The concept of dinner assembly line didn't make much sense to mewhen I first heard about it eight years ago in Phoenix. Maybethat's because that was the year my six-year-old refused to eatanything but chicken and Cheerios. I didn't have to plan meals allthat much.
As his pediatrician predicted, he grew out of that phase. Hispalate has, thankfully, expanded and my schedule is even crazierthan it was back then. So I found myself driving by Alaska DinnerFactory occasionally and wondering if there might be something tothe idea after all. For those of us who juggle jobs, activities andfamily, it actually makes a lot of sense to eliminate the Whatshall I make for dinner? conundrum.
The concept at Alaska Dinner Factory, located in a strip mallnear the post office off of Lake Otis, is similar to that of otherdinner assembly businesses throughout the United States. This oneis independently owned, but the idea surfaced in Washington Statein 2002. Since then, the niche has grown to a 300 million dollar ayear industry and includes Lower 48 franchises, like Dream Dinners,which boasts 105 stores.
Basically, customers peruse monthly online menus of more than adozen dishes, select which and how many of these they would like toprepare (ranging from three six-serving meals for $80 up to 12 for$245), and book a prep session.
There are a few rules to be followed. Alaska Dinner Company asksthat you don't show up sick or with small children, that you washyour hands, obey the honor system when it comes to measuring youringredients, cook your meals as directed, cancel with ampleopportunity-and have fun. All of which seemed like terms I couldlive with, so I whipped out my credit card and pulled up theirwebsite.
November's menu offered a number of items that sounded likegreat options for my family, and included nutritional informationas well. I contemplated baked bruschetta chicken, Riviera pork loinand beef bourguignon before finally settling on Mediterranean potroast, squash raviolis with sausage and cream sauce, and Thaichicken and rice with peanut sauce.
I booked a six to eight p.m. session on a Thursday and headedover after work. The setting is homey, with wood floors, darkchocolate walls, welcoming couches, hooks for coats and wickerbaskets for ladies' purses. I was instructed to put on an apron anda hat or bandana, and wash my hands.
Then it was on to the prep stations, similar to a deli sandwichstation, where the friendly staff walked me through the process.You don a pair of gloves, line a crock with a Zip-Loc bag, andfollow written instructions, using measuring scoops to ladle outportions of the different ingredients. Smaller families have theoption of making two three-portion servings instead of one largesix-portion. Once your meal is complete, which in each case took meless than five minutes, you place it in an individually labeledspace in the refrigerator as you move on to the next dish, leavingyour measuring cups and spoons and whatever else you have dirtiedat your station. The staff cleans up behind you. I really lovedthat part.
Fifteen minutes after I started, I walked out of their door witha box full of three meals and a real sense of relief that I didn'thave to think about what to feed everyone for at least a fewdays.
The first dish my family and I tried was squash raviolis fromAlaska Pasta Factory with a sausage cream sauce. Although I lovedthe raviolis with their sweet orange centers, I wasn't wild aboutthe sausage-those little frozen sausage clusters you find on frozenpizzas-but my family didn't seem to care and wolfed it down.
The next day, actually the next morning at 7 a.m., I emptied thecontents of my second bag into the slow cooker and set off forwork. When I returned, the Mediterranean pot roast with Italianspices, olives and stewed tomatoes was perfectly cooked anddelicious. The beef (from Mr. Prime Beef) was succulent and savory.Granted, throwing meat and veggies into a slow cooker is notexactly complicated, but finding the motivation to pull ingredientstogether during the pre-dawn race to get ready for work and schoolcan be daunting.
Our third meal is one my son took one bite of and requested itbe duplicated immediately and often. That was the rice withchicken, peas and Thai peanut sauce, a very simple recipe that Ispiced up a bit with a liberal dose of sriracha; otherwise all Ihad to do on my end was cook the rice and mix it all together.
Each meal cost $4.45 a serving, and the more you prepare persession the lower the per-serving price drops. In any case it'scheaper than take-out or fast food, uses locally sourcedingredients in relatively healthy recipes, and encourages busyfamilies to actually eat a home-cooked meal together. I wouldn'tclassify anything I tried or saw on the menu as gourmet, but I'llsave my Martha Stewart culinary pageantry for the weekends andpronounce Alaska Dinner Factory as a definite good thing.