It's 10 a.m. on Monday and three Oak Park mothers are supposed to be making dinner. But today they're having fun.
"Karen, you do the parsley, you do the rosemary and I'll do the thyme," says Lauren Heath to friends Karen Streit and Jeanette Madock. Before them stand three frozen chickens in re-sealable plastic bags standing up in three ceramic crocks, and three mixing bowls with a mound of fresh garlic cloves in each.
Her friends drop their ingredients in the mixing bowl, while the conversation weaves between and buzzes around them like a bee at a picnic.
"Uh-oh! Uh-oh!" Heath exclaims. "I put it in the crock!" referring to the dried spices she put directly on the chicken, instead of in the bowl. "It'll be fine, it'll be fine," the friends intone.
They are making dinner?#34;dinners to be exact. At Dinner By Design, 7230 W. North Ave., they can make up to 12 dinners at a time, to be taken home, frozen and thawed when an easy entree is needed.
Heath and her friends are splitting a 12-meal package, so each will take home four meals. A meal serves four to six people.
Heath is back today after seeing how the service saved her time last week, when she and a different group of friends split a meal package at Dinner By Design. The meals she brought home got a warm response. Before, she said, meals might consist of grilled cheese sandwiches and canned tomato soup.
"Meals have been a real problem in my house, just ask my husband," Heath says. "This is an easy way for me to look prepared."
Dinner By Design offers about a dozen entree choices each month, along with some desserts and a pizza of the month (October's is BBQ Chicken). Customers work in the ample kitchen area, where all the ingredients are waiting at stations to be put together and frozen in labeled bags. At home, meals for the week can be defrosted in the refrigerator on Sunday, ready to be cooked.
Heath has four boys, 15, 12 and 4-year-old twins. "Trying to get something to feed all of them is a challenge," she says.
Catherine McLoughlin, who owns the Elmwood Park franchise with her husband, Kevin Coyle, says the company's executive chef makes entree selections with types of families in mind?#34;some are kid-friendly (this month there's Turkey Pot Pie, Cornflake Chicken Tenders and Zesty Beef Enchiladas) and others made more for adult tastes (e.g., Chicken Pesto Pasta or Ratatouille with Penne Pasta).
The company is part of a growing food industry trend, home meal replacement. A similar, independently owned operation, The Prep Kitchen, opened in Forest Park in June, while already-made complete meals are the focus of The Perfect Dinner in Oak Park and Good To Go in River Forest.
McLoughlin and Coyle, who have lived in Oak Park since 1997, are professional librarians by training, having met on the job when she was a pharmaceutical research librarian and he a library information salesman. McLoughlin works full-time at Triton College as a faculty librarian, giving her long stretches of time off when classes are not in session, when she'll help Coyle with the business.
They love food and have worked in caterers' kitchens, but did not want to open a restaurant. "It's just brutal," McLoughlin said.
Grayslake-based Dinner By Design's goal is removing some of the stress for busy parents while allowing for a family meal time. Company material cites studies that suggest eating as a family is associated with happier marriages, better children's health, and stronger family ties. "We hope to bring families back to the dinner table again," McLoughlin said.
"This is my favorite part right here," says Jeanette Madock, a Realtor with three boys, as she hands her dirty mixing bowl to be cleaned by the Dinner By Design staff.
The three friends, who met from sending their kids to St. Giles School, probably have fun wherever they go. Prepping their meals together is no exception.
"It makes it so fun," Heath says. "It's kind of a social thing for us. I wish they had this years ago."
Dinner By Design is at the northern end of North Tower Plaza, the strip mall just northwest of the intersection of Harlem and North Avenue. A Blockbuster location is the most visible store from the street in the mall. A 12-meal pack costs $209, or an average of about $17.50 per meal to serve four to six. Frozen meals prepared by the store's staff are available for $21.95. Also, customers can come in for "Sneak Peek" sessions for preparing one, three or six meals. For more information call 452-4670, e-mail email@example.com, or visit www.dinnerbydesignkitchen.com.