Prepared meals start a new era of grab-and-go

salmon spinach salad

A cooking class for diabetics at Abrazo Community Health Network in Phoenix not only educated participants about healthy meal prep, but it also spurred the launch of a prepared food program called Meals To Go.

“Many of the participants said they just did not want to cook for themselves, or they were really no longer able to handle the task,” says Jean Revard, director of food service and environmental services for Abrazo’s Paradise Valley Hospital. “They wanted fresh, not frozen. And they wanted meals to satisfy the craving for good old-fashioned home-cooked meals.”

Whether it’s a need for healthy options for hospital patients and visitors, or a convenient way for busy employees to grab dinner at their company cafe, prepared to-go meals are a growing segment. Here, operators share what works.

Popular picks

almond chicken

Abrazo’s program started with six meal choices in 2011 and has grown to 26 options, including almond chicken and rosemary pork loin. Each single-serving option sells for $7. Comfort foods such as meatloaf and beef pot roast continue to be top sellers; grilled salmon and pasta are also popular, and salads sell especially well in the summer.

Because nutrition was the driving factor in starting the program, meals were created with guidance from hospital dietitians and are low-sodium, low-fat and low-carb, containing approximately 500 calories.

Aligning menus

meal to go container

A few years ago, leaders at Ocean Spray’s corporate offices asked foodservice operator Unidine to create a prepared meals program, with the goal of enhancing work-life balance for employees at its Lakeville, Mass., headquarters. “[Originally,] it was this whole different program separate from the foodservice operation. It had its own menu, its own items, its own rotation,” says Donna Pierotti, district manager at Unidine. “What we tried to do was manage it a bit better and pare down the options and align it more with daily production.” Chefs started utilizing items that were already being cooked to help control costs. For example, prepared dinners might feature the same protein as the day’s lunch entree in a different preparation; the same staff prepares both and packages the to-go meals in microwavable containers.

Perks of pickup

takeout kit

Finding a balance between preparing enough, but not too many, meals is a challenge Abrazo is able to sidestep thanks to preordering. Diners can order their prepared meal by phone a day in advance of pickup.

“We cook and chill and put meals together in a cold room so as not to go past 60 degrees, and then refrigerate them,” says Juan Carranza, Abrazo’s food service and environmental services manager. Meals are prepared at its Scottsdale, Ariz., campus before being distributed to the network’s six hospitals for pickup. 

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