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Cooking Out 

Chopping onions got you down? Leave it to the pros.

Meal-assembly businesses have long been popular on the West Coast, where preparing food is viewed as a hindrance to more pressing pursuits, such as sleeping with agents and cosmetic surgery.

But in the past two years, Cleveland has seen a proliferation of similar operations, including Super Suppers (Avon, Medina, and Strongsville), Cooking Thyme (Westlake), My Girlfriend's Kitchen (North Canton, Strongsville), and Simply Done Dinners (Parma, North Olmsted, and soon-to-open locations in Twinsburg and Medina).

It works basically like this: Customers consult an online menu, choose 6 or 12 entrées, schedule a time for an assembly session, and pay online by credit card. (With each entrée feeding four to six people, the cost works out to about $3 to $4 per serving.) Ingredients are prepped in advance and arranged at tidy food stations; upon arrival, the customer need only follow a very simple recipe to assemble them into dishes like garlic-roasted pork loin or chicken satay with peanut sauce. Less than two hours later, assembled meals are packed into coolers and customers sent on their way with detailed freezing, thawing, and cooking directions.

Doug Smith, a Culinary Institute of America grad who opened The Chef and Mrs. Cook in Avon last October, says meal assembly is a no-brainer for his time-crunched clientele. "Eighty-five percent of them are women, and half work outside the home. Using a service like ours, they can skip the menu planning, shopping, prepping, and cleanup; and yet they have a good-tasting, nutritious meal to put on the table."

Of course, there are limitations -- the foremost being that the feasts are frozen, not fresh. And while they're clearly more healthful than fast food, the meals are typically built around meat, leaving vegetarians out of the loop. Likewise, those with a taste for organics are mostly out of luck: In an effort to keep prices competitive, boutique ingredients aren't on the menu.

That could change before long, says Michelle Gaw, founder of Simply Done Dinners. "The industry has been slowing moving toward the use of organics. Eventually, I think businesses will start charging by the dish, so consumers can upgrade to those ingredients if they wish.

"After all, life isn't getting any easier, is it?" says Gaw. "I expect this is something that's here to stay."

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