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You can order specially prepared meals to suit your needs, including organic, low-carb, low-fat, low-cal, whatever. I ordered the basic vanilla versions of braised short ribs, fontina-stuffed portobello mushroom, and barbecued baby back ribs. At the testing dinner, scores ranged from 2 to 4.5 for the meats (I saved the portobello to eat at home), averaging 3 on a scale of 5, but comments about the accompaniments were less complimentary. Each dinner came with a huge mound of potato. The garlic mash, with little dairy, tasted like freeze-dried instant (“bland,” “not creamy,” “pasty,” wrote my fellow tasters). The hash browns and “scallion smashed” red potatoes were better, but I should have ordered low-carb to get more variation (and lower-glycemic carbs) among the starches. Only one of the tasting team tolerated the soggy vegetable medleys, which resembled supermarket frozen veggies. (Disclaimer: I do like C&W frozen low-sodium petite peas. These were not that good.) The stuffed portobello that I ate at home was heavy on bread crumbs but tasted dandy, so long as I didn’t compare it to the divine crab-stuffed portobello at Antica Trattoria — real chef food.

Daily Dish, 619-231-1398, or 866-686-DISH; dailydishchef.com. Minimum order: about $100. Average dinner price per meal, $23, including delivery, feeds one person generously, or two lightly. Breakfasts and lunches available. Natural meat and poultry, wild-caught fish; local/organic upon request; calorie-, fat-, and carb-control options; no preservatives. Most food frozen, some refrigerated; defrost if convenient, heat in oven or microwave. Website orders coming soon.

Optimal Nutrition, Inc.

Ideal Client: Kinsey Millhone. Sue Grafton’s fitness-proud tomboy detective would probably buy a lifetime subscription to these healthy prepared dinners. Optimal Nutrition furnishes all-organic frozen meals, ready to reheat, delivered by FedEx (or sometimes in person). Nonfrozen options are possible; call to discuss (ask for Michelle) or email [email protected] Rather than a large catalog of prepared foods, there’s a weekly menu (with several vegan options). Here, the aim is to furnish nutritionally perfect meals designed for the specific client. When you order, you complete a form indicating your sex, age, height, weight, and nutritional goal (e.g., better health, weight loss), and the meals are shaped for your specs. I disclosed only my height and sex, and the portions that arrived were modest but sufficient — perfectly sized for this female runt. Individual food packages don’t include reheating instructions on the labels, so you may have to play touchie-feelie with your food as the dinners heat in the nuker.

At the taste-test dinner, everybody immediately spotted the two Optimal dinners (salmon with lentils and curried turkey burger) as “health food,” because they looked like hospital food or hippie meals circa 1970. The main clue lay in the colors, or lack thereof: These meals present a portion of protein atop a beige field of variously flavored brown rice or other whole grains. (“Could lose the rice” was a typical comment.) We eat with our eyes as well as our mouths, and these entrées needed some colorful veggies. The consensus was that Optimal’s dishes were “benign” and “decent” rather than exciting; their average score was 2. The interesting whole-grain “pasta-pizza” made with kamut (which I served as a side) scored a little higher, but nobody would have wanted it as a main course. Overall, this operation is aimed at those who want to “fill ’er up, healthy.” Optimal isn’t a sybaritic choice, but it’s potentially a fine long-term solution for someone with no time or skills for cooking and more interested in good nutrition than luxury.

Optimal Nutrition, Inc., 858-202-0445 (Michelle’s number, 858-752-0594) and 877-678-7897; optimalnutritioninc.com. Minimum order varies (typically, dinners for five days). Prices based on portion size (based on questionnaire answers on recipient’s height, weight, age, and dietary goals), $13–$22, average $14 per dinner to feed one. Three meals daily available. Most food frozen to reheat in microwave; thaw first, if convenient.


Impromptu Gourmet

Ideal Client: Emma Bovary (and sometimes N. Wise). Emma and Charles Bovary were French, almost guaranteeing decent palates. Emma might keep Charles distracted with tasty, easy-to-cook, not-quite-wholesome meals, while her own mind wandered to dreams of illicit love and fancy gowns. The best dishes from Impromptu were the winners (by far) for flavor, beating out even Daily Dish — the only real “gourmet” choices.

The tender honey-orange duck breast, the well-seasoned smoked pork back ribs, and the sweet potato soufflé all averaged 4.5 points at the group taste test, while even the lesser dishes like seafood cannelloni averaged 3. At the same time, this company’s offerings are liable to include numerous industrial food derivatives and outright fake foods (artificial flavors, colors, nondairy creamer, high-sodium preservatives). For example, a side dish of creamed artichoke hearts and spinach included approximately 50 ingredients, and that’s with unspecified “spices” summed up in a single word. (If you made it at home, you’d probably use fewer than ten.) The delicious swee’ po’ soufflé ingredients list was scandalous, loaded with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, unidentifiable multisyllabic chemicals (can somebody “aluminate” me about the meaning of “sodium silico aluminate?”), and, as icing on the cake, nondairy creamer. High-fructose corn syrup frequently rears its ugly head (e.g., it’s so dominant in the barbecue sauce, I opted to buy the smoked ribs bare to dress with my own sauce).

Impromptu’s delivery time was ultra quick, but the packaging was traumatic to wrangle with. The FedEx guy staggered under the huge, 25-pound box containing barely 5 pounds of food. Inside the corrugated carton was a polystyrene container — standard packaging, but writ very large here. Inside that, on top of the little food boxes, were large plastic bags of dry ice, some of them ripped and “steaming.” Dry ice will do real damage if you touch it barehanded or breathe it for very long, so you have to put on oven mitts, quickly lift off the bags and chunks of ice, remove the food boxes, throw the ice back in the box, slap the lid back on to protect curious cats or birds, and shove the container out the door again to let the ice evaporate “in a well-ventilated area.” Don’t send any gift packages like this to your fragile old grandma.

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ep2002 Dec. 9, 2008 @ 12:56 a.m.

Thank you for your article.

After reading it, I decided not to go this route of buying a gift card for 2 of my team members.

I read a nasty review about Impromptu Gourmet, & then when I heard they put all this garbage in their food, I said it's not worth it.

Now I'm searching for personal chefs & if that fails as one is in a small town, I'll just have to find restaurants LOL & yes I know in the end most of them put garbage in their food too, but what can we do : )

Happy Holidays!



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