Doomsday Kitchen: “Meals in a Jar” Cookbook

meals in a jar cover

I’ll admit first off that I thought Meals in a Jar sounded like a FANTASTIC idea, sort of along the lines of Dream Dinners. I imagined a book of step-by-step recipes that would end up in a jar, only to be brought out sometime later when I run out of fresh ingredients and I want to prepare a quick meal that was home-prepared without all those pesky chemical preservatives.

That’s what I got. Sort of. And so much more.

I’ll admit also that this book is not for me. But since I’m not the only person who reads this site, I had to share it with you because a) you might be interested and b) I thought it was fascinating that there are people who do these things in real life.

Meals in a Jar by Julie Languille is not just a cookbook. Oh no. It is also a very lovingly prepared instruction manual for how to feed yourself and all of your nearby survivors in the event of an apocalypse. It’s impressive – Languille teaches you how to can and dehydrate food and how much to prepare and how long it will last. She includes recipes like Cream of Asparagus Soup and Braised Chicken and Mushrooms and White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies.

I was disappointed, actually, because I kind of want to make Tamarind-Braised Pork Ribs, but I don’t want to make it for 8 people three weeks after a massive zombie attack. I would rather travel to Languille’s house on Whidbey Island in Washington state with what’s left of my family’s canned goods as a peace offering and hope she invites us to stay for dinner. I suppose that after the power goes out we will need a sailboat. My husband will come in handy there.

Okay, I suppose I shouldn’t be so flippant about it – next year is the 20th anniversary of The Big One – the Northridge Earthquake that turned the power off for much of Los Angeles for quite a while. If I had a bunch of meals in a jar, a stash of propane, and a full 50-gallon water drum, we would be just fine.

And Languille does publish the meal planning website, where “normal” recipes like Healthy Apple Chicken can be found for free and a lot more is available to members.

If you live in a place that is at risk of hurricanes, floods, and blackouts, AND you are not afraid of phrases like “retort pouches,” then this is the cookbook for you!

Dream Dinners Can Relieve Your Dinnertime Nightmare

As head of my family’s kitchen, I go through phases in which I am prepared for dinnertime for many days in a row.  I’ve tried several different methods to achieve this, and each of them has worked for a time.  It all comes down to menu planning, when I know what is for dinner each day of the week, and I know that we have the ingredients on hand to make it.  But inevitably, there are stretches of days or even weeks during which our schedule is so hectic that by evening, my brain is scanning the contents of the pantry and fridge for something, anything, that can be assembled into a healthy, satisfying meal.

When I tried Dream Dinners, I stocked the freezer with enough meals to save the day six times, and each time the dinner was a hit with at least 2 out of the 4 people who live and eat here.

Them’s pretty good odds.

Dream Dinners in Thousand Oaks (in the Chuck E. Cheese plaza, for you parents of young children) is a franchised location of this nationwide meal-prep service.  Here is how it works:  the staff publishes a menu of meals you can assemble there.  You choose how many and exactly which meals you want to make, and you order them online.  Then, on a night or weekend session that you have scheduled, you arrive at Dream Dinners, don your handy apron, and assemble each of the meals in their clean, orderly, colorful kitchen.  Then you take your bounty home and stick it in the freezer, where the meals wait to be sauteed or popped into the oven as needed.

Everything you need is ready in your own drawer when you arrive

This concept has been around for a while, and Dream Dinners itself has been in business for about ten years.  When I visited the T.O. location, I found the entire process to be well-run and enjoyable.  It makes the process of meal assembly, at least, more fun than usual.  The staff even serves wine and samples of future recipes for you to nibble and sip as you work.

Cheers! Now get to work.

Sample meals from next month's menu

The actual process of assembling the meals takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you have it down, you can make a LOT of meals in a few short hours.  For my test session, I chose six different recipes to make, but there were probably about twice that number available to choose from.  Each recipe was set up at a different station, with all of the ingredients at hand and color-coded measuring devices set out that matched the color-coded recipe cards.  If someone made a mess, a magical elf would clean it up and replace the utensils and bowls before you could get a paper towel and come back.

Magic elf shadows my friend, E.

There are a lot of ziploc bags involved, I noticed, so if you have environmental concerns about plastic, you’ll be doing a lot of rinsing or maybe this concept is not for you.  For instance, one barbecue chicken recipe that I made required me to mix a chicken mixture in a ziploc bag, along with a sauce mixture in another ziploc bag, along with something else in yet another ziploc bag, and then I was to put all of the above in still another, very large ziploc bag to keep it all together.  Last step is to affix the instruction card to the package, which tells you how to prepare the meal when you are ready to serve it to your family.  This is important to remember, because you might be heating this meal up weeks after you prepared it.

Notice the stash of ziplocs to the right

On the night that I prepared my meals, the Thousand Oaks location was humming with activity.  There was a larger group of women who came together, and it was clear that they viewed their session as a social gathering as well as a meal-planning task.  The friend who accompanied me is a regular;  she assured me that it’s not usually this crowded, but since I didn’t have any other experience for comparison, I didn’t mind.  Then again, this friend is a working mom who relies on Dream Dinners to make her dinnertimes run smoothly – she made 72 servings of dinner in the few hours we were there.  She was not kidding around.  I watched her fly around that kitchen and slap meals together like a pro, so I can see why extra bodies could slow her down.

The party's at Dream Dinners tonight!

The true test of Dream Dinners is obviously the taste.  Would I like it?  Would my husband like it?  And more importantly, would the kids eat it?

These are the meals I chose from the menu during the month of March:

Penne with chicken and peanut sauce
Savannah grilled chicken with sweet potato fries
Chicago style chicken with potatoes
Creamy chicken risotto
Firehouse three cheese pasta with meatballs
Canadian bacon stuffed French bread

Everyone in my family at least tried all of the meals.  My husband will eat anything, so he was easy, and I am the one who chose the meals, so naturally I was up for all of them.  My two little boys are picky eaters, and they gobbled up TWO helpings of the Savannah grilled chicken.  I would make all of those meals again.  (Except for the three cheese pasta with meatballs.  Much too garlicky and gave me instant heartburn.  I gotta tell it like it is.)

Chicago style chicken with potatoes

Creamy chicken risotto

In fact, I would definitely adopt Dream Dinners as part of my dinnertime toolkit going forward if the cost were more in line with our family’s budget.  The meals do tend to run on the pricier side.  For example, a meal similar to one that I made from the list above costs $5.92 per serving.  The cost can easily add up, because not all of the menu options at Dream Dinners includes a side dish.

Since I work at home and make a part time salary, what I have in more abundance than money is time.  I do have time to chop and dice and trim and rinse, so I do have time to prepare meals and cook them. It’s those nights when we have late sports practices, or I’m headed out for an event, or we’ve been so busy over the weekend that I didn’t have time to do the weekly grocery shopping, that I need help with.  I think that families with two full-time working parents would (and do) find Dream Dinners extremely useful and more easily worked into their budget.

The Thousand Oaks location of Dream Dinners just got a new co-owner, and they have made a few changes to their policies, such as guaranteed non-crowded sessions, and someone to man the store all day long, not just during the meal prep sessions.  There are often volume discounts and special offers available that bring the costs down, too, so I would say it is well worth your efforts to look into this service to kick your family dinners up a notch.

I received a complimentary session and six 3-serving meals in order to facilitate this feature.