilsonville resident Rhonda Fisher was preparing meals for the fourth time at Dream Dinners, and she said she loves the concept of make-ahead-meals because of how much time, money and headache it saves her.

'My kids are really picky eaters, so if they don't see what is put in everything they will try the meals,' she said. 'I never spend more than 15 or 20 minutes making these meals at home,' which she said saves her '15 or 16 hours each month. And actually, we save a lot of money.'

Fisher is also on the Weight Watchers, and she said the meals complement the program really well.

One of the things Rosenthal highlighted in her short intro session for us newbies was the fact that all the people with the red aprons were employees who would be cleaning up messes, answering questions and making sure everyone was having a good time. And they did. During the 30 minutes spent in the kitchen open space of Dream Dinners, I saw red aproned women speaking with each customer, replacing used utensils and making sure each person there was feeling comfortable.

When it came time to go home with the fruits of our labor, Rosenthal walked us through the check-out process, which involves making sure all the extras are included for each meal (such as rice and tortillas) and checking to see that the cooking directions are on the packages. Before we left we were handed a convenient little checklist that includes the nutrition info, cooking times and suggested side dishes to go with each meal, as well as a list to help keep track of how many of each dish is still in the freezer.

Later the next day when I was taking the disposable pan with stuffed shells out of the oven and serving it up for dinner, I realized exactly why people keep coming back to these places: It's easy. Really, really easy. All I had to do to make this dinner was preheat the oven, pop the pan in, take the lid off for the last 10 minutes of cooking and make a side salad. And it actually tasted good!

All in all it was a very pleasant experience, and Rosenthal said that is something she hears from a lot of people who come in, whether they are married couples, families with children or empty-nesters who are adjusting to serving smaller amounts of food.

She first got involved with the company about three years ago, when one of the members of the PTO board she was president of sent an e-mail around with info about the first Oregon store that had just opened. When Rosenthal tried it, she said not only was she impressed with the concept, she also was excited to bring it to her community.

'I just thought it was the greatest thing,' she said. 'And I knew that that would benefit my family because we were always going in 50 different directions.

'And we really did enjoy eating at home, eating at our dinner table. We were conscious of the quality of the food we were eating, and I was feeding my kids nutritiously and setting up good meal habits for the rest of their lives, and I thought, Gosh, that's a perfect fit.'

When Rosenthal, who lives in Raleigh Hill, and co-owner Lois Moll opened Dream Dinners on Nyberg Street in June 2004, they were the 15th location opened for the franchise; now, three years later, more than 220 locations exist throughout the U.S.

As the concept grew, other business with the same idea popped up, including Dinners Done Right on Scholls Ferry Road in Tigard. Steve Harris, owner of this location, said he and his wife use make their meals at DDR for the same reason most customers do: to save time, money and for convenience.

'One of the things I like best is I don't have to figure out what's for dinner every day, so I don't have to go to the store constantly,' Harris said. 'I go about once a week for fresh items like vegetables, salad, milk and so on. I also eat a lot less unhealthy food and save money.'

Dinners Done Right offers sessions Tuesday through Saturday at various times, as well as private sessions for groups of seven or more. Some of the items on this month's menu include jambalaya, tortilla soup and beef Florentine; visit www.dinnersdoneright.com.

Dream Dinners offers sessions on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays during the day and evening, with between 7 or 9 different times available each week. Visit www.dreamdinners.com.

Dinners on the House offers sessions Wednesdays through Saturdays, with a total of about 10 different times each week. Visit www.dinnersonthehouse.com.

Dinners Ready has sessions available Wednesdays through Saturdays, with various times for each day. Visit www.dinnersready.com.