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New farm-to-table business values traditional family dining

New Canaan resident Maureen Shankar grew up watching her grandmother spend hours cooking fresh and tasty meals for the family.

"She used to make all kinds of classic foods, chicken noodle soup, pot roast, homemade mashed potatoes, roasted veggies, all kinds of things," she said.

Though she always admired her grandmother's "thoughtful" cooking, Shankar herself was too busy to try to cook.

"Her generation had that ability, but today a lot of us don't have that time," she said. "When I was growing up, I was very focused on my studies, I didn't start attempting to cook until I was about 30."

It was partly for that reason that Shankar, a former financial services manager, decided last year to start her own business -- a farm-to-table meal delivery service called FreshDine.

The service targets families who are looking for simple and healthy meals on weeknights. As of now, deliveries are made only on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Shankar and her chef, Lauren Peden, source most of their products from local farms and farmers' markets in Connecticut and New York. They cook fully prepared dinners, which are made in small batches on the day the order is due, and deliver them to customers, usually by 5 p.m.

The meals are packed into containers made of recycled paper and put into insulated delivery bags so customers don't need to be home for the delivery.

"If the customer is not home, we'll simply leave the food at their doorsteps," Shankar said.

Customers only have to heat their meals before eating. Orders can be placed by phone or online.

On the website, Shankar emphasizes what drove her to start this business: "Whether you're working or shuffling the kids around to sports practice and lessons, it's not always easy to get a breather on the weeknights," she said. "We know everyone would love to have a healthy, home-cooked dinner on the table each night. But not everyone has the time to plan, shop, and cook -- and then clean up."

FreshDine has attempted to offer such convenience for a low price. The most expensive individual entrees on the menu are $11.99.

"We can charge less than restaurants because we don't have to pay for restaurant space and staff," she said. "What people don't always realize is that when you go to a restaurant, a big component of what you're paying for is the interior."

Especially in "a prime location like downtown New Canaan," she said, the price of a dish has to cover the cost of the rent, a normally large staff and, in some cases, entertainment. Read Full Article 

Shankar noted, however, that most families are not looking for a special atmosphere during weeknight dinners.

"People tend to eat

at home during the

week," she said.

And that's when her service comes in.

The menu also features appetizers, soups, salads, desserts, kids' dishes and pastries, as well as a number of gluten-free and vegetarian options. Some of the entrees include classic dishes like beef bourguignon, spinach lasagna, shepherd's pie and baked chicken parmigiana.

Shankar promises not to use preservatives, artificial sweeteners, food coloring, MSG or trans fats. There also is no flash-freezing, mass production, warehouse or industrial-style cooking, she said.

Orders need to be placed at least 24 hours before delivery time. The flat delivery fee is $3.75. FreshDine also offers customized monthly plans, with discounted prices, according to Shankar.

Customers have to leave the bag with the cooling packets out at their doorstep by 9 a.m. the day after the delivery, and someone comes to pick it up.

All meals are cooked in Peden's commercial kitchen in Norwalk. The chef, who was trained at the French Culinary Institute, also owns and runs the catering business Simply Delicious.

As of now, FreshDine serves New Canaan, Darien, Wilton, Weston, Westport, Norwalk and Pound Ridge, N.Y., but Shankar said she has plans to expand soon and also offer deliveries on all weekdays.

For her first business, she said, she wanted to do something that she was "personally very passionate about," and as a mother, she thought eating well and spending time at home with the family were important.

The Maine native, who misses her grandmother's cooking, said she hopes the service is not only successful, but helps people value the time they spend home having dinner with their families.

For more information, call 203-594-9523 or visit FreshDine.com.

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson

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