You’re just getting ready to leave work and suddenly you’re gripped with the awful realization that there’s nothing to feed your family. But instead of the usual pizza, fast food or frozen dinner solution, imagine a meal of fusion salmon or honey coriander chicken with spicy peanut sauce waiting at home. And all you have to do is to combine the ingredients and pop dinner in the oven.

That will be possible soon because Oak Park resident Amy Pokras is about to open The Prep Kitchen at 7237 Madison St. in Forest Park, on the first floor of the new Madison Commons condominium building. The business is designed for those who want to eat well, but can’t find the time to do all the work that goes into preparing sumptuous, nutritious meals.

“We help solve the problem of, ‘Oh my God it’s 5 o’clock and what are we going to have for dinner,'” said Pokras.

Pokras, who calls herself a “recovering attorney,” is opening the Prep Kitchen with her husband David Wachtel, although he’s keeping his day job as an ecologist. Pokras worked as a legal aid lawyer in DuPage County from 1996 to 2001 and then worked for two-and-a-half years at Baker & McKenzie, a mammoth international law firm based in Chicago. But she’s always loved to cook and wanted to find work that would allow her to spend more time with her two children: daughter Zoe, age 4 1/2, and son Zachary, 23 months.

Pokras recalls being interested in food and cooking from an early age. “I remember truly cooking my first meal at age 8,” she said. It consisted of steak, mashed potatoes, a green vegetable and chocolate cake made from scratch, and it earned her a Girl Scout cooking merit badge.

And one summer during college, Pokras worked as the lunch chef at a restaurant in Williamstown, Mass.

Make-and-take meals

In February 2004, Wachtel was watching the Food Network and saw a feature about a growing concept called meal assembly (or make-and-take meals) and suddenly, “Wow, it just clicked for us,” said Pokras, who had left Baker & McKenzie to give birth to Zachary. Next came a year of preparation and research while the couple learned about the concept and set about doing the nitty-gritty work required to open a business.

Here’s how it works: every month, the Prep Kitchen will offer about 15 possible dinner entrees. You pick the ones you want (there are packages with varying sizes and numbers of meals to choose from), sign up, and then plan to spend a few hours in the Madison Street kitchen.

Pokras and her small staff will have done all the tiresome prep work, including the planning, shopping, chopping, dicing and mincing. In a kind of assembly line rather than a cooking class, you move from station to station. Each station contains everything you need for one recipe: instructions, ingredients, utensils, containers and labels.

You just have to follow the instructions to assemble the ingredients in the proper proportions and put them in the containers. When the dish is assembled, you pop it into the Prep Kitchen refrigerator and move on to the next station.

When you’ve finished assembling your choices, take them home, store them in the refrigerator or freezer, and cook when ready. Cooking instructions are provided.

“We do all the shopping, chopping, and mopping up,” said Pokras. “They don’t have to wash anything but their hands. We’re a time-saving, energy-saving solution. Our target market is busy families with kids.”

But Pokras believes her plans should be attractive to all sorts of busy people who enjoy home cooked meals, but don’t have the time to do everything from scratch.

The Prep Kitchen expects to initially offer three different packages. The smallest, called the compact, offers 12 separate meals with up to three portions per meal for $140. The sedan package provides eight meals with up to six portions per meal for $165, and the minivan has 12 different meals with up to six portions per meal for $215.

More information is available on the Prep Kitchen web site,

Unlike a place like the Perfect Dinner, which sells meals cooked and ready to heat and serve, Prep Kitchen customers will have to do a bit of additional assembly and cooking at home. But customers leave the store with not just a meal for the night, but everything necessary for meals for weeks.

The business is scheduled to open around July 23 and orders are currently being taken. Private parties for groups of greater than six can also be held at the space.

Pokras considered sites in Oak Park and River Forest, but ultimately decided that the Madison Commons location in Forest Park was the most desirable, especially because of the municipal parking available in the rear of the building.

“Forest Park is such an up and coming community,” said Pokras. “The location, in itself, was a huge factor. Rents are lower than in Oak Park or River Forest for the same or better space.”

?  Amy’s chicken black bean chili
?  Apple mozzarella meatloaf
?  David’s chicken (a blend of ginger, dry mustard, onions, lemons and quartered chicken)
?  Fusion salmon
?  Honey coriander chicken with spicy peanut sauce
?  Lemon dijon salmon
?  Lentil, vegetable and brown rice soup
?  Orange beef
?  Pork chops with apple cranberry sauce
?  Spinach quiche pie
?  Tandoori chicken
?  The silver bird (chicken breasts and vegetables in individual pouches)
? Turkey tortilla bites
? Tuscan burgers
? Veggie burgers

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