Friday, September 4, 2009

No Muss, Not Much Fuss with Healthy Creations

I can't help it. I'm a skeptic when it comes to the proliferation of prepared meals businesses. Some have you come in and do the prep yourself so you can go home with ready-to-heat meals. Others do it all for you and deliver it to your door for you to put in the freezer, defrost, and reheat when you want it. And still others prep the ingredients so you can put it together yourself at home.

I'm a home cook so I have a hard time understanding why it would be worth spending money on something I could easily and happily do myself. But, I obviously am ignorant of the time constraints on busy couples and families because when I mentioned this on Facebook I got an earful.

This brings me to a place in Encinitas I visited last week. Healthy Creations, owned by a young woman named Rhiana Glor, offers an eclectic menu of 12 to 14 organic, nutritious meals each month with ingredients primarily from Jimbos down the street. The meals aren't pre-cooked; instead the ingredients are prepped--meats marinated, shrimp cleaned, vegetables chopped, sauces or toppings bagged, pasta measured out and also bagged--and packaged in plastic bags with directions for assembly and cooking on a label inside the largest bag holding all the ingredients. Meals come in two sizes: full serves of four to six servings a meal and half serves of two to three servings a meal. They run around $30 for a full serve and $17 for a half serve, depending on the actual meal.

Yes, that's a lot of bags. I think there could be some improvement on that by adopting reusable containers and, well, making it more attractive. But, that said, the meals I had were delicious. I ordered three meals and a dessert: Flank steak laced with blue cheese butter and a side of roasted asparagus, pistachio-crusted pork tenderloin with yam fries, baked shrimp scampi with whole wheat pasta, and an apple crisp.

I decided to share this dinner with my parents, so I brought everything to their house. Now both of them have health issues which severely limit their fat, salt, and spice intake. So, my mistake was not reading the ingredients list carefully enough because clearly what we chose wasn't going to work. But, what I could have done--like any of Glor's customers--was ask her to make modifications in the dishes that would reduce the fat. She's happy to work with people to make healthy meals tailored to individual needs.

So, we made some modifications on our end, and I also took the scampi dinner home with me to freeze for later. My mom added some vegetables and lentils for herself, but shared in the pork tenderloin. My dad and I also had the flank steak (good, but a little salty for both of us).

The pork tenderloin was a big success. The tenderloin had been marinating in a house-made plum sauce. The pistachios were already crushed. All I had to do was spread the nuts on a flat surface and roll the tenderloin on them to coat, then bake. The results were lovely tender and sweet slices of pork complemented by a crunchy crust of pistachios. It was a great dish.

The apple crisp, too, was very good, but prepping that was a good example of how things can go wrong. My dad decided to handle it. He poured the sliced apples into a baking dish after coating it with nonstick spray. But, he got hung up on the instructions to work the crumb and butter mixture together and instead of really working them until they were fully blended, he started dumping it on the apples. I had to retrieve it all, blend thoroughly with my fingers, and then spread them again on the apples. So, it helps to have some idea of how to cook to make these meals come out as Gor envisions them. (Okay, he could have done better reading the directions, too!)

This week I made the baked shrimp scampi and invited my friend Alex to join me in trying it. The package had a bag of black tiger shrimp mixed with herbs that needed to be defrosted and drained. That was a bit of a challenge since I wanted the herbs in the dish, but they tried to escape as I drained the shrimp. But, okay. No big deal. I coated a baking dish with olive oil, spread the shrimp around the bottom, and then emptied a second bag which had wine and oil over the shrimp.

In another little bag was butter and garlic. The directions called for me to mash them together (in the bag) and spoon half of it over the shrimp, which was kind of awkward to do, but it got done. To the rest, I added breadcrumbs, the contents of a fourth baggie, and mixed that together before pouring it over the shrimp.

The dish baked for 18 minutes in a pre-heated 375-degree oven, until the topping was brown and the shrimp were cooked through. While that was happening, I put up water in a big pot to boil and made the pasta.

Alex and I agreed that the results were quite good. The shrimp was tender and mixed with the pasta, it had that wonderful garlicky buttery quality you look for in a scampi. But, I did have to make a salad to go with it, and I did have some clean up to do--but, of course, not nearly as much as if I had started from scratch peeling shrimp and measuring ingredients.

So, the bigger question is, why do this? To which my friend Kate Zimmer, a mom with two young kids and a full schedule, who I learned is a fan of Healthy Creations, gave me a long list. "Because it's different, relatively healthy (i.e., not a bunch of sodium, etc.), and done for you," she explains. "You don't have to think. When I say 'done for you' I really mean 'done ahead of time.' Pretty much all you have to do is thaw and put in the oven. That's worth a lot to me. I plan my family's meals for the week each week and it's hard to come up with stuff for every meal, every day so that's certainly one benefit."

And, Kate points out that there's no chopping and no wasted ingredients. There's no need to keep a bunch of stuff on hand, like unusual condiments or seasonings, that might not get used again or often. "And," she says, "it's just great that I'm getting the meal on the table, forget about portioning out small bits of chiles in adobo and labeling/freezing it (and then remembering I have some frozen the next time I need it and thawing it). You get the picture."

In fact, Glor says most of her customers are like Kate, families with young kids and new moms. But, she adds that some customers are people with various health problems or seniors who need help preparing meals. She says some family members set up accounts with her and donate money into the account to provide meals for ailing family members. Glor estimates she prepares about 80 meals a day, with some customers ordering enough for a month at a time since most meals can go right into the freezer for later. She'll give customers a list of the meals and the date they were prepared to post on the refrigerator so they can keep track of what they have. While I was there, customers were coming in with coolers to pick up their meals, but Glor also delivers.

Healthy Creations has been in business for two-and-a-half years, but Glor recently opened a gluten-free bakery and cafe. I sampled some of the products and they were surprisingly good. A faux Twinkie, made with soy, eggs, milk protein, agave, and coconut flour, wasn't exactly Twinkie but filled with creamy deliciousness. And, of course, how could you replicate something with all those preservatives and weird ingredients. Would you really want to? Glor takes special pride in her very tasty oatmeal raisin cookie, and I enjoyed her packaged granola, made with lots of lovely pecans and other nuts. You can buy the granola at Healthy Creations or at Jimbos.

Healthy Creations also has sandwiches and wraps to go, using whole grain teff--an Ethiopian grain--or gluten-free bagels and bread. Glor's got roasted chicken breast sandwich, Thai peanut chicken or tofu wraps, a cranberry and goat-cheese salad, and even pizza by the slice, using a wholegrain pizza crust made with sorghum and brown rice flour.

Healthy Creations is located at 376 N. Camino Real in Encinitas. The phone number is 760-479-0500.

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  1. That business is right next door to my dentist's office and the receptionist raves about it. The location is very convenient to my home.

    But I don't need or use this type of business. I was aware of its opening but the concept didn't sound appealing to me at all (except for the clean-up part, as that's my least-favorite part about cooking).

    I actually very much like preparing my family's meals at home from my own choice of ingredients (often much better than Jimbo's options and at a lower price, too, such as grass-fed bison from my freezer (stocked 2 times a year from a Montana family-owned ranch), weekly boxes of CSA produce from a SD county organic farm, etc.

    I think this perception that no one has enough time to prepare proper foods for themselves and their families is an symptom of misplaced priorities in many cases. It's also a lie that one needs to slave at a stove to cook good food from scratch, or that it must costs a king's ransom to buy quality ingredients.

    We often choose to make our lives too busy/too expensive to cook, which only creates more need for more income, more costly activities and goodies, and consequently, less time and energy to feed ourselves well - in other words a vicious circle that is often more voluntary than commonly thought. I bought into this notion early in my motherhood and it wasn't good for my health (and waistline) or my family's. Don't forget businesses work very hard to promote the message that we "deserve a break today" so now everyone believes it, the collective culture is entrenched is needing services, and the ability to do things for ourselves is quickly becoming lost.

    Sure, the economy is poor at the moment, and some people feel they can't get "off the treadmill" so they must use services like this. Maybe, maybe not. I just don't think it is truly as universal as we are led to believe/want to believe. And it shouldn't be beneath us to it more of a priority to feed our loved ones well with our own efforts.

  2. Well, there's definitely a niche for this. For every person who believes people should be cooking every meal for their families, there are those who are working long hours to provide for their families or who are overwhelmed with young children and their activities or who are unable to get to a market to shop. And there are those who simply can't cook or have no interest. You happen to like preparing your families meals, but not everyone feels that way. So I give them credit for choosing another way to have healthy home-cooked meals available for themselves and their families. We're not talking fast food in this case, but a convenience to get a good meal on the table.