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Meal Assembly Shop Dishes Out On-the-Run Dinners

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Between take-out, dining out and microwave meals, some lament the demise of simple acts like peeling and chopping. People are not too busy to cook, but too lazy, the argument goes, especially when it comes to the front-end chores like schlepping to the supermarket or scrounging through the cabinet for the right herbs. For foodie and Healthy Habits Kitchen owner Sue Schochet, a happy medium between home cooking and the drive thru is fix-and-freeze, entrees that are made ahead of time, then defrosted and served for quick meal prep. She claims that these pre-planned meal kits – how about Baked Coconut Shrimp with Orange Jalapeno Dipping Sauce? – preserve the traditional family meal time while still expanding culinary horizons. “You’re still using raw ingredients and fresh spices to cook, and some say it’s made it less intimidating to try new dishes,” said Schochet, who started the Wellesley meal assembly kitchen five years ago as the answer to “what’s for dinner.”

While easy meal prep stores haven’t been an easy sell for consumers, with many franchises disappearing during the economic downturn, Schochet has been peddling the meal-assembly concept at local farmer’s markets, adding delivery options, and partnering with corporations and non-profits. Meals, which average about $5 a serving, are packaged in simple brown box with an instruction label on each kit, containing chopped veggies, pre-made sauces and toppings, and other ingredients. A former corporate executive, Schochet started Healthy Habits after being laid off from her finance job, and said that the learning curve was getting recipes to restaurant quality and learning to market and distribute products in a completely different industry.

Q: How is this a time-saving idea?
A: If you were to make marinated steak tips, for example, you’d have to first find a recipe you like, then run to the grocery store, buy the ingredients, marinate and cook or grill, and then clean up afterwards. Steak tips can require lots of spices – red wine, soy sauce, garlic, rosemary, Worcestershire sauce – just to name a few. But we can pre-assemble all this, which requires us to layout 15 bowls in our commercial kitchen in an assembly line process. All you need to do is open the ziplock bags of meat, brown rice, and vegetables, and then thaw, cook, and serve.

Q: How do you develop the recipes?
A: In the beginning, I’d test the recipes with family and friends. I’ll get ideas from my family collection, magazines, and cooking shows, or other places; one customer mentioned a mahi mahi with a granola topping, and I researched and figured out the recipe. There are certain ingredients that won’t freeze well – eggplants will get mushy, as other vegetables that have a lot of water. All meals are under 400 calories per serving and 30% fat or less, so I also have our dietician do a nutritional analysis.

Q: With so many different palates, how do you come up with a menu that pleases everyone?
A: It’s not easy, because sometimes there can be a gap between kid-friendly and gourmet, but with 12 different choices every month, there’s something for everyone. One all-time favorite is lemon curry chicken, which has a little honey, curry, and golden raisins for a sweet and savory taste. Other favorite dishes are nacho turkey burgers with crushed tortilla chips and bloody mary steak tips, which is like a bite of this favorite drink. The kids love the cheese stuffed meatballs and pretzel-crusted chicken.

Q: What are some ways in which meal prep can be more time consuming than people realize?
A: The heavy lifting takes place with not just the shopping for ingredients, but also finding the right recipe, something that is unique as well as healthy. Many cooks also find that buying different herbs and spices also can be pricy.

Q: What cooking show inspires you?
A: Rachel Ray is one of my favorites. She twists up the average meal quite nicely.

Q: When you go home tonight, what will you have for dinner?
A: I might grill some chicken and put in a little tomato sauce. My new pet food is kale chips, made by baking the leaves with olive oil until nice and crispy.

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