- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

In a small strip mall, behind an ordinary storefront and sandwiched between a tanning salon and a dollar store, lies an answer to a conundrum that vexes busy parents every night: What to feed the family?

The company is called Dream Dinners and, like more than a hundred similar outfits across the country, it functions as a sort of communal kitchen where moms and dads whip up a few weeks’ worth of freezer-ready meals in just two hours. It’s home cooking — without the home.

It works like this: Customers use a Web site to select a time and date along with the meals they would like to prepare — herb-crusted flank steak, perhaps, or chicken mirabella. When they arrive at the session, ingredients have been doled out carefully into stainless-steel containers.

The would-be chefs simply mix and season, prepping meats and fish and pizza for the oven. The prepared — but uncooked — meals are then bundled into freezer bags and aluminum containers. Cooking instructions are affixed, and the trove is tucked into a cooler for the ride home, where each customer will stockpile a dozen ready-to-cook meals.

Even for a country schooled in takeout and delivery, there’s something enduring about all that the home-cooked dinner conjures. Americans may be losing touch with the art of cooking, but not with the desire for the comfort of homemade food.

“I think every woman and every cook faces the ‘What do I make for dinner?’ dilemma. And I think these Dream Dinners are certainly filling that need,” says Carole Counihan, a food anthropologist at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. “You don’t have to shop, you don’t have to plan, but you get, in a sense, to take credit for the cooking.”

Started in 2002 by two women in a Seattle suburb, Dream Dinners was the first company to specialize in “meal assembly.” Since then, others, with names such as Dinner by Design, Let’s Dish! and Super Suppers, have followed the smell of Dream Dinners’ success.

Dream Dinners has 115 stores in 19 states, with more than 400 franchise applications coming in each week. The Milford, Mass., branch opened last year and is one of two franchises in the Boston area.

It’s 7 p.m. here on this Thursday as customers trickle in. First come Leslie and Jon Varney, newlyweds with a gift certificate. Then two regulars, Candace McDonnell and Trisha Tokarz. Ms. Tokarz, who wears a Dream Dinners T-shirt, drove an hour from Fitchburg, Mass. Kathy Donohue and her adult daughter, Megan, walk in next.

Finally, Diane Sills. Before the newcomers even have donned their black aprons, before they have been inducted by owner Ann Marie Parness, Ms. Sills already has assembled her first dinner. (A set of 12 doesn’t take her longer than 1 hours — most people average closer to two hours.)

The kitchen is tidy. Metal shelves with bins of dried pasta and flour, spices and sauces line a wall painted brick-red. An industrial refrigerator glows near the door. Three cheerful employees scurry around, interpreting instructions, topping off containers, cleaning spills. “That’s our job,” chides one as a customer attempts to wipe a countertop.

Tonight’s clients include two nurses, a teacher and a mom who home-schools her young children. Each is busy, and each says this makes mealtime a little easier.

The process unfolds like a TV cooking show. “It’s cooking with everything laid out for you — makes it a heck of a lot easier,” says Mr. Varney, his wife beside him reading directions off a laminated sheet and offering encouragement as he readies a deep-dish pizza that calls for biscuit-dough crust.

It is the iconic ritual of family dinner, as much as the food itself, that Dream Dinners is marketing: “We’re about home and community, family and friends,” reads one brochure. “We’re about getting kids off to school or soccer, making time for the PTA and church gatherings. Food and families lie at the heart of everything we do.”

The company estimates that 80 percent of its customers are busy mothers. The concept that “a mother’s love means home cooking — an idea that has really gone back centuries in American culture — is still alive and thriving,” says Sherrie Inness, whose book “Secret Ingredients: Race, Gender, and Class at the Dinner Table,” comes out this year.

As the number of households with two parents in the labor force has risen — from 59 percent in 1985 to 68 percent in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — it has become harder to find time to cook.

Experts attribute the rise of meal-assembly stores to a nation of busy people with more disposable income than time to spend it. People worry about their health and the dangers of fast food. Also, of course, many crave an idyllic domesticity borrowed from the set of 1950s sitcoms: two parents, a couple of children and a cozy room with a well-appointed table.

Dream Dinners caters to those impulses. Plus, at about $4 a serving — without the worry of being stuck with a whole jar of capers when the recipe calls for just one spoonful — customers say it’s affordable.

However, in the mass marketing of lavish dinners, Ms. Inness and others worry about the pressure to keep up. As these assembly lines become more widely available, enabling the neighbor who works full time to serve her family a sumptuous spread each night, how can mom justify not doing the same?

Still, the stores have reintroduced a social aspect of cooking. For those who feel lost in the kitchen, there may be “a kind of solidarity where people are together cooking and bolstering each other,” Miss Counihan says.

Cameron Stracher, a New York Law School professor who is researching a book about his experience cooking for his two children, says “the preparation and the sharing of the burden of making it is probably two-thirds or seven-eighths of what dinner is about.”

Mr. Stracher, who has battled a 50-mile commute to get home for the evening meal, sees Dream Dinners as a step toward bringing families together but wonders if it really will slow them down.

Nonetheless, for him, as for the thousands of clients at burgeoning meal-assembly services, dinner carries the promise of filling holes in a busy life.

“I just miss the kids,” says Mr. Stracher, who recently penned a gentle eulogy for the family dinner in the Wall Street Journal. “I guess I feel a sort of sadness and an emptiness in my life that I feel confident forcing myself to get home in time for dinner to see them is going to address.”

Back in Milford, Kathy and Megan Donohue — the mother and daughter — huddle near the refrigerator before they leave, mapping out their choices for a joint return trip. Tonight they split six meals between them. Two of the recipes couldn’t be halved, Kathy says, “so we’ll have to eat them together.”

Need a supper savior?

Most meal-assembly services are based on the same model: Customers select the date and the meals they want to prepare. Menus change monthly, with a few signature dishes reappearing. The cost is about $200 for about 12 meals of four to six servings each and $120 for six meals.

• Dream Dinners (www.dreamdinners.com) has a location in Midlothian, Va., near Richmond with two more Virginia locations and three Maryland locations planned.

Menu options include:

Crispy coconut chicken

Herb-crusted flank steak

Mom’s macaroni and beef

• My Girlfriend’s Kitchen (www.mygirlfriendskitchen.com) has franchises in five states, including a Richmond location.

Menu options:

Everybody lemon chicken tonight

Lula’s sassy Cajun kebabs

Orange you glad pork chops

• Super Suppers (www.supersuppers.com) has locations in 20 states.

Menu options:

Corn and black bean chicken salad

Bacon-wrapped ground-beef steaks

Herb-crusted salmon cakes

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