Cooking For the Freezer… With a Friend

For Lisa Donatelli of Cuyahoga Falls, nirvana is not a day at a spa, but dinner in the freezer.

“In my situation, as a Realtor, it is nothing out of the ordinary to be showing s from 5 to 8 p.m. Often you either miss dinner or end up making bad choices on the way for something quick to eat,” she said. “To know there is something healthy and already prepared at is wonderful.”

Donatelli spent one evening last week making dinner with four of her friends. They made 80 meals — enough to stock their refrigerators and freezers with 16 dinners each.

The women did not make the dinners in one of those new meal-assembly shops. They made them in my kitchen, in a do-it-yourself session with recipes developed for the project. Not only did they save money, they had a ball.

“I think what helped make this fun was the camaraderie of doing it with good friends,” said Anne Armao of Stow. “We have already said we would like to get together and do it again.”

For five days, the women and their families feasted on shrimp and pasta Alfredo, grilled chicken salad with toasted pecans and dried cranberries, chicken pot pie, Tex-Mex stuffed peppers, and mojo pork chops with saffron rice and mango salsa.

The project was designed as an alternative to commercial meal-assembly shops, which are popping up all over Northeast Ohio. The women were recruited through my Internet column, Second Helpings, to help show how anyone can put a quick meal on the table with a bit of planning and a little help from her friends.

Meal assembly is a booming field. About 40 to 50 shops open each month in the United States, according to Bert Vermeulen, director of the Easy Meal Prep Association, headquartered in Cheyenne, Wyo. Some units are part of growing national chains, such as My Girlfriend’s Kitchen and Super Suppers, while others are independently conceived and owned.

Susan DiPietro pioneered the concept in the area when she opened My Girlfriend’s Kitchen in North Canton in June. She didn’t have the market to herself for long, though. A second meal prep business, Dinner Plans, opened in nearby Jackson Township in November, and two more — Dinnertime Solutions in North Canton and Super Suppers in Medina Township — debuted last month. A fifth, Grab Your Apron, is scheduled to open in May in the Montrose area of Fairlawn.

“People are calling left and right. They just love the concept,” said Cristi Williams, who owns the local Super Suppers with her husband, Van.

“There’s going to be lot of consumer choice in a couple of years. They’re going to be opening all over the place,” said Tracey McCurrach, co-owner with Liz Timm of Grab Your Apron.

At the shops, customers choose the recipes they want to make and then go from counter to counter assembling the pre-chopped ingredients in disposable containers and pans. The uncooked meals are taken for freezing or cooking later in the week.

“It appeals to working moms, working couples and people who just don’t have time to prepare a meal — or the desire,” said April Bertram, owner of Dinner Plans. That includes senior citizens who don’t want to cook, children of seniors who order ready-made meals delivered to their parents, and groups of friends who schedule meal-assembly parties for showers or just a fun night out.

Most of the meal-prep shops charge about $200 for 12 dinners that feed four to six people each, or $110 for six meals. Some offer two-portion meals for singles and couples, and all of them will assemble the meals for you for an extra charge — usually about $45.

The menus change monthly at most shops, and can include anything from beef stew, jambalaya and fish tacos to chicken enchiladas and pork stir-frys. Jeff Hirko, who was a line chef at the Inn at Turner’s Mill, puts a slightly upscale spin on the recipes he offers at Dinnertime Solutions, an independent shop he owns with buddy Bert Smith. For example, his meat loaf is wrapped in puff pastry for meat loaf Wellington, and stuffed chicken breasts are napped with a lemon-caper sauce.

“They’re traditional dishes done one step beyond,” Hirko said.

That’s the pattern we followed for our do-it-yourself meal-prep party. Our five recipes are easy to make, but with interesting touches and fresh flavors. Stuffed peppers, for example, are given a Southwestern twist by adding cumin and oregano to the meat stuffing and topping the peppers with salsa and shredded Cheddar cheese.

Our recipes sound complicated, but they’re easy enough for a kitchen novice to make.

“I never would have picked out a recipe called `mojo pork chops with saffron rice and mango salsa,’ but only because it sounds much more complicated than it actually was to make,” said Armao, a busy health-care executive whose husband does most of the cooking for the couple and their daughter. “It was simple to make and delicious to eat.”

In addition to Armao and Donatelli, the cooks at our session were Nancie Smith of Wadsworth, a maker who cooks about five evenings a week for her husband and four children, ages 14 to 21; Kathy Lukity of Fairlawn, a nurse and care coordinator in the breast health center at Akron General Medical Center, who is married and has a grown daughter; and Janet McGregor of Richfield, a good cook who likes to make dinner for her husband and 10-year-old son. She is a part-time journalism instructor at the University of Akron.

Based on the five recipes, McGregor parceled out the shopping lists to the others, who arrived with bags of pre-chopped ingredients, already-cooked pasta and rice, and big bowls and measuring cups. Oh, and a couple of bottles of wine.

“Please remember what Lisa said in the middle of the evening — `What is said in Jane’s kitchen stays in Jane’s kitchen,”‘ McGregor warned at the end of the laughter-filled evening.

Those who want to gather their own friends for an evening of cooking and fun can use our recipes or choose five of their own. Appoint someone to coordinate recipes and shopping lists and buy the take- pans. Instruct the cooks to do as much of the chopping and pre-cooking in advance as possible. Assign each cook a recipe, but if one recipe requires more preparation than another, it’s OK to even out the chores. Also, one person could buy and chop the onions for all of the recipes, say, or bring the milk for all of the recipes instead of just her own.

The Beacon Journal paid for all of the ingredients here, but others may want to ask their friends to save their supermarket receipts, add up the costs of all the recipes, and even up the amount each person pays.

At our cooking session, each woman was assigned counter space and a recipe. Each one first rounded up all of the ingredients for her recipe from the boxes and bags she had brought, and then finished any prep work that was required. Lukity toasted the almonds and doctored up the bottled dressing for the salad. Donatelli seasoned and heated the Alfredo sauce, and removed the tails from the shrimp. McGregor shredded rotisserie chicken, made the sauce and assembled the pot pies.

Just for fun — and because they were hungry — the women cooked one of each entree for sampling. The meals were great.

“I’d make all of these recipes now that I’ve seen them,” Armao said. “I’d make any one of them.”

And you can, too, with a little help from your friends.

The following recipes were designed to be served over the course of a week. Serve the chicken salad first, then the shrimp Alfredo and then the mojo pork chops. The chicken pot pie and stuffed peppers are frozen for use at the end of the week.

Jane Snow is the Beacon Journal’s food writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3571 or Sign up for Jane’s free, weekly e-mail newsletter “Second Helpings” at

Originally published by the Akron Beacon Journal; Used by permission

About Mary Ann

Mary Ann Kelley has been creating meal plans online for over 15 years, first as part of TheHomeSchoolMom's cooking resources for busy moms and later on Menus4Moms, which has been highlighted by "Diner's Journal," The New York Times' Blog on Dining Out, and PBS Parents' "Kitchen Explorer."

Mary Ann loves cooking and she loves planning/organizing, so meal planning is a natural intersection of the two. She believes her mission for the meal plans is being fulfilled when visitors let her know that she has helped them save time and money by teaching them to plan ahead and become more efficient in the kitchen.

When Mary Ann is not cooking or publishing, she enjoys reading, researching genealogy, and traveling.

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