Amherst-based meal service helps busy people eat their vegetables

  • Jen Howard, right, and Asela Roberts, left, prepare and deliver hundreds of meals to local customers each week. “I know the food is good, and as I’m losing weight, it’s one less thing I have to think about,” says customer Jeanine Downie of South Deerfield, who orders five meals a week from Food for Strength. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Jen Howard prepares meals to go in Food for STRENGTH? Life's Amherst kitchen Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Jen Howard prepares meals to go in Food for Life's Amherst kitchen Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Food for Strength meals to go, as seen Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • “This is a restaurant style meal in a container, and we cook from scratch,” says Howard. This dish combines grits with shrimp, Maplebrook feta, toasted chick peas, local tomato greens, and cucumber tossed with a lemon dill dressing. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Caitlin Hoess prepares Food for Strength meals at the business' Amherst kitchen, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Caitlin Hoess, right, and Asela Roberts, left, prepare Food for Strength meals IS THIS A BURRITO BOWL? in the business' Amherst kitchen, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

Published: 9/7/2018 4:55:24 PM

Between fulltime work, family life, and staying in shape, Jeanine Downie of South Deerfield has a jam-packed life.

To make things a little bit less chaotic, she orders five meals weekly from Food for Strength, an Amherst-based healthy meal delivery service.

“It makes my choices easier, I know the food is good. And for me, as I’m losing weight, it’s one less thing I have to think about,” said Downie, who is 49. Since her first order about three years ago, she says she has lost 70 pounds, and feels a lot healthier.

“The convenience is great, and it’s real food, real ingredients,” Downie said. “It’s not like you’re opening a frozen meal.”

With a rotating menu of dinners like burrito bowls, sun-dried tomato risotto, shrimp orzo, and chicken parmesan with gnocchi, Jen Howard, 31, owner of Food for Strength, says she lets the ingredients speak for themselves, and injects flavor into meals by adding unique sauces.

“This is a restaurant style meal in a container, and we cook from scratch,” Howard said. “We have Paleo, we have gluten free, we have a good amount of stuff to take care of most diets.”

As a few examples of sauces, she highlighted a creamy sriracha made with avocado mayo; a coconut amino teriyaki; and cilantro chimichurri, all of which are made in-house, often with local ingredients. Meats come from Chicopee-based Arnold’s Meats. Howard also purchases vegetables — lots of vegetables — from local farms like The Kitchen Garden in Sunderland.

“It's vegetables, vegetables, and more vegetables,” Howard said. "Cauliflower rice comes by the bucket around here. It is essential for living,"  

“Zucchini noodles, butternut noodles, beet noodles. If it's a vegetable and you can noodle it, we noodle it." 

Howard was in Food for Strength’s basement kitchen one recent day, which is near the Boltwood Garage parking lot in downtown Amherst, and paused to talk while preparing meals for delivery.

Most of her customers are middle aged women, she says, who really enjoy cooking on the weekend but appreciate the convenience of good food during the week.

“I’d say a good half of our clients have kids that I know of,” she said. Customers order online, and deliveries are made weekly every Monday.

As she talked, Howard spooned chicken, vegetables, and grits from a cooking pan into black plastic containers laid out on a stainless steel table. Behind her, more containers chilled in a fridge. Electronic music played over a small radio in the corner. The scent of cooking wafted through the small space. 

And on the other side of the room, Asela Roberts, who cooks and comes up with recipes, stirred a smoked maple garlic sauce on a stove to pour over shrimp served with toasted chick peas, tomato greens, and cucumbers tossed with a dill dressing. Roberts is also a manager at The Roost in downtown Northampton, and is one of two employees, along with Caitlin Hoess, who helps in the kitchen and delivers the meals to customers’ homes.

"It starts with what tastes good," Roberts said, explaining how dishes are designed.

Howard, who has a degree in restaurant management from the New England Culinary Institute, has been cooking in commercial kitchens since high school, when she worked at McDonalds. 

She met Roberts while managing Sylvesters in downtown Northampton nearly a decade ago. The two have worked together since then, including a stint making prepared foods at the Leverett Village Coop.

Howard founded Food for Strength in 2014 as a personal chef service, and brought Roberts on board in 2016 when she needed extra help. Around the same time, Howard began working as a personal trainer, and found that many of her clients often struggled to eat well even if they were physically active.

Because of those experiences, she sought to make healthy food that people would want to eat, and began cooking as a personal chef.

“The hardest part of personal training, sometimes, is getting them to eat right,” Howard said. "I would go into people's homes and take their very specific needs, wants, allergies, all of that fun stuff, take that, and create for them menus of what they wanted. I would prepare it, and fill their fridges and freezers.”

At first, she cooked for about two or three people each day. But after the workload became too much to handle on her own, she expanded into the current model in 2016. These days, Howard and her team prepare hundreds of ready-to-eat meals each week, and deliver to customers in Amherst, Hadley, Sunderland, Northampton and Florence, Belchertown, Holyoke, Easthampton, South Deerfield, Chicopee, Granby, and Westfield. The meals, which cost between $10 and $12, can also be picked up at 50/50 Fitness Nutrition in Hadley.

From the beginning, creating healthy meals has been an integral part of their business philosophy, Howard says, noting connections to many area fitness events such as 5K races and Crossfit competitions. Food for Strength meals are sometimes served at the finish line, or sold near the registration area, Howard said.

One of the reasons why Downie says she continues to order Food for Strength is because the portions are consistently between 350 and 500 calories, unlike restaurant meals, which can easily top 1,000 calories.

As a trainer, Howard observed, "You can run your clients ragged, and still find they're not getting the results they want because they're eating like crap."

Creamy sriracha sauce

5 cloves roasted garlic

¼ cup local sriracha (like The Kitchen Garden’s)

2 t cilantro

½ oz lime juice

½ cup pure avocado mayo (like Primal Kitchen’s)

2 T olive oil

Instructions: Blend all ingredients except oil in blender until smooth, slowly drizzle in olive oil.

Makes about ¾ cup. Pour over foods like grilled sweet potato wedges.

For more information on Food for Strength, visit Orders must be placed before Saturday at 6 p.m., and they are delivered between noon and 6 p.m. every Monday in insulated cooler bags with ice packs to keep the meals cold.

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