Gourmet cuisine. Healthy fare. Easy-to-prepare meals. When it comes to home cooking, these are usually exclusive categories.
Three companies in the area are out to change that: Dream Dinners in North Andover, Let's Dish in Burlington, and Super Suppers in Windham, N.H. All are franchises of national chains specializing in in-store meal preparation.
The concept is similar at all three: Moving preparation out of home kitchens and into specially equipped stores, they promise to cut the time and expense of planning menus, buying food, and preparing meals.
The prepared entrees - intended to serve four to six adults, and in most cases divisible into two smaller meals - can be frozen for up to several months.
Chefs at the companies aim for recipes that fit into a healthy diet (all offer nutritional data on their websites). And, through bulk purchasing, the meals are often cost-effective, with most entrees running $3 to $5 per serving.
I visited the franchises in January, asking the proprietors to choose four meals from that month's menu. I invited some friends to help sample and judge the food.
Dream Dinners opened two years ago in North Andover (1211 Osgood St.; 978-688-1615; dreamdinners.com). Locations have since opened in Danvers, Shrewsbury, and West Boylston, as well as in Bedford and North Hampton, N.H.
Dream Dinners' strength is fare that appeals to a broad range of palates. The flavors, while vivid, won't scare meat-and-potatoes eaters.
A glazed turkey loaf - moist ground turkey made crunchy and attractive with diced-vegetable confetti and then topped with a sweet sauce - was devoured by my taste-tester friends' picky 3-year-old.
The Thai peanut coconut chicken, rendered vegetarian with a soy substitute, was delicious, although by Thai standards the peanut flavor was a bit muted.
Instructions at each meal-prep station are easy to follow. Unlike the other two establishments, Dream Dinners keeps all meat frozen to prevent contamination.
Compared to its competitors' flat per-meal fees, Dream Dinners' pricing structure is complex. Each meal costs a different amount, ranging in the current menu from $19.78 to $28.88 for an entree that serves six - so unlike Let's Dish or Super Suppers, you'll pay more for shrimp or beef than for chicken or pork.
While very accommodating for couples looking to make smaller meals, Dream Dinners is the least flexible of the three local franchises when it comes to scheduling. You must register online for a session, and there are no ready-made meals in freezers for on-the-spot purchase.
Located amid the retail constellation surrounding the Burlington Mall, the Let's Dish location in Burlington (82 Mall Road; 781-221-2244; letsdish.com) and its sister store in Needham represent the first New England franchises of Minnesota-based Let's Dish.
The establishment's look is fresh and youthful, its flavors adventurous and nuanced. I was impressed by the fresh, top-quality ingredients, which made every one of the four entrees I sampled exceptional.
In the sage chicken with golden rice, fresh sage leaves intensified the flavor of an herbed sauce. Served over a bed of rice that was itself fragrant with golden raisins and marmalade, the dish's overall flavor was sublime, coming off as something much fancier and more difficult to make.
For the garlic herb salmon, a beautiful fresh salmon steak was rubbed with a simple mixture of garlic, rosemary, thyme, and salt. Wrapped in a foil pouch in which it was later baked at home, this dish was easy and mess-free. Equally easy was the delicious and hearty curried vegetable stew, which took less than five minutes to prepare in the store.
Finally, the fusion pork tenderloin, coated with curry, coconut, and panko and served with a plum-ginger dipping sauce, was moist and luscious.
Patrons can sign up for a specific hour or for flex sessions, which allow meals to be prepared anytime within a several-hour window. The in-store instructions were clear, but I sometimes wished for more precision than the "dash" of spices called for in some recipes.
As part of a focus on hygiene, all "dishers" must wear baseball caps or bandanas, which upon arrival are almost forcibly placed upon the head. Let's Dish may not be for the elaborately coiffed.
Super Suppers arrived in Windham (4 Cobbetts Pond Road; 603-890-0119; supersuppers.com) in September, following a store in Westborough, Mass., as the second franchise in Greater Boston.
The Windham site is open from Tuesday to Saturday with no appointment required.
As at Let's Dish, a well-stocked freezer near the front of the store caters to walk-in customers. A cornucopia of ready-made items beckons, including dishes from the current menu as well as those popular during previous months. Many are packaged in stackable foil pans, easier to store at home than the freezer bags favored by Dream Dinners and Let's Dish.
Super Suppers touts its affiliation with the Culinary School of Fort Worth, but its meals were a distinct cut below those at Dream Dinners or Let's Dish.
All four entrees were extremely salty, although according to Super Suppers' nutritional data, the sodium content was on a par with meals from its two competitors.
It's possible the saltiness was partly my fault, as I did find Super Suppers' instructions difficult to follow. More likely, I think, was that the busy lists of ingredients in the entrees resulted in flat flavor profiles where no single taste was strong enough to counterbalance the salt.
An example was the potato-crusted tilapia, whose half-inch-thick breading, including crushed potato chips, assorted dried herbs, and two kinds of bread crumbs, lacked complexity or nuance.
I had fun making the spinach and feta braided bread, rolling out and shaping the dough before stuffing it with a bevy of Mediterranean ingredients. But while the bread looked delicious, its filling was gluey, dominated by too much ricotta and not enough savory ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes and olives.