Cooking out, eating in

perplexed by what to make for dinner? Stores like Dream Dinners help busy people prepare meals ready to heat at home.

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 website to select a time and date along with the meals they'd like to prepare - herb-crusted flank steak, perhaps, or chicken mirabella. When they arrive at the session, ingredients have been carefully doled out 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 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 their success. Dream Dinners now has 115 stores in 19states, 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 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 have even donned their black aprons, before they've been inducted by owner Ann Marie Parness, Ms. Sills has already assembled her first dinner. (A set of 12 doesn't take her longer than an hour and a half - 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. They are busy, each one, 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.

But 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 US Department of Health and Human Services - it's become harder to find the 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. And, of course, many crave an idyllic domesticity borrowed from the set of 1950s sitcoms: two parents, a couple of kids, 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 called for just one spoonful - customers say it's affordable.

But 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," says Professor Counihan.

Cameron Stracher, a New York Law School professor who is researching a book about his experience cooking for his two children, says that "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 will really slow them down.

Nonetheless, for Stracher, 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 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 - the mother and daughter - huddle near the refrigerator before they leave, mapping out their choices for a joint return trip in September. Tonight they split six meals between them. But two of the recipes couldn't be halved, says Kathy, "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 meals they want to prepare. Menus change monthly with a few signature dishes reappearing. The cost is around $200 for 12 and $120 for six meals.

AUGUST MENU SAMPLES:

Dream Dinners (19 states)

www.dreamdinners.com

Crispy coconut chicken
Herb-crusted flank steak
Mom's macaroni and beef

Super Suppers (22 states)

www.supersuppers.com

Corn and black bean chicken salad
Bacon-wrapped ground-beef steaks
Herb-crusted salmon cakes

My Girlfriend's Kitchen (four states)

www.mygirlfriendskitchen.com

Everybody lemon chicken tonight!
Lula's sassy Cajun kebabs
Orange you glad pork chops

For this reporter, a sticky situation

The Dream Dinners menu for August is meat heavy, and I'm a vegetarian. So I prepared bread pudding - "Breakfast Bread Pudding" it's called, though it's as much a dessert as anything.

The instructions - which sat above a measuring bowl, whisk, and bins of apples, cubes of bread, cinnamon, and sugar - couldn't have been clearer.

Still, I managed to miss the first step and didn't coat my pans with non-stick spray. At home, however, I baked it to rave reviews - and nothing stuck.

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