Some Assembly Required

The whirlwind that is Dr. Julie Lumeng’s life normally doesn’t make time for preparing home-cooked meals for her family.

The pediatrician and mother not only wants the best for her two young children but also a fulfilling career. But careers in the ever-growing knowledge-base industry often demands people spend far more time in front of computer screens than boiling pots. Balancing work and family means Dr. Lumeng and her husband, also a pediatrician, are unable to regularly create Norman Rockwell moments, such as picking up fresh fish from the supermarket, in their normal 60-hour workweek.

"Trying to prepare a meal and get it out here and make it healthy and make it different was just too much," Dr. Lumeng says.

The Ann Arbor-based Lumeng family is a patron of a growing market of businesses that make home-cooked or gourmet meals for people too busy to consistently do it themselves. These businesses will cook up to a week’s worth of meals at once and package them so they can be pulled from the fridge, popped in a microwave and served to practically the same reception a home-cooked meal receives.

Before the Lumeng family found these services, they would go out to eat a couple of times a week and again on the weekend. Those costs were on top of a $120-a-week grocery bill. Now they spend about $70 to $80 on meals delivered by Ann Arbor-based What’s Cooking!, go out to eat once or twice a week and spend about $30 a week on groceries. But the real reward is the time and effort saved.

"I don’t spend as much time cooking and preparing food," Dr. Lumeng says. "It just means more time with my family."

A microwavable feast

Eating precooked meals is nothing new to the American lifestyle. TV dinners, warming up leftovers and frozen, easy-to-prepare meals appeared shortly after women joined the workforce en masse in the 1950s. But the luxury of a healthy, home cooked meal without someone in the family actually cooking it has long been the kind of perk only the well-off could afford to enjoy. Despite what the Brady Bunch would have you believe, most suburban homes cannot afford their own Alice.

For decades a precooked meal for a middle class family meant picking from a list of predictably unhealthy choices: fast-food burgers, frozen pizzas, and greasy take-out. In recent years two wage-earner homes, long commutes and extra work hours have become the norm and what was once a last resort option has become an everyday necessity. Families determined to eat together found themselves regularly compromising on quality and taste.

But like most things, the Internet has upended the status quo. Google the words "home cooked meals delivered" and you'll find page after page of Internet links to businesses ranging from national chains to family operations trying to capture the prepared meal market. From chef prepared meals to epicurean hot bars to self-prepared kitchens, the options, cuisines and prices are truly dizzying. It's a trend that has been growing rapidly on both U.S. coasts and in Europe for years, and now the industry is taking root in Michigan.

Ann Arbor-resident Stacy Williams is just one example. The owner of What’s Cooking! set up a small kitchen on the city’s south side last fall so she could cook healthy meals on demand for busy families throughout the area..

"I noticed a lot of people don’t like to cook or don’t have time to cook and I like to cook,” Williams says. “So I thought, why don’t I cook for them? They don’t have to do anything."

She mostly caters to professional young families where both adults work full time and would rather spend an hour on family time than preparing an elaborate meal. Using healthy ingredients such as whole grains, fresh vegetables and as many organic foods as possible, Williams has banned trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and MSG from her kitchen.

"Health has always been important to me," Williams says. "I have always been involved with in healthy living. I found a lot of people in Ann Arbor particularly want that."

Her instincts seem to be paying off. Since opening her business What's Cooking! has doubled its e-mail list to more than 200 families and that number grows every month.

The prepared food trend is not lost on national chains either. Whole Foods Market, the international organic supermarket chain, not only offers an elaborate hot food bar with quality meals to go, it also provides a home-cooked meal service. Customers can call in meal orders to any of the chain’s stores in Metro Detroit – Troy, Ann Arbor, Rochester Hills and West Bloomfield – and walk out with a turkey dinner with all the trimmings made entirely with Whole Foods products.

"We have a pretty good demand for it," said Kate Klotz, a Whole Foods spokeswoman. "It’s something that we are keeping and expanding so that shows its success."

The prepared meal market isn't just limited to highbrow take-out and pre-made microwaveable feasts. The Chop Shop in Birmingham allows it customers to prepare up to week’s worth of meals themselves in their Chop Shop kitchen; no shopping or cleaning up, they'll even provide the recipe.

Jane Bonanata, owner of the Chop Shop, says her business is the first licensed retail prep kitchen in the state and has grown 30 percent since opening in October of 2004. Business has been so good that she added a second prep kitchen and can now accommodate as many as 24 people at once. Her typical customers are busy, working mothers with a couple of kids in school.

"My market is pretty wide," Bonanata says. "These are people who value putting a nutritious, traditional meal on the table and eating in a family setting."

Then there's Warren-based The Original Wandering Gourmet, Chef Dan Engel, who will come into his customers’ homes and cook their dinners for them. Engel handles all the shopping, brings his own equipment and prepares custom gourmet meals. He does everything from romantic feasts to casual catering.

The autoworker was looking for a new career in case he lost his job when a friend suggested becoming a personal chef for people who don’t have time or can’t cook. He started with two clients three years ago. Today he cooks five days a week and even turns down business but keeps his auto job so his young family still has benefits.

"I get up in the morning and I cook until 1 p.m. and drop the food off to my wife before I go to work (for the rest of the day)," Engel says. "And then I get up and do it again the next day."

Time, money and conveyance

Prepared meal services have served Dr. Maria Freydl’s family of four quite well. The Northville resident prides herself on her cooking and serves her two young children the most-healthy food possible. She makes it a point that the family has dinner together every night, as a way to share in each other’s lives. But sometimes there just aren't enough hours in the day and that’s when What’s Cooking's meals come out of the fridge.

"It’s really a struggle sometimes," Dr. Freydl says. "You basically get accomplished what needs to get done, especially on days when you work late. So this is a Godsend."

Freydl says the meals are "as good as I would make at home." Her 2-year-old daughter is particular fond of the Caribbean beef stew.

"I think it is a market that is waiting to be tapped," Freydl says. "As more and more women get into positions like mine you’ll find more and more demand for this type of thing."

Jon Zemke is a Detroit-based writer who regularly contributes to both metromode and Model-D. You can read his article about Michigan's wireless workforce here.


Whole Foods in Ann Arbor

Stacy Williams - owner of What's Cookin!

Whole Foods in Ann Arbor

Stacy Williams

Photographs © Myra Klarman Photography

Myra Klarman is an Ann Arbor based photographer and regular contributor to metromode

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