Fast Food That Isn't 

Ladies and gentlemen, stock your freezers

For a growing number of people it's easier to get dinner for the family from Taco Bell or Applebee's than it is to prepare a nourishing meal from scratch. According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans spend about half of their food dollars away from home. But growing concern among consumers over the low-quality, heavily processed and nutritionally empty foods served at most fast food and casual dining restaurants is causing many folks to re-evaluate their dinnertime dining habits.

Fortunately, it is possible to gain an hour for dinner at the end of the workday by utilizing your freezer. The hottest new option is to go to one of the "make-and-take" facilities, where all of the shopping, chopping and menu planning are done for you, and the average $3 cost per serving can't be touched by most restaurants. Bring a few friends and it becomes a party; bring a lot of friends and you'll be rewarded with free food. Or you can do what full-time homemakers have been doing for decades—freezer cooking—and stock your freezer with your own home-cooked meals. Whether you buy a little help or do it all yourself, both methods yield a higher quality product than what you get from Mickey D's or Sizzler.

Nationwide about 130 different companies compete in the hot new "make-and-take" market. Three popular franchises have outlets in the Treasure Valley: Dinners Ready, Dream Dinners and Super Suppers. The concept is a modern twist on the homemaker's freezer cooking method, except the company does the menu planning and has all the ingredients chopped and arranged at stations for you. You simply schedule a session, show up and assemble your meals, pack 'em into bags or dishes, slap a sticker with cooking instructions on each meal and pop them all into the freezer as soon as you get home. Doing a session with friends "reminded me of a Tupperware party," explains Beth Meade, a married, working mother with two teenage sons at home. "It's fun because your friends are there and there's a great sense of camaraderie." From both a nutritional and economic standpoint, "it's much better than eating out at fast food places," says Meade.

At every facility, meals generally serve a family of six. The cost varies from store to store, but locally you can expect to pay between $110 and $135 for six meals and $189 to $215 for a dozen. While most "make-and-takes" lock you into a set number of meals (usually six or 12), Dinners Ready and the local independent Meals in Moments are flexible with the number of meals you can make. While menus vary between companies, all of them change monthly. For an added fee, some stores will assemble your meals for you so you can swing by and pick them up, and a few will even deliver them to your home. Super Suppers has "grab-and-go" entrees in their on-site freezer. I grabbed one of their wild salmon fillet and rice pilaf dinners ($24) for my own family and was pleasantly surprised. While my husband sipped a beer and grilled the fish on the BBQ, I tossed a salad together and reheated the pilaf in the microwave. We had dinner on the table in less than a half-hour. And the quality of our frozen meal was far superior to that of a typical, preservative-laden frozen entree from the grocery store.

Both Super Suppers and Dream Dinners offer incentives to motivated hostesses who recruit their friends for a "make-and-take" party. At Super Suppers, drinks, hors d'oeuvres and door prizes are provided for a party of 12 guests, and the hostess gets one free entree for every 12 dinners ordered. Dream Dinners has a Sneak Peek party in which you and eight to 20 guests each assemble one free dinner to take home. Anyone who signs up for a 12-meal session gets a 13th dinner free, and the hostess earns one free dinner for each guest who signs up for the 12-meal package.

At home, freezer cooking can also be a dinnertime helper and is easily adaptable to the amount of time and money you can commit. At the low end of the commitment spectrum, you can simply double or triple an entree you planned to make anyway, serve one portion for dinner and freeze the remaining portion(s) for future meals. Do this once a week and you'll soon have a supply of homemade dinners on hand. At the other end of the spectrum, you can devote three solid days to shopping, chopping, cooking, packaging and loading a month's worth of meals into the freezer. Sound daunting? "It isn't really that hard," says Susan Wallace, a home schooling mother of five. The beauty of cooking in bulk, she says, is, "there are so many ingredients you use over and over for different recipes throughout the month. It's easier to do all the slicing and chopping at one time." Wallace lightens her load by having her husband and children help. In addition to the savings from purchasing food in bulk, she says, "You gain an extra hour and a half a night that you don't have to spend preparing dinner."

Numerous books have been written about freezer cooking. Wallace likes Dinner's in the Freezer: More Mary and Less Martha by Jill Bond, which outlines marathon cooking sessions. Other books are more flexible, like Don't Panic—Dinner's in the Freezer: Great-Tasting Meals You Can Make Ahead by Susie Martinez and the Frozen Assets series by Deborah Taylor-Hough. Yet, as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. "What's crazy," says Wallace, smiling, "is you do all this work and order pizza anyway." Meade adds, "It works great as long as my husband remembers to pull dinner from the freezer." On the days that do go right, "it's easy to throw a salad together," says Meade, and have dinner on the table quickly without resorting to fast food.

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