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How do we feel about Meal Assembly stores?? [moved from Home Cooking]

Has anyone been to one?

They are just coming to my area and i'm curious what people's experiences have been.

Are some franchises better than others? Is it worth it? Is the concept fun? Are the recipes interesting? is the food good and fresh? Are the entree's well priced???

Should this question be in general chowhounding, home cooking or chains???

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  1. I think that for some people who like to eat well but not cook its a great concept. My sister has done it and she says she'll definely go back. She doesn't have to shop for any ingredients or keep a stocked pantry and she doesn't have any mess to clean up. Plus theres never any good intentions in the fridge that rot b/c she doesn't use them If she did'nt do this she would spend a lot more money eating out so it's also a money saver for her and her hubby. Plus it's probably healthier.

    1. If it gets people who would normally just order take-out or pick up KFC for their families into the kitchen to cook "homemade" meals, then I think it's a great idea. Those of us comfortable in the kitchen and who enjoy the act of cooking probably won't ever find a need for such a franchise, but the idea isn't targeted towards us.

      I think if you look at the per person cost for the meals (obviously cheaper the more meals you buy at once) it's not cheaper than shopping for groceries yourself and cooking at home. But, again, it's aimed at people who don't want to go grocery shopping or spend time after work slicing and dicing. They want a dish they can just slip into the oven and have ready by the time a salad is made or something.

      As for freshness, I think one of the highlights is that you make a bunch of multi-serving dishes to store in the freezer throughout the month, so while the ingredients might be fresh when you create the box, it's not as fresh as if you had bought produce and meat at the store for dinner.

      1. I went to one of these with friends who are a working couple with two kids who live in the suburbs - she thought it was cool because all the prep was done.

        It wasn't for me, because I
        1/ like to think up what I am going to eat on the day
        2/ looove the hunt of getting the ingredients
        3/ didn't like how 'normal' the food was
        4/ was surprised at how expensive it was, per meal
        5/ would prefer any number of the great ethnic meals within a 5 minute walk of my house

        What I would love, is the use of an industrial kitchen once in a while, complete with a meat slicer, biiiig stock pots, etc.

        8 Replies
        1. re: orangewasabi

          I'll never end up going to one of these places but I'm interested in point 4. What is the breakdown in terms of cost per meal?

          1. re: orangewasabi

            Now, there's an idea I would support! Much like the rent-a-tractor places where you can rent the big garden and home power tools for a weekend, you could go to a place and spend a couple of hours making big batches of stock, pre-slicing meats, or using industrial-size ovens to make large batches of baked goods!

            I, for one, would love to be able to go in with a hunk of prime rib, thinly slice it, package them for freezing, and then have it all available for shabu shabu nights or fondues. The home food slicers aren't capable of slicing the frozen meat how I want and there's just no way I can afford a professional one!

            1. re: leanneabe

              That would be a great idea. My friends and I are always getting together to make things but no one has a big enough kitchen to accomodate so many people cooking. I've done this idea at my house where we prep everything and cook together but it's such a tight squeeze. We'd do it more often if we could rent a space.

              1. re: leanneabe

                Check with the butcher you buy meat from. A lot of times they will cut it for you at no extra charge - even some grocery stores do this as well.

                1. re: leanneabe

                  I agree with JIR, my butcher would do for me no questions asked. I once asked him to de-bone 20 cornish hens, and he did it.

                2. re: orangewasabi

                  orangewasabi - you took the words right out of my mouth. I don't know if I'd even have mentioned price, but certainly the other four points don't work for me.

                  To your last point, in my county it's difficult to do what you're suggesting regarding sharing a commercial kitchen because doing so has the potential of breaking several rules about food handling (licensing, etc.)

                  However, I'm of the belief that nobody really needs a living room anymore and that the ground floor of any two story home should just be a ginormous kitchen totally decked out with everything a CH needs, along with a great room with a table for eating, and a powder room. What more is really needed? Heck, a true CH wouldn't even need the great room ;-)

                  1. re: Panini Guy

                    Because nothing is cooked and is either frozen or refrigerated, many food handling laws are not applicable.

                    I do see this sort of franchise having a place and unfortunately it is helpful for many younger (i.e. in their 20's and early 30's) people I know. New, young parents who are fascinated with the whole conept of casseroles and cooking at home. Most grew up in a single parent home or with both parents working and their cooking knowlege consists of reading instructions on microwaving times.

                    If it gets families and young people to sit down at a table and converse while having a meal, then let it be. I see several different franchises in the newly built areas of town.

                    I also know of at least one franchise near me that will prepack and sell already assembled from their freezer, either in half portions or single portions. That actually works out well for someone in a temporary position to not be able to cook- living alone and with a small illness or just home from the hospital- and was less expensive than Meals on Wheels.

                3. I've done it. The assembly was fun, fast and efficient. The ingredients seemed to be of reasonable quality. The food tastes a little more bland than I'd like. I'm a competent cook, but am a person with limited time to shop, cook an elaborate meal, and clean-up on weeknights after work, after squeezing in everything else I need/want to do. I like the idea of having a pre-assembled meal for nights I'm too tired to cook. The problem is, you have to plan two days ahead to allow for most of the pre-assembled meals to defrost, which doesn't really solve the problem of, "Oh, I just got home from work and am too tired to cook TONIGHT, let me see what I have that's easy." It's just not flexible enough for me. For the evenings that I discover that I don't "have time" and want something more elaborate than my normal easy standby's like pasta, my preferred method of cheating in the kitchen is to swing by my local upscale grocer on my way home from work and pick up something from the fridge section where they've some a little more of the prep/seasoning, say, pre-marinated chicken or pre-seasoned fish, or even pick-up one of their roasted chickens... Otherwise, you might as well just cook.


                  1. Wish I had thought of it. Or - wish I had the balls to take out a loan & open one in a spot that isnt served yet.

                    1. Not for me

                      I love to shop, prep, and cook, and I have my wife to do all the dishes. I wouldnt like this option for meals because it looks expensive, and I hate frozen leftovers, which is essentially what this is. Also the menu choices from the link provided looked pretty institutional in nature.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: foodperv

                        Have to disagree on this note..........the one I eventually went to had entree's for $20-25 that served 4. Even Pizza is more than that per person.

                        1. re: MSK

                          I have to disagree with your disagreement here :) While cheaper than eating out, their entrees are much more expensive than most the meals I cook at home. I guess if you're someone who doesn't cook and would otherwise eat out, this'd be a way to save some money. I would think for most people on CH, though, who know how to and like too cook, this is not a great deal. I rarely spend five bucks a serving to feed my family, unless it's something really special (salmon, for instance), not the everyday dinner kind of food these places seem to have on their menus.

                          I am like lots of you, though-I like to cook and love to make a big batch of something and stock up my freezer with quart sized bags of bolognese sauce or lentil soup or white chicken chili or whatever.

                      2. I think its a GREAT idea. Anything that moves people away from KFC has my vote. After a few sessions, the people will either become a regular or decide to do it on their own. As for the pricing, it looks pretty reasonable for a six-pack meal in the $20-35 range.

                        1. My sister split the meals with a friend so a meal for 2 ended up costing around 12 dollars. They made a lot of different things too. One was an Argentine dish I can't remember the name of and two were fish preparations.
                          I love cooking and shopping and all the thinking that go into planning a meal but like I said above it works great for someone who wants a good meal without the hassle.

                          1. I love cooking myself, and enjoy everything that goes along with it including menu planning, grocery shopping, and all of the slicing and dicing and prep work (okay, maybe not the cleaning, but everything else). A good friend, however, really enjoyed a new chain nearby called Let's Dish, and invited my wife to join her there last Saturday. She came home with 8 prepared meals, 7 of which are still in the freezer, all for $95. Altogether, it's comparable in price to what we pay on average for our usual cooking from scratch. The one meal that we've eaten so far, a chicken stew with rosemary dumplings, was tastier than I'd expected it to be. And I expect that while we'll probably cook from scratch 3 or 4 times a week, we might mix in 1 or 2 meals from Let's Dish and reduce the amount of takeout we might otherwise eat.


                            1 Reply
                            1. re: BJK

                              I've tried them, and found it pretty easy, and a heck of a lot cheaper to do at home. savingdinner.com has the mega-mailer, which is 25 recipes and a shopping list to do the same thing at home...or check out Once a Month cooking, where you assemble and freeze a months worth of food at once. I do it--takes me three afternoons, about 8 hours total, and I've got dinner for a month (and most lunches from the leftovers) done. For example, the first afternoon I roasted four whole chickens, four pot roasts, and one crockpot of lemon garlic chicken. Two hours of prep and clean-up, the chickens took two hours in the oven (I went shopping while they cooked), the roasts the rest of the afternoon. Cut into dinner portions and pop in the freezer. The next day I worked on side dishes and rice dishes, along with soups/stews. I made Coq au Vin, Beef Bourginon, Triple Mushroom Bisque, Paella, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes and au gratin potatoes, and wild rice. Took me about 4 hours. The last day I made spaghetti sauce with meatballs, homemade frozen pizzas, and ravioli with shrimp in a cream sauce. Took me 2 hours.

                              I have one stove, one oven, a microwave and a crockpot. I am not naturally organized--I'm the definition of ADD. Each recipe was enough for 3-4 meals. I like to cook, so every Saturday I make something "big"--lasagna, chili, soup, stew, fajitas, etc, and freeze it. Or I'll make a breakfast dish my kids love and freeze extras--like muffins, waffles, etc. I have so much variety in my freezer--I go to the freezer every morning, select something for dinner, thaw it and pop it in the oven/microwave half an hour before dinner. No cooking, very little cleanup during the month. And I've saved $100 off my grocery bill because I know what we're eating all month, there aren't all those trips to the store to get stuff I forgot, and we're eating healthier because healthy dinners are already made.

                              I hope that helps someone!

                            2. The independent one across from my place of business is doing bang up business from the looks of it. I find their menus dead boring myself and largely basic variations on ground beef casserole-y type things, chicken breasts, pasta, or pork chops. My family's tastes are too varied (fish, lamb, and other "oddities" are great favorites) and I get too much personal satisfaction from putting a creative, well-prepared meal on the table to want to use one. It's just not for me.

                              But it gets a non-cook to serve healthy food that didn't come from a drive-through, then more power to them.

                              1. I did finally go to one in my area and & I would vote it a B-. The choices for entrees were pretty good..nothing that I felt I could not do on my own. I found 4 entrees that I was interested in trying. Assembly was almost too easy. My friends & I were out of there in less than 45 minutes.The website showed people drinking wine and having a grand old time as if it were more like a cooking class party. I have to say it felt a bit remedial.

                                I really enjoy cooking and shop practically every day (My family is busy so it's hard to know from day to day how many will be at the table and when.... so it's difficult to plan ahead) and I know my meal is always fresh. My fall back (no brainer) family meal is a salad, grill a pre-marinaded meat/fish/chicken from Whole Foods or a specialty market with some steamed veggies. It seems just as easy as this whole procedure.

                                I also rarely use formal recipes otherwise and tend to kind of "wing it" on my own. This cannot happen in a meal assembly type store. There's not much flexibility in the recipes or portions.

                                I'll add that the friends that I went with both work more than full time and by the time they get home in the evening, they don't have a lot of prep time. This is a perfect scenerio for them. They can have a home prepared, interesting menu on the table in a short period of time without having to shop or plan very far ahead.

                                I also thought it would be great option for my son in college who could split cost of a dinner with his housemates and not have to worry about shopping ahead of time. This makes me fell better knowing he might be consuming something other than Pizza, burritos and grilled cheese.

                                I don't think I will go going back often but I will say that it is nice to know that I do have some healthy options in the freezer when I'm in a pinch.

                                When I originally posted this topic, I was new to the idea and was seriously considering buying a franchise to start in my area. Now that I've visited, I doubt I will but understand that such an establishment has it's place.

                                1. All the comments here are valid. It truly depends on your personal situation. I love to cook, grocery shop, and try new things so this wouldn't work for me. I think the meals are somewhat more expensive than what you can make on your own and freeze (which I do a lot of). However, my daughter loves this concept. She has a young family, detests making a kitchen mess, but wants an alternative to take out and eat out. She has also used these meals to help out friends during times of stress or bereavement. Perfect for that.

                                  1. One of the original questions was a good one: Any difference between the chains? An Entree Vous just moved in to my area. I am likely to give it a shot.

                                    1. I used them once, and while they are convenient, I was disappointed with the limited flavors.

                                      My older sister who never liked to be in the kitchen loves them. They are convenient and easy. She used to live on boxes mixes and prepared food, so they are great way for her to put a quick nutritious meals on the table for her family.

                                      There is 1 around the corner from my daughters apt. at college, and she likes it. She and her suite-mates can go there for a couple of hours on a weekend afternoon and have a weeks worth of meals in the freezer ready to heat and eat.

                                      1. Bumping, I know!

                                        I am a crazy food head, but MOn-Thursday - the last thing I want to do is "think" about dinner. If I get into one of my creation modes, we are not eating til 10PM. So, I tried this out at the urging of a friend. I really enjoyed Social Suppers - I buy it ASSEMBLED. I do not go into the shop - it's only $2 more and if you order a certain number then it's $0! However, if you have 1 hr. go for it.

                                        OK - so, yes, the options are generic.. - stuffed porkchops, lemon chicken, parm. chicken, shrimp with orzo....but, I make the sides and we're done! You can buy sides, but I find they are too expensive for what they are.

                                        We get "half " portions - so 3 servings for DH and I. perfect.
                                        The lemon rosemary chicken was $11 for 3 breasts. Not organic, but it was very tasty. Can't beat it for us.
                                        I agree w/ jfood - anything that keeps people away from McD's and KFC - go for it. !