Saving Time and Money with Meal Assembly Kitchens

This weekend I didn’t get any sewing done, but I did get to Quick Time Meals to assemble a batch of 12 entrees to get our household through another crunch period at work for me. Chris and I rolled up to the store ready to yank on our rubber gloves and tie our aprons for the next hour and a half, but Amy and Bruce, the fabulous owners of Quick Time, had already assembled and packaged all of our entrees for us, and all we had to do was load up our laundry basket and drive it home to the freezer.

Nice!

I cooked up the yummy Spicy Southern Gumbo immediately and divvied it up into smaller containers before storing half of it in the freezer as recommended, but everything else got to go into cold storage immediately.

Quick Time and similar meal assembly kitchen services like Dream Dinners and Super Suppers run between $215-$280 for an order of 12 entrees of six servings each (though people who are doing smaller portions a la Body-for-Life can typically squeeze 8 servings out of each entree), which may or may not be a savings for your household depending on whether you do the bulk of your own meal prep and cooking or if you dine out frequently. As I mentioned in my previous review of Quick Time Meals, Chris and I just about match the cost of 100% home prep by going once every 6 weeks or so for a full load of 12 entrees and supplementing each week with fresh produce, juice, milk, eggs, and cereal. More importantly, we save a lot of time, which is always at a premium for me in the months immediately leading up to a game project’s beta date.

Besides, the cooking directions for each entree are so easy that even Chris can manage them without inadvertently reproducing the Invention of Charcoal.

My sister is using Dream Dinners out in Pasadena, and reports that their meals are so tasty that she would rather eat at home than go out for a restaurant meal. (She was falling into the same habit of nuking chicken and veggies that I had been complaining about, so I told her give a meal assembly kitchen a try two weeks ago.) Dream Dinners is a national franchise with locations in many states, a centralized online order system, and very organized, slick promotional materials, menus, and full nutritional stats.

I also gave Dream Dinners a test run last weekend by purchasing an intro package of 3 entrees for $49.50 at their Altamonte Springs location. As my sister mentioned, their meals are very tasty, and their nutritional stats are excellent with most servings coming in at 200-275 calories with at least 20 g of protein. However, Dream Dinners is the most expensive of the three services I’ve mentioned, averaging $260-$280 for 12 entrees depending on which meals you select. Seafood and red meat-based entrees cost $5-$8 more than chicken entrees. All of those franchise marketing materials, store design, healthy stats, and branding don’t come cheap.

Super Suppers, which I have yet to try (I have signed up for a free SS 101 intro session on Saturday, August 18, which comes with an introduction to how the store works and a free entree to take home), is another national chain of meal assembly kitchens with decent coverage in many states. Their prices in my area are $230 for 12 entrees, or $130 for 6 entrees. I could tell just by looking at their current menu items that their stats would not be so fitness lifestlye-friendly, even before I checked out their nutritional information page–way too much white pasta, bread, and cheap fillers going on for a clean diet, but perhaps those items are kept on the side and can be subbed out at home for better choices. I’ll give a full report after my intro visit.

Quick Time Meals, unfortunately, is not a national chain, so unless you live in the central Florida area, you are out of luck. They lack the franchise support and glossy flyers of the other two companies, but they are still my current favorite because:
a) I like to support local small businesses when I can
b) 12 entrees are just $215 (or $194 if you pick up a discounted Restaurant.com $25 gift certificate for the 12 entree pack for $4)
c) Their nutritional stats have improved greatly since my last order in May
d) Their recipes are tasty!
e) Ultimately, I am paying for time savings and FOOD, not marketing materials and franchise fees.

I encourage other busy parents, couples, and singletons with a restaurant habit of over $100/month who want to eat well, save time, and cut their food costs to do some research in their own towns and give their local meal assembly kitchens a try for a month or two. In an ideal world, I would have time and space to grow all of my own produce and prepare healthy, restaurant quality meals from scratch for myself and my husband for under $1.00 a serving, but realistically, this is not something I can do while still working in video game development and commuting 40 minutes each way on a daily basis. I’m willing to compromise on my extreme tightwad ways with food until this situation changes because sometimes your personal enrichment time IS worth a bit more than money.

Here is a final tip to get the biggest bang for your buck at a meal assembly kitchen: Stock up on frozen fish filets, lean beef, and chicken breast when they go on sale and extend your entrees by adding extra protein portions. There is usually enough sauce/marinade for at least two extra protein portions.

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