DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Laurie Chun, left, and Holly Marchant place ingredients in plastic bags at Dream Dinners, pre-packing their family meals.
Win the nightly dinner dash
Meal-prep shops such as Dream Dinners take the stress out of getting good food on the table
STORY SUMMARY »
Ready, set ... GO! How much can you do in a day, and how fast can you do it? For many folks, the clock starts ticking the moment they rise, and by the end of the day, they're still racing -- to get home to the tasks that await them there. So what gives?
Unfortunately it's often a healthful meal at the family dinner table. By the time Mom and Dad have worked a full day, and they've picked up Johnny and Judy from soccer, and then Jane from band practice, they're hard-pressed to put a meal on the table at a decent hour. If they make it to the table at all.
"My husband and I were always grabbing takeout, and sometimes one of us would eat on the road," says Susan Lewis, a Hawaii Kai mother of two teenage sons who works full time.
Then Lewis discovered Dream Dinners -- and she's never looked back. "Since the first time I tried it, I've gone back every month since."
Lewis spends an hour a month at the Dream Dinners' shop in Niu Valley. After donning an apron, she "assembles" a month's meals at long stainless-steel kitchen stations outfitted with uncooked ingredients. She swiftly measures sauces and other ingredients into plastic bags and pans, then sticks adhesive cooking instructions on each packaged dish.
At home she freezes the meals, to be cooked as needed. "Now, every single night I can put a nice dinner on the table," Lewis says.
The demand for ready-to-go meals is creating a new industry. The Easy Meal Prep Association, a trade group based in Wyoming, lists 448 companies providing the growing service, with names such as Carefree Chef and Bring Em Home Dinners. Dream Dinners, based in Snohomish, Wash., is the largest, with 225 franchise outlets.
On the other end of the scale: 'Licious Dishes in Iwilei, a niche operation offering raw, vegan gourmet food, run nearly single-handedly by owner Sylvia Thompson.
"My clients know they have food in the fridge to support a healthy lifestyle," owner Thompson says, "and as they're driving home from work they can steer clear of the fattening pizzas and same-old, same-old takeout places that may not be healthy for them."
Perhaps one of the less obvious, but most important benefits of these ready-to-go services is that they allow people the space to simply slow down and go home for a relaxing dinner.
"These meals brought back for us the family dinner," says Lewis. "My kids like that we can sit down to a decent, healthy meal."
FULL STORY »
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Heather Francis drives from the North Shore to pre-assemble her meals at Dream Dinners in Niu Valley. In the foreground are some of the spices and ingredients used. All vegetables are chopped and meats packaged, with all seasonings provided.
Hamburger Helper was an ingenious product when it debuted in 1970. A mass exodus of women from the home into the professional world was shifting American society dramatically, and among the effects, big and small, was a change at the family dinner table.
Roasts that slow-cooked all day in the oven were unfeasible; quickie meals were in. Just a pound of hamburger, some water and a seasoned mix of macaroni or dried potatoes became a meal within minutes.
The ready-to-go dinner era had begun.
In the years since, demands on time and energy have continually increased, and fast-food and takeout meals have become the new Hamburger Helper. But growing concern for both health and pocketbook issues have people looking for a better way to handle mealtime.
Ready with solutions are two Honolulu businesses that substantially cut the prep time in bringing a meal to the table. 'Licious Dishes in Iwilei isn't yet a year old, but the raw, vegan gourmet food company already has owner and chef Sylvia Thompson creating meals for more than 100 clients. Dream Dinners, a franchise that originated in Washington state in 2002, opened its first Honolulu store last year in Niu Valley and already serves 2,000 customers.
At Dream Dinners, clients "assemble" uncooked ingredients according to recipes created by the company. The dinners are frozen at home until they're ready to be cooked.
"Compare that to grocery shopping, prepping, cooking and cleaning up," says Susan Lewis, a Dream Dinners customer for almost a year. "It's an amazing timesaver."
Lewis also likes that she's cooking the meals fresh.
"The food is not precooked, it's assembled raw. It's convenient but it's not like eating leftovers," she says.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
'Licious Dishes owner Sylvia Thompson prepares vegan meals with her own style and flair. Demand has steadily increased since her shop opened in May.
"I like to call our food 'everyday gourmet,' " says co-owner Cheyenne Forbes- Roberts. "Kids will eat it, but it's not dino nuggets.
"We know now that fast-food isn't healthy. Diabetes is on the rise and obesity's skyrocketing. Our food lets you provide a healthy, home-cooked dinner without doing it by yourself."
Dishes such as Herb-Crusted Summer Steak, Mango-Glazed Pork Chops and Italian Turkey Burgers reflect the company's current summer seasonal menu. They are among the hundreds of recipes in rotation. The cost is about $5 per serving, with a minimum order of 36 servings (six large or 12 medium meals).
"The beauty of our system is that people assemble the food themselves," says Forbes-Roberts. "If they want to omit salt, they can do so. If they want to add extra cheese, they may."
She says that most of her clients have children; in fact, the company's mission centers on promoting the family dinner table.
"It's been proven that kids perform better and are happier and healthier if they have a home-cooked dinner with family every night. Companies like ours serve that need for families that want this, but can't make it happen all by themselves."
IN STARTING 'Licious Dishes, Thompson's focus was health. Her husband suffered a heart attack in 2003, and "he vowed never to return to that hospital bed." The Thompsons decided to become vegans, but the change wasn't easy for the busy couple.
"Finding tasty vegan meals-to-go was harder than learning to cook," Thompson recalls.
After discovering "the vibrant flavors of raw foods" and completing a culinary school program that taught her to develop spa cuisine recipes, Thompson read a news story about Dream Dinners and decided to try her hand at a raw, vegan version of ready-to-go meals. Thompson's clients pick up ready-made meals -- three or five meals for the week. Thompson rotates four weekly menus.
" 'Licious Dishes ... does all the shopping, chopping, mopping and packaging of the meals. Since it's raw, you can take a meal baggie to work, stick it in the fridge, and when you're ready to eat, combine the sauces which have been separated to preserve the freshness of the veggies," she says.
Client Gabrielle Butchart, a vegetarian, says the best part of 'Licious Dishes is "not even having to think about what you're going to eat. It's convenient, it's vegetarian, and for the most part, it's organic."
Butchart, who owns a personal training business with her husband, leaves home at 4 a.m. and doesn't return until 6:30 p.m. Before 'Licious Dishes, it was "very challenging" to plan meals. "We're so tired at the end of the day, we'd just get a salad and be done with it."
Now, the Butcharts enjoy "80 to 85 percent" of their meals. "That's better odds than going to a restaurant," she says.
While Butchart finds 'Licious Dishes to be easy on her pocketbook and generous in portions, some customers have deemed the meals pricey. Three meals for one to two people cost about $60; five meals are about $100.
Thompson says she's "taken the comments to heart" and increased portions. She's also added a "sweet surprise" to the bags to ensure her clients don't succumb to cravings with unhealthy snacks.
On the other hand, when a friend told Thompson her meals were too expensive, "I replied that poor health is expensive, too," she says. "I see that putting the highest grade of oils, produce, salts and sweeteners into your body is like investing in your health on the front end, rather than waiting to get sick."
In that vein, she is uncompromising about the purity of her dishes. "Everything is made from scratch, from our tortillas down to the ketchup. We don't use any fillers in our meals, like rice or noodles ... It's all vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. We try our best to use organic, locally grown produce whenever possible."
"Like Hippocrates said, 'Let thine food be thy medicine.'"
Thompson's work is demanding, as raw foods can't be prepared too far in advance. She makes heartier items like bread early in the week and the most perishable ones on the meal-pickup day.
But she finds the business rewarding and enjoyable.
"Dreaming up new recipes is the most fun. I have a great team of people working with me, and I love tossing some of my ideas for a new meal in the air for us to synergize on."
Contact 'Licious Dishes at 536-9680; Dream Dinners at 373-1221.