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Assembly line sells shortcut to dinner

Instead of turning to a cookbook to plan meals for the week, Jennifer Ryan got into her car and headed to the just-opened Dream Dinners on Edgell Road in Framingham.

There, she went about preparing chicken mirabella, with chicken marinated in white wine, oregano, prunes, olives, and chopped garlic already laid out at a work station.

A mother of six children, ages 11 months to 11 years, Ryan, of Framingham, was already a pro at assembling meals away from home, because she has been a regular customer at the Milford location of Dream Dinners for the past year. She's willing to pay between $13 and $20 per meal, which feeds four to six people. The convenience, she says, is worth it.

''For a mom on the go, it's ideal," said Ryan, who kept an eye on her 11-month-old daughter in a stroller as she measured out spices and poured them into a plastic bag containing six chicken breasts. ''I've got 12 meals for the next few weeks. . . . It's a cost savings because I don't have to go buy the ingredients, and instead of going to McDonald's after hockey, I know there's something healthy waiting at home."

Dream Dinners, a national franchise that began in Seattle, is one of a growing number of food assembly businesses -- a twist on prepared food that includes a major do-it-yourself element.

Customers make reservations to prepare a menu of meals on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. Upon arrival, they don an apron, wash their hands, and get to work. They rotate through a number of food preparation stations, each dedicated to a particular entree.

Step-by-step instructions for each dish are posted, and all ingredients are already chopped, prepared, and laid out by Dream Dinners employees.

Customers measure and pour the ingredients into plastic containers (Don't like one of the spices offered? No problem. Take less, or leave it out entirely). They then mark each completed meal with a label containing printed cooking instructions. The meals go home to be cooked that night or frozen for later.

A list of entrees changes monthly, and customers must purchase at least six entrees -- usually spending $120 to $200 for the lot.

A Dream Dinners session generally takes one to two hours, and employees are on hand to answer questions and clean up.

Dream Dinners is part of a national trend that has seen food assembly outlets springing up around the country in recent years. Companies like Let's Eat and Dinner Done, both in Tampa, Simply Dinners in Tucson, Let's Dish in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium, Md., and Supper Thyme USA, with several locations in the upper Midwest, offer similar services.

Aside from restaurant takeout and the prepared foods section of the grocery store, Dream Dinners doesn't have specific competition in Boston's western suburbs, according to Ann Marie Parness, co-owner of the locations in Milford and Framingham.

Although food assembly businesses are booming nationally, Massachusetts has been a little slow to warm to the idea, she said.

''The concept is very hard for people to understand," Parness said. ''Also, I think Bostonians are very set in their ways . . . it's a bit harder to break the mold."

But the widespread success of the business model is indicative of a growing number of people who no longer prepare all their food at home, said Harry Balzer, vice president of The NPD Group, a consumer marketing firm based in Chicago that tracks the way Americans eat.

Customized meals have appeal because ''Americans love fresh," but the use of fresh foods has been slowly declining because fresh foods are perishable, he said.

''These dinner assembly places are taking care of the issue of fresh, because you don't have to worry about anything going bad," Balzer added.

More often than not, the burden of dealing with dinner falls on women, who make up the bulk of customers at local Dream Dinners outlets.

NPD, which does daily polling, found that on a given night, 52 percent of all dinners were prepared by a female head of household, while 18 percent had their meals prepared in a restaurant, half of which were eaten at home. Thirteen percent of dinners were prepared by male heads of households, and the remainder were people who ate at other people's homes.

''Right now, we can say [food assembly] is a fad," Balzer said. ''The question is: Is the cost worth the effort to have those meals semi-prepared for you?"

Susan Sales of Framingham thinks so.

''It's a whole new way of thinking," she said. ''It's creating another step, but I think it's worth it. It's a luxury to come home and have a freshly prepared meal."

In a long line of people at the Framingham Dream Dinner's grand opening last month was Joyce Kreppel of Southborough, who said that at one time, she and her husband had meals made and delivered by a caterer.

Kreppel, who works in real estate, said that at the time ''I was extremely busy, and I was going to the store every day, and we were eating dinner at 9 to 9:30 at night, and . . . I didn't want to even think about what I would prepare."

The Dream Dinners concept, Kreppel added, is ''great for people who want to have things available that they can buy and put together" and then freeze.

''This is more food for less money" than using a caterer, who didn't give them as much flexibility in their dinner choices, she said.

A friend, Judy Rooney of Framingham, said that when she prepares meals, she often buys ingredients and makes something that might call for only a quarter-cup of sour cream, for example, so the rest ends up going bad in her refrigerator.

Ann Mola of Framingham, who has been going to the Milford location every month, estimated that she spends about $200 a month for 12 entrees.

''It's great when I don't have a lot of time. My kids are so busy with activities that I can just put something in the oven when I get home and not have to worry" about preparing dinner, she said. ''It saved me."

Dream Dinners is at 847 Edgell Road in Framingham; it is open on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. For more information, call the store at 508-877-3336 or log on to www.dreamdinners.com.

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