What's for Dinner?

Somewhere between soccer practice and homework, entrepreneurs are helping families get dinner on the table with do-it-yourself meal preparation services.

It's 4 p.m. Families, couples and singles everywhere are getting hungry. Cornish game hens are a whimsical fantasy, but there's a fast-food joint on the drive home. You do the cooking math.

What's changing about this scenario is that more families are looking for dinner options that are fast and healthy. Working Americans are more constrained for time than ever. Over 70 percent of mothers with children under age 18 were in the labor force as of 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics--that's 35.4 million families. What's more, an estimated two-thirds of American adults are overweight, according to the National Institutes of Health, and nearly 31 percent are obese. Factor in the growing number of obese children--approximately 9 million children over age 6--and it's no wonder Americans are perking up at the idea of skipping the battered, deep-fried chicken in favor of a nice, light stir-fry.

Stepping in to fill the need are do-it-yourself meal preparation services--places where time-constrained, health-conscious consumers can prepare their meals in a hurry for up to a month in advance. It's a new take on fast food--and one that's raking in the proverbial dough for entrepreneurs nationwide.

"For at least the past 15 years, the food industry--supermarkets and restaurants-has been looking to deal with the frantic consumer," notes Jonathan M. Seltzer, founder of food industry consulting firm Corporate Resource Inc. in Minneapolis and project manager for The Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. "[These consumers are] trying to have quality mealtime while dealing with work and children's activities." Certainly, the evidence is in the grocery aisles, where pre-cut or pre-made fruits, vegetables, side dishes, and even meats and cheeses coexist happily with more leisurely fare behind the deli counter and in the produce bins.

Indeed, in a 2005 customer survey conducted by do-it-yourself meal preparation company Dinner By Design, fully 98 percent of respondents cited time savings as their reason for using Dinner By Design, and 81 percent credited Dinner By Design for "less stress" in their lives. The Grayslake, Illinois, company--founded in 2003 by Julie Duffy--offers make-and-take meal preparation at its 24 franchise locations throughout the Midwest.

Then, too, there's the entertainment value of do-it-yourself meals--and not just from the perspective of easier dinner parties. At retail locations like Dinner By Design's, consumers can hang out with friends while they prepare meals. "It's a really good bonding time, especially if you take your children with you," says Jorj Morgan, director of life-style content for working-mom internet portal BlueSuitMom.com in Pompano Beach, Florida. "And it can mean new ways of entertainment--[as a get-together] for a group of new mothers, for instance. The entertainment aspect is very popular."

According to Duffy, having fresh, quality food on hand for a day, a week or a month-meals that go from the freezer to the oven to the table in about 30 minutes-appeals to families and singles alike. "People are really thinking about what they're serving and what the ingredients are," says Duffy, 37, who expects sales of $4.7 million in 2006, a dramatic increase over last year's $1.4 million, with approximately 60 store openings planned for 2006. "They have the control back in their hands."

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Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.

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This article was originally published in the March 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: What's for Dinner?.

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