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Wrap it up, we'll take it

Forget about your mother's home-cooked meals. You can find her meat loaf -- or someone's mother's meat loaf -- at takeout shops all over town.

Dinner now comes in paper bags, in plastic wrap and containers, and in anything else that will get it to your supper table without spills. Who has time to cook? After work or a busyday running around, many consumers don't want to hunt down hard-to-find ingredients, then stand at the stove making dinner.

Fast food and restaurant takeout were already popular alternatives, but now more places than ever are offering ready-made meals. You can find dinner to go in supermarkets, specialty markets, and wine or liquor stores. These takeout items are fancier and more appealing than ever: Mexican and Middle Eastern specialties are side by side with Chinese soups, grilled vegetables, and all kinds of grain and pasta salads.

How did we go from Mom making meat loaf to everyone buying "Mom's meat loaf"? As more Americans queue up at the takeout counter, researchers are pondering this question. "It's part of the industrialization of our food supply," explains James E. Tillotson, a food policy and international business professor at Tufts University who has been studying the effects of takeout and fast food on the American population. "In [industrialized] countries, fewer and fewer people are involved in food preparation," he says.

Some observers point to Americans' ever-changing tastes and preferences. In the 1990s, the trend was health. Now it's convenience. And for many now, it's both health and convenience. Supermarkets and smaller shops, always looking to increase their customer base, adapted this idea, placing ready-to-eat foods not far from the produce section and the meat counter. Of course, these dishes are more expensive than buying the raw ingredients and cooking yourself, but that doesn't seem to be stopping people.

Philip Dirago knows this. He was one of the six chefs who created the menu at Zathmary's, the gourmet market, when it first opened in Needham four years ago (it has since added a Brookline location and plans to open in Boston soon). Before Zathmary's, Dirago worked at Nature's Heartland.

Now, as executive chef at A. Russo & Sons in Watertown, Dirago is in charge of the farmstand's prepared foods section, which opened about one year ago. Every morning, he and three chefs begin at 6, cooking rotisserie chickens, pasta salads, broccolini and mushrooms, pizzas, eggplant parmigiana, and many other dishes, most with Italian flavors. "Our

focus is on the family," says Dirago. All successful takeout counters have something to appeal to children. There are often big bowls of mashed potatoes and simple grilled chicken dishes. But at shops with a lot of traffic, you see families -- and everyone else. Michael Zathmary, owner of the stores that bear his name, says that his typical customer is a busy professional, soccer mom, or student. "There are no more 9-to-5 jobs," he says. "People don't have time to cook." Co-owner Steve Mayes says the Brookline store gets about 6,000 customers per week; two out of three customers order takeout, the remainder sit in a 49-seat cafe.

Whole Foods Market has also been relying on takeout for a significant portion of its business. Steven Goldberg, the director of prepared foods for the North Atlantic region, which includes New England and the newly opened London-area stores, has seen the changes firsthand. More people are choosing exotic but quick to eat "hand-held" foods, such as Mexican quesadillas, Vietnamese spring rolls, and Indian samosas. "People are so busy," he says. They'll go for "anything they can eat in the car."

Goldberg thinks that customers aren't buying as many nostalgia dishes as they did after 9/11. But the demand for ethnic foods has increased. "Now that [comfort foods] have subsided a bit," Goldberg says, "people are definitely back into trying new items, new flavors."

Grocery stores aren't the only ones that offer quick meals. Marty's Liquors in Newton serves up a long list of sandwiches, condiments, and entrees, ranging from lamb with a pomegranate glaze to meat loaf. The takeout counter has been a fixture in the store since it opened in 1985.

With the ever expanding offerings, the idea is always to make things easier for the consumer. Time has never been a more precious commodity. Nearly 50 percent of Americans' food budget is spent on foods cooked outside of the home, according to the US Department of Agriculture. And, on average, consumers eat out for dinner at least once a week, according to the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade group.

At Zathmary's in Brookline last week, shoppers said they felt too rushed to cook. "The reality is there's not enough time," said 26-year-old Boston University law student Sidd Pattanayak, as he was about to purchase a rotisserie chicken and mashed potatoes.

Another shopper had similar feelings. Kristin Daley, 25, who says she gets takeout a few times a month, arrived home too late to cook. "I'm taking a break from cooking tonight," said Daley, who was cradling plastic containers of Asian noodle salad and sesame chicken.

Fatigue is another reason to let someone else do the cooking. At Russo's, Fran Osten, an instructor at Lesley College, said she relies on prepared foods, buying them a few times a week. In her shopping cart: fresh vegetables and a white paper bag with a moist rotisserie chicken inside. "I'm tired after work," she says.

At Shaw's flagship market at the Prudential Center, Amanda Friend, a 30-year-old waitress from Newton who works nights at a restaurant in Boston, eagerly pointed to the cold chicken marsala and Oriental noodle salad behind the lighted glass of the

prepared foods counter. Just a decade ago, the store's La Carte section offered 75 items. Now it offers close to 250. Given the selection, Friend says, there's little reason to cook. One expert agrees with that sentiment. Takeout might mean that the next generation has no culinary skills, predicts Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a market research company in Chicago. "Cooking will become a recreational activity," says Balzer. "Maybe 100 years out, our great-great-grandchildren will ask you, `You mean you cooked?' "

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