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Grab-and-go Thanksgiving
Harried cooks create a growing market for holiday help

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
November 16, 2006
by Elizabeth Lee

In the world according to Martha Stewart, Patti Cotter already would have ordered her Thanksgiving turkey and floral centerpiece.

Instead, she's preparing for the traditional feast the way an increasing number of Americans are: by letting someone else help with the cooking.

Cotter is standing at a stainless steel table in Dream Dinners, a Roswell meal assembly store, scooping stuffing ingredients into a plastic bag. She'll place them in the freezer of her Alpharetta home, along with plastic bags filled with other items she's gathered today: ready-to-heat gravy with pearl onions, mashed potatoes, biscuits and cranberry relish.

Americans still want their turkey and time with friends and family on Thanksgiving. But the from-scratch meal that Norman Rockwell immortalized, right down to the beaming cook holding a platter of perfectly bronzed bird? Some are saying "no thanks." Especially if it involves hours of cooking and cleaning.

"I don't want to be stuck in the kitchen all day," Cotter says. "I'd rather go hiking or do something outside."

How deep is the hunger for Thanksgiving shortcuts?

• "Easy Thanksgiving recipes" are the most popular holiday recipe search on Yahoo.

• Jennie-O Turkey Store is introducing three varieties of grab-and-go entrees in a box, complete with seasoned fresh turkey breast, stuffing and gravy or rice. The precooked breast comes in a roasting bag, ready for warming in the oven. The company's no-stress holiday lineup already includes a whole oven-ready raw turkey that goes from freezer to roasting pan, with minimal handling.

• Meal assembly services are adding Thanksgiving sides, appetizers and sometimes the main course to their menus. Some will even prepare and package food in customers' dishes.

• Whole Foods Market and Harry's Farmers Market are introducing a serve-yourself hot bar of the traditional feast on Thanksgiving Day itself. The stores also added set menus this year to their customary a la carte choices to make ordering a meal easier; no need to weigh the merits of cornbread stuffing over rosemary chestnut or sourdough, because they've made the choice for you (it's rosemary chestnut).

GourmetStation, an Atlanta-based service, will make and ship a turkey dinner for two that requires just 30 minutes to get on the table. Customers often buy the meals as gifts for aging parents or distant relatives who may no longer want to tackle the holiday meal, says company founder Donna Lynes-Miller.

• Many restaurants and supermarkets offer online ordering to speed things along even more.

It's hard to nail down how many Thanksgiving feasts will be prepared — if not eaten — outside the home. Industry observers say they're increasing because of such societal changes as smaller families, far-flung relatives, longer work hours and dwindling cooking knowledge.

Publix, which doesn't release exact sales figures, is seeing double-digit growth annually in holiday dinner orders, says spokeswoman Brenda Reid.

Whole Foods Market reports growing sales of prepared foods, too. It added meals for two this year, including a turkey option and a vegetarian package, aimed at small celebrations.

One of the natural food chain's most popular holiday items is an oven-ready turkey, cleaned, seasoned with herbs and packaged in a foil roasting pan with fragrant vegetables.

"All they have to do is take off the outer plastic wrapping and go for it," says Whole Foods spokeswoman Cheryl Galway.

Some 60 to 65 percent of Americans will eat Thanksgiving dinner away from home, says Harry Balzer, executive vice president of the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Many of them will eat at friends' or relatives' homes and some probably will pick up a pie or prepared dip to share. But 6 percent of Americans will turn to supermarkets, caterers or restaurants for their entire Thanksgiving dinner, a slight increase from last year, according to an NPD survey.

Harried cooks who scramble to get an everyday dinner on the table are driving those numbers, industry watchers say.

"It's kind of the Super Bowl of meals," says Michael Sansolo, senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade group.

"More family is there than any time of the year. There are people who've been doing less and less cooking, and all of a sudden, for this one day, they're supposed to be a gourmet chef and knock everyone's socks off."

Count Steve Hightower, a Buckhead salon owner, among those looking for an easier day.

He's relying on appetizers from My Girlfriend's Kitchen, a new meal assembly service in Atlanta's west Midtown area, for his dinner for 25. Friends are bringing the other food, including the turkey.

"I just don't have the time to go and shop and prepare everything, and I don't want to clean up the mess," says Hightower.

He's tried supermarket meals in the past but wanted a more gourmet flair. After tasting several items from My Girlfriend's Kitchen, he signed up for the hot artichoke and spinach dip, meatballs with orange sauce and pumpkin-pecan bake.

"It's more about coming together with friends and family if possible," Hightower says. "You create your tradition by having food. It's not so much about traditional food."

Cotter, 46, has prepared Thanksgiving meals from scratch before, and plans to roast an organic turkey to go with her Dream Dinners sides. With a tough move just behind the family of five, they're ready to take it easy this year, she says.

No worries about coordinating everything to be ready at the same time. No fretting about making the perfect gravy.

After all, it's already in the bag.




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