Dinner Without Tears

One busy mother's search for the perfect meal service

Mason Arnold of Greenling
Mason Arnold of Greenling (Photo by John Anderson)

It's hard to be the director of culinary operations in my household. We're an extremely busy family of four: I juggle teaching and perpetual grading with an active freelance career, as well as packing lunches, schlepping kids to and from school and various lessons, then supervising homework and play times while also prepping and cooking dinner.

On Sundays, I plan and shop for the week's meals, careful to incorporate each family member's dietary quirks into the scheme to avoid conflict at the dinner table: The little kid apparently exists on air and sunshine, with the occasional sippy cup of milk and a fistful of fish-shaped crackers. The big kid would dine on a singular menu of peanut butter and honey sandwiches given his druthers. My husband doesn't like anything green, although he'll choke down a serving of haricots verts to set a good example for the children. I am reluctant to eat meat unless I've met the farmer who raised it and have been a Weight Watchers recidivist for about a decade. All told, I am responsible for about 75 carefully curated meals per week (three per day for four people, seven days a week, excluding my husband's lunches out and my kids' occasional school lunches), and despite my best efforts, there is usually at least one person weeping over what's for dinner on any given night.

Ask any working mother which of her domestic duties she would prefer to outsource, and she might say cooking or cleaning house or doing laundry. But I don't clean the house or do laundry 75 times a week, nor do I spend hours planning, budgeting for, and preparing to clean or do laundry. So, my answer is, hands down, that I would love to outsource some of my duties as executive chef at home; if such a wish were to be granted with the added bonus of a tear-free mealtime, even better.

We're fortunate in Austin to have a wealth of businesses devoted to providing families like mine with ready-made meals available for pickup or delivery. I decided to focus on locally owned businesses that, for the most part, specialize in family dinners. The services I chose range from purveyors who use grocery-store-quality ingredients to those whose menus are dictated by what's available at the farmers' market. While the pros and cons of each service will vary on a family's tastes, budget, and geographical location, my evaluation takes into consideration taste, quality of ingredients, nutritional value, ease of preparation, cost per serving, and whether my children cried at the sight of the food.

If I had it my way, we would have started with Veggytopia, the new vegan meal service in Kyle that hits almost all of my prerequisites: locally sourced, high-quality ingredients; healthy; and meat-free. How­ever, after perusing the menu with my husband, we decided that given our children's tortured responses to tofu and other vegan experiments in the past, we just weren't willing to risk a double meltdown across a week's worth of meals. However, I am quite keen to give Veggytopia a trial run once I have incorporated more vegan meals into the rotation and my children's palates have matured a bit.

Louis Singh of Dish a Licious
Louis Singh of Dish a Licious (Photo by John Anderson)

I started this grand experiment with an order from the Studio Kitchen. Located in Round Rock, the Studio Kitchen opened in 2004 and has expanded from a self-assembly operation where people could reserve blocks of time and put together their preselected entrées to offering delivery and pickup services. Because I didn't want to pay the $20 delivery fee on top of a minimum order of $99, I opted to pick up my order, which I split with a friend, on a Saturday afternoon. I ordered three entrées: baked lemon chicken ($14.95), honey-sesame pork tenderloin ($14.95), and turkey meat loaf ($13.95); each entrée contained about three servings. The lemon chicken was uncontroversial and eaten without complaint. The turkey meat loaf, despite the disconcerting presence of quinoa, was quite delicious and was enthusiastically devoured. Sadly, the cooking instructions for the pork tenderloin led to an overcooked and dry hunk of meat, and the marinade did not taste good. I really appreciated the portion control offered by the meals, and there were no tears, but I'm not sure the quality of the ingredients (no better than what can be found at H-E-B) would inspire me to order from Studio Kitchen again. Verdict: forks down.

Next I ordered from Greenling's new selection of meal kits, introduced in Sep­tem­ber 2010 and updated with seasonal offerings this October. While these required me to actually cook, I knew that Greenling would provide me with the kind of high-quality ingredients I would have bought on my own had I felt like doing the shopping. The fall veggie-and-bean minestrone kit ($19.99) came with precut vegetables, a box of broth, a can of beans, and oil and seasoning; all I had to do was throw it all in a pot and let it cook. The soup was tasty – perhaps because I threw in a Parmesan rind to give it some body although $20 for a four-serving pot of vegetable soup feels a bit steep. The migas ($12.49) were bland and a bit of a disappointment. On the other hand, the Asian lettuce wraps ($17.99) were an enormous success. Having a premade mise en place was very helpful to prepare a quick dinner, and I loved plucking leaves from a head of Bibb lettuce with the root ball still attached. The big kid was deeply suspicious of using the lettuce cups as a meat delivery mechanism, but he inhaled it once the meat was wrapped in a tortilla. If I were ordering a grocery or vegetable box from Greenling, I might throw in the odd meal kit, but I'm not sure I would regularly outsource dinner to it. Verdict: forks sideways.

Dish a Licious is a meal service with a similar, locally focused ethos. For the past few years, Dish a Licious has been providing a weekly menu of meals made with meats and produce sourced from the farmers' market. Because the weekly menu is limited – only three entrées and three sides – it was a little harder to select meals that would please the entire family. Because my husband is a connoisseur of cheese, I opted for the baked macaroni and greens ($24), knowing that the children would reject it outright. While the dish was rich and comforting, we decided to freeze it for cooler nights to come. The Spanish tortilla with potatoes and greens ($10) was light and flavorful, perfect for lunch. But it was the tagliatelle with slow-roasted pork ragù ($25) that I daydream about. The perfectly textured homemade noodles and the depth of flavor in the ragù together made a deeply convincing argument against dried pasta and jarred sauce. We could not convince the children to try any of these dishes, which is fine as the meals are geared toward a more adult palate. Or put another way: More for me! However, the prices and the limited selection mean that Dish a Licious will have to remain an occasional treat. Verdict: forks up.

Coming in at a similar price point is Casserole Queens, which specializes in those one-dish comforts that our moms used to make. Although it's known for its chicken potpie, the presence of peas in the mix automatically disqualified it for inclusion in this family's dinner plan. I opted for two small (five serving) casseroles, traditional King Ranch Casserole ($24.99) and Zapata's Black Bean Enchilada Casserole ($23.99). The King Ranch Casserole was generously populated with white-meat chicken and had the distinctive, nostalgic tang of canned soup (not necessarily a bad thing). It took some coaxing, but the big kid ate most of his helping. The black-bean-enchilada casserole appealed to my vegetarian preferences; however, I was the only one who really enjoyed this particular dish. I also ordered an individual portion of the Oh Boy! Broccoli Casserole ($4.99), which I divvied into four helpings. It was tasty, but the rice was undercooked even after following the instructions. I did appreciate the very precise and thorough cooking instructions; they eliminated any guesswork in the preparation. I would most definitely order from Casserole Queens again once my children are a little older and less squeamish about one-pot dishes. Verdict: forks up.

At one point in this delicious research, I complained to my friend that I was still having to do too much cooking, that I wanted freshly cooked, Mom-quality meals that required me to little more than reheat and serve. Her response was, "I think what you want is a personal chef." Oh, how we did laugh! But, being the intrepid food scholar that I am, I went ahead and contacted Andrew Brooks, the chef-owner of Spirited Food Co., a private meal service and catering operation with an emphasis on nutritionally balanced, low-fat meals, with lots of locally sourced green vegetables. The buttermilk-and-basil-brined chicken with roasted carrots, kohlrabi, and brussels sprouts ($13) and tandoori-spiced chicken with spinach and broccoli ($13) were perfectly seasoned, tender and juicy, and reasonably portioned. I loved the freshness of the vegetables. The braised beef with broccoli greens ($13) was more delicious than any beef dish I have ever tasted. Grandmothers dream of making pot roast this delicious. This is restaurant-quality food, with reasonable prices ... if you are at a restaurant. At $13 per entrée, this particular meal service is not appropriate for our family, although most of the offerings are very accessible to the limited palates of the 6-year-old set. This would be an excellent option for single, Downtown-dwelling career folks with disposable income who crave healthy home cooking but don't have the time to do it themselves. I'm personally considering adding one or two Spirited Food entrées into my workweek lunch rotation. Verdict: forks up (for certain folks).

My experiment began to wind down just in time for Austin's "winter" to begin, which was perfect timing, since I'd saved the iconic Soup Peddler for last. I filled my virtual shopping cart with comfort foods like broccoli-cheddar quiche ($10.95), chicken and dumplings ($13.95), and American goulash ($13.95). The quiche was a pleasure to eat, with perfect custard and not-too-large pieces of wholesome, tender broccoli. Even the kids nibbled at it with dry eyes. We balanced out the broccoli with the Super Baked Cookies ($7.95 for four), a delectable kitchen-sink cookie the size of a softball that should definitely be classified a "sometimes food." The American goulash, blessedly free of Velveeta (unlike the version I ate as a kid), was hearty and flavorful. This was the one dish that the big kid declared, without any prodding whatsoever, that he really, really liked. On the flip side, the chicken and dumplings were not a hit. The dumpling-to-chicken ratio erred on the side of the large, unwieldy dumplings, and I would have preferred a bit more seasoning and vegetables. And just as the goulash made his heart sing, the dumplings made the big kid weep as though someone had told him he would never again be able to watch Power Rangers. While this was frustrating for us to watch as his parents, it was effectively an intensification of our own disappointment with this dish. That one selection aside, my impression is that the Soup Peddler's menu is probably the kid-friendliest of the services I sampled and the most economical. While the quality of the ingredients isn't at the level of Disha­licious or Spirited Food, it's a few steps ahead of the Studio Kitchen. All told, if I were to subscribe regularly to a meal-delivery service to feed my family, this would probably be my first choice. Verdict: forks up.

Andrew Brooks of Spirited Food
Andrew Brooks of Spirited Food (Photo by John Anderson)

The past several weeks of testing out meal services have been incredibly educational. I've learned how to budget for meals differently and have also made some surprising discoveries about what my husband and children will and won't eat. I have also – sometimes – really missed cooking for my family. Ultimately, I don't think I'll outsource all of the cooking, because I really do enjoy performing that act of love for these big and little people I live with, tears and all.

Six Meal Services

The Studio Kitchen www.whatsfordinneraustin.com

Greenling www.greenling.com

Dish a licious www.dishalicious.com

Casserole Queens www.casserolequeens.com

Spirited Food Co. www.spiritedfood.com

Soup Peddler www.souppeddler.com

Veggytopia www.veggytopia.com

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Meal Delivery, Greenling, the Soup Peddler, Casserole Queens, the Studio Kitchen, Dishalicious, Spirited Food Co.

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