Field Report:
Dream Dinners
Locations throughout the USA
Rosie, MaceVindaloo, PlazaQueen, PandaCat

The busier our lives get, the less time there is available for things like cooking and sitting down to a delicious, home-cooked meal with your family. So what do you do? You either run through the drive-thru of the nearest fast food joint and pick up a bagful of fat, calories and carbs your doctor will yell at you about at your next checkup, or you go into a restaurant and spend a small fortune to feed the kids before rushing home to get homework, housework, and baths done before falling into bed. And doing it again tomorrow. Not only does this take money, but time! And it's stressful because you not only worry about money and time and calories, but the example you set ...

No more! Two women in the northwest US who found themselves in this very situation, came up with a brilliant concept: monthly dinner preparation parties, where groups of their friends gathered to prepare a month's worth of dinners in one evening. The attendees would bring their own pans and containers and the ingredients for one meal multiplied by the number of attendees. They would assemble the ingredients and place them into appropriate storage containers to take home and freeze along with the instructions to finish cooking the meal. And voilà! no need to go out; a healthy, home-cooked meal would be ready to eat in practically no time when you needed it. The concept grew into shops with professionally prepped ingredients, formulated recipes of how much of any given ingredient to use (or not), and a set price for the privilege of not having to chop, research, plan, shop, or clean up! It became a business called Dream Dinners and franchises have started appearing in many locations around the country.

The Dream Dinners concept caught the eye of a fellow Huttie who mentioned that there were two locations within fairly easy reach of us. Needless to say, as true foodies we felt it our solemn duty to investigate; the prospect of a good, home-cooked meal for less than cheap drive-thru for less effort and time was certainly attractive, too.

The first requirement was to register online at the Dream Dinners website and to select a home store location. This does not mean we are limited to only that location, which is good because we later found out that a closer location would be opening sometime this summer. Once registered, we could go into the website ordering utility. Each month, the home office posts new menu choices, although items that have proven to be customer favorites reappear frequently. We looked through the list and chose a good cross-section of the menu items offered, carefully picking things that the fussy ones would eat. The food looked family-friendly, a very important consideration, and were things I would have cooked had I had the time and compunction. The prices for the items ranged from $12.95 to $19.95, but each one would serve six, for a total cost of $2.16 to $3.33 per serving. That rivals home-cooking with the purchase of groceries, condiments, etc. A good value, and no leftover bits and pieces to deal with or go rotten later!

You choose an available session at any location convenient for you, then select a minimum of 12 entrées in any combination (duplicates of family favorites are common) and pay for them online by credit card, in advance. This information allows the franchise to purchase the ingredients in the quantities required for that session.

Our session was scheduled for Saturday at noon, but since we had chosen a somewhat distant location (it was closest to home), we had to allow for driving time. Still, if this worked out, the driving time was less than the time wasted on as little as 6 drive-thru runs, or waiting for meals at 4 restaurant sessions. Anyway, it turned out to be a nice sunny early spring day, perfect for a little road trip — if only the navigator could correctly read the driving instructions ... We did eventually find our way to the Dream Dinners location and had time to spare, so it wasn't as stressful as it could have been. We were the first ones to arrive for the noon session and had gotten there in time so the workers could explain the procedure.

Each person registered puts on an apron and food-service gloves and is given a list of the menu items they've ordered. The ingredients for each item are set up and prepped — things are chopped, sliced, minced, juiced, deseeded, cleaned — at work stations ready to be assembled into big Ziploc bags or foil baking pans. Assembly instructions are also displayed at each station so there is no guesswork, and appropriately sized scoops and spoons are supplied. The ingredients are put into a mixing bowl or directly into the bags according to the step-by-step instructions, then the bag or foil pan is closed and preprinted sticky labels with cooking instructions are attached. The completed meals are placed onto a holding shelf until you are finished assembling all of your meals, then they're ready to take home.

We did learn that only the person registered may actually assemble the meals, so it's best to leave the kids at home. It's a safety and sanitation issue and makes good sense, but it would have been a good thing to know ahead of time since we had traveled quite a distance. We were lucky though. The session was not full (up to 12 can register at this location, but there were maybe 7 registered customers, including the one properly registered person from our group) so the other Hutties were allowed to don aprons and assist with the meal assembly (with the understanding that in the future all attendees would register, or have to sit out the session at the spectator's table at the end of the room). With the extra hands working, our twelve meals were assembled in just under an hour (two hours minimum are recommended for a single pair of hands).

It was hard to believe: a dozen meals for six servings apiece, no prep, no planning, except for looking at a website in advance and picking through the offerings. The meals we'd chosen included lemon-stuffed rosemary roast chicken, Yankee pot roast, ham and navy bean soup, braised pork loin, ham with savory fruit sauce, and herb-crusted flank steak. Just for the sake of asking, we wondered aloud if a couple of our choices would be suitable for the crockpot. It would make preparation even easier and we were told that the navy bean soup and Yankee pot roast would be ideal.

On the ride home, we debated which of the delicious meals would be the first to be tested. We settled on the herb-crusted flank steak because according to the printed instructions it would be the fastest to prepare. The cooking instructions suggested either grilling or oven broiling, but since the weather was cooperating, we opted to fire up the grill for an added dimension of flavor. With microwaved baked potatoes and steamed broccoli to accompany the meat, we had a delicious, balanced meal ready to eat in a trice.

Given that the menu changes from month to month, it wouldn't take long to discover which meals will become family favorites and which can be served to company. The online and printed newsletter offers additional serving suggestions and they even pass along some excellent customer ideas. For example, one could assemble several of one particular menu item to serve at a larger event like a bridal shower or larger dinner party, so that the hostess need only worry about a few side dishes and beverages. Or bring one of these as your pot luck contribution, or pack them to give to those who are home-bound, or to give as gifts to new mothers.

Many organized working mothers have resorted to a marathon weekend day of cooking to create meals for the week ahead. Dream Dinners has taken this idea to the next level and turned it into a successful business. I wish I would have thought of it! As it is, the stores are available for franchising, and like many franchises, the look and concept from store to store will be identical. So look one up near you, or consider opening one yourself. It would benefit the rest of us who love this concept!

A coda: we normally try to take photos for these field trips and reviews, but we were told "no photos allowed." So you'll have to go to one yourself to see this in action! (No, we don't know why no photos allowed ...)

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