Local Economy

Lion's Lair: Hamilton's solution to last-minute dinners

After travelling the world, Hamiltonian Malin van der Meer looked to her native Sweden for inspiration for her small business, Dinnerlicious.
Dinnerlicious founder Malin van der Meer is inspired by local farmer's markets. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Malin van der Meer hitched a ride on the back of a motorcycle during a stretch of her tour through the rural roads of Cambodia. She carried a backpack that was often stuffed with eggs, butter and other ingredients for baking.

She worked for an NGO and lived in Phnom Penh. From time to time she'd make her way out to surrounding villages to teach cooking classes to fellow expats.

"We baked a lot," she said. "Making things you couldn't get in Cambodia. Like chocolate chip cookies."

Van der Meer has lived in more places around the world than you could count on one hand, and each spot has inspired has shaped the way she cooks.

The latest stop on her world tour has taken her to Hamilton. That's where she has settled down and started her own small business.

Her idea was inspired by a phenomenon from her home country Sweden. It came to her five years ago. She would deliver a bag full of ingredients with recipes to busy families. The idea was to take the what's-for-dinner stress away from families with two working parents, without eliminating the joy of family cooking.

Van der Meer sat at her dining room table with her husband one night, shooting off business ideas. They both agreed the meal bag delivery was a perfect fit. "My friends [in Sweden] are shocked that we didn't have it here," van der Meer said. Meal bag delivery has become an industry in Sweden, she said, with over 100,000 "subscribers" to various companies across the country

Van der Meer started Dinnerlicious in November of last year. She plans three meals a week for her subscribers, who can sign up on a weekly, bi-weekly or occasional basis.

She hand delivers from her family's van (fully equipped with a child car seat) meal bags on Mondays and Tuesdays with the right amount of ingredients and step-by-step recipes.

"It helps avoid that 4 o'clock call at work trying to figure out who would take care of dinner," she said. Her service relieves stress from parents to plan and shop for meals. And as a mother of two young children, it's a reality she knows.

The woman

Growing up in Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden, van der Meer often visited local fisherman with her father to get the evening meal. Her father was a bank manager who loved to cook. Because of her father's career, the family moved around a lot, she said. Van der Meer's passion for food grew with each place she went.

She spent her teenage years in Paris, where her family routinely shopped at local markets. Van der Meer returned to this lifestyle after completing her undergraduate degree in England. She then spent three years as a master's student in Brussels (another culinary dream, she said).

Van der Meer's first career was in international development, but she picked up bits and pieces of her cooking knowledge along the way. She moved to Macedonia with the United Nations as a community worker after the civil conflict.

"It's where the Middle East meets Europe," she said. "All you could get is local, so you have to eat by the seasons." She and her husband often travelled to Greece, for the food of course. But for a taste of her home in Sweden she eats at Ikea. "The Swedish meatballs," she said, with a laugh.

Van der Meer said Southeast Asian cuisine is her favourite, so it was fitting that her next post was in Cambodia. The family moved to Hamilton four years ago, where her husband grew up.

Now that van der Meer is a mom, she's passed the same passion for cooking she got from her parents to her children."They like to help," she said of her son and daughter, aged 7 and 5. "Especially cracking eggs. That's fun for them." Her boy is especially interested, and opinionated about what's good and what's not.

"He often says, 'this should be a Dinnerlicious meal,'" van der Meer said.

The company

Dinnerlicious is a one-woman show, with a bit of help from the man behind the woman. Right now, she operates out of her home, packing bags and creating recipes in the family kitchen.

Van der Meer is inspired by what is in season and tends to plan her meals around produce. She frequents the Ottawa Street farmer's market on Fridays and Saturdays. The rest of the time is spent testing recipes, packing bags and delivering.

She draws menu inspiration from Hamilton's local produce and her travels. This week, she featured, watermelon jalapeno salsa with grilled chicken, pork skewers with a rice pilaf and cod cakes with a vegetable medley and a tomato yogurt sauce.

One of the company's strong point, she said, is there is no waste. "I can't stand throwing food away," said Stoney Creek customer Rebecca Mullin, a working mother of three. "Malin pre-measures everything you need so there is no waste."

Mullin has been a customer since Dinnerlicious began about 10 months ago. She loves that her kids are trying different cuisine — Indian, Greek and Mexican — and eating things they otherwise wouldn't like bison burgers and spinach.

Since the recipe is laid out step-by-step, Mullin said her husband has actually taken over a majority of the cooking. "It's something he can do," she said with a laugh.

The Lion's Lair pitch: Why Dinnerlicious should win

Van der Meer has been thinking about Lion's Lair for the past year. The competition's  2011 winner designed her website. "We're addressing a really significant need." Van der Meer said. "We live in a busy society." She says 70 per cent of parents don't know what they're making for dinner at 5:45 p.m.

Dinnerlicious has about 100 customers at present, almost all from word of mouth. Van der Meer said marketing is the first place she'd invest some cash if she won the big prize.

Van der Meer hopes to expand out of the Greater Hamilton Area one day and into Toronto. But she is dedicated to keeping her business in Hamilton.

"It's only an hour drive to Toronto," she said. "The beauty is we're still putting money into Hamilton and can still serve other locations."