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Move over Hamburger Helper; new meal starters help you (pretend to) make a meal

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - There's nothing more satisfying than a home-cooked meal, especially if it comes out of a can or a pouch.

As more people try their hand at mimicking sophisticated recipes from cooking shows and blogs, food companies are rolling out meal kits and starters that make amateur chefs feel like Emeril Lagasse or Rachael Ray in the kitchen.

Call it the next generation of dinner-in-box sets like Rice-A-Roni and Hamburger Helper that were rolled out as moms flooded the workforce in the '50s, '60s and '70s. But the new kits and starters go beyond just browning meat and throwing evaporated cheese and seasonings into boiling water — the idea is to make people feel more as though they're making meals from scratch.

General Mills Inc. has a line of "Progresso Recipe Starters," which are pre-made sauces in flavours such as "Fire-Roasted Tomato" and "Creamy Portabella Mushroom" that can be a base for a variety of dishes. Kraft Food Group Inc.'s "Sizzling Salads" dinner kits pair a meat marinade with the optimal salad dressing: you provide all the other ingredients. And Campbell Soup Co. has "Skillet Sauces" that can be mixed with fresh meat and veggies. Total prep time: 15 minutes.

Scott Jones, a public relations specialist in Fort Worth, Texas, uses Kraft's Velveeta Skillets, a deluxe version of mac-n-cheese in a box with flavours such as Chicken Alfredo and Lasagna.

Jones likes that the box suggests ways to customize the recipe by doing things like using different types of meats. He says the creamy cheese packets are a step up from powder mixes. And he likes adding personal touches (Think: diced tomatoes and peppers.)

It's not the same as the pot roasts feasts that he cooks on Sundays but on weekdays it allows him to give his family a "satisfying meal, quickly and conveniently."

Cooking shortcuts long have been an American way of life, of course. But demand has grown for time-saving recipes as busy Americans eat more meals at home to save money. The NPD Group estimates the average number of meals eaten at home at 902 last year, up from 870 four years earlier.

At the same time, there's a growing "foodie culture" that values authenticity and fresh ingredients. It may be why sales of Rice-A-Roni — essentially a box of rice and powdered seasoning mix — have dropped 16 per cent to $196 million from five years ago, according to the market researcher Euromonitor International.

The companies that make the new starters say it's too early to make sales projections but the hope is to appeal to the people who want it both ways: a home-cooked meal that doesn't require much sweat and labour. In particular, companies are aiming for those in their 20s and 30s whose cooking skills may be outmatched by their increasingly sophisticated tastes.

"Their definition of cooking is different," says Darren Serrao, who heads innovation for Campbell Soup, based in Camden, N.J. "Assembly is cooking."

Indeed, Kraft Sizzling Salads dinner kits aren't exactly your mother's "made from scratch" recipes.

They direct people to heat up some chicken with the marinade and toss a salad with the dressing. But in case aspiring home cooks need some extra guidance in their culinary adventures, Kraft provides cooking tutorials online.

In a video for the Chicken Caesar meal kit, a woman demonstrates how to squeeze the marinade over four chicken breasts in a frying pan. She then guides viewers through the steps of adding croutons and shredded cheese into a bowl of chopped lettuce. The finishing touch? Squirting in some Kraft dressing.

Progresso's sauces involve a little more work. For example, let's say you want beef stroganoff. All you need is two pounds of boneless beef sirloin, an onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and a can of Progresso's Recipe Starters in Creamy Portabella Mushroom flavour. The dish takes 35 minutes from start to finish, according to the recipe on the can.

Making beef stroganoff from scratch, by contrast, would be a deeply involved ordeal, in large part because of the sauce, says Brendan Walsh, dean of culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America.

"You're dealing with stocks and reductions. It's a good 12-hour process," he says.

Although Walsh wouldn't put Progresso's version of beef stroganoff "in the realm of chef-dom," he notes that companies have gotten better at making products with improved taste and nutritional content. And given busy schedules, Walsh says such "survival cooking" is often an easy way to put a hot meal on the table.

Some starters are even more basic.

Land O' Lakes has "Saute Starters," cubes of butter that contain olive oil and are packed with the right mix of spices to make a dish, coming in flavours such as Italian Herb and Lemon Pepper.

Cooking instructions? Toss a square in a pan, add some meat, shrimp or fish, then serve with rice or pasta.

Peggy Ellingson, Land O' Lakes' vice-president of innovation and new business development, promises that the aroma from the butter will have everyone asking what mom is cooking for dinner.

In other words, it's all part of the show.

___

Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi

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