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Personal chefs cater to the time-starved

Andrea Silver of Sweet and Savory Personal Chef Services zests a lime as she prepares Thai Coconut Chicken at a client's home. Personal chefs are increasingly popular. (WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF)

Susan Yates of Lexington was tired of feeding her family pizza and Trader Joe's enchiladas every night, so she decided to "outsource" her cooking.

That meant hiring personal chef Andrea Silver, a move she says has saved her 10 hours a week because she doesn't have to grocery shop, chop vegetables, or stand over a hot stove.

"My kids used to eat a bagel or a protein bar in the back of the car while driving to dance lessons," says Yates, a senior vice president for global marketing at Bank of America. "Now we can actually sit down and have a meal together, even if it's only for a half hour."

Personal chefs like Silver, the proprietor of Sweet and Savory Personal Chef Services in Brookline, are no longer for just the rich and famous. Busy two-career families like the Yateses, people with restricted diets, single professionals, and seniors who can't cook for themselves are increasingly using the services of personal chefs , says John Moore, executive director of the United States Personal Chef Association .

He estimates there are 5,000 personal chefs nationwide, serving about 72,000 clients. In the Boston area alone, there are over 100 personal chefs.

Personal chefs are not to be confused with private chefs, who typically live in a client's home and cook for only one family, says Moore.

Personal chefs have numerous clients and are known for home-cooked meals that must be cooked in the client's kitchen, unless they are prepared in a commercially licensed kitchen. Their services can include customized menu planning and grocery shopping.

The best way to find a personal chef is online through associations such as Personal Chef Network (, American Personal and Private Chef Association (, and the United States Personal Chef Association ( .

Pricing can vary . Some chefs will include groceries in a flat fee; others add groceries to labor charges, which are usually around $50 an hour.

The contract signed is a nonbinding service agreement with rules about cancellation and rescheduling.

The bottom line: Including groceries, personal chef service costs about $300 to $400 a week for four portions of five entrees and side dishes (known as a "five by four.") This is about 20 dinner-size servings or a price equivalent to your family eating out 4 to 5 nights per week at a family restaurant.

The chef usually packages the meals in disposable containers, vacuum-seal bags, or Pyrex for easy reheating or freezing.

There are no worries about cleanup, since the chefs bring their own supplies and clean up afterward, often "leaving the kitchen cleaner than it was originally," says Yates.

Janelle Marshall, a single mother of two in Methuen, says the price of hiring a personal chef is offset by cost by the time and irritation she saves by not having to deal with the "what's for dinner problem."

Marshall, who uses Chef en Route, which serves the Merrimack Valley, says she loves coming home to a bubbling crock pot or an elegant spread of mango salsa with tuna.

Marshall, who is a hairdresser in Salem, N.H., says, "My income is limited, but this is far better than going through a drive-through or having sandwiches for dinner. No more food on the run for us."