Couple's healthy ready meals have tasty prospects
Lucinda O'Sullivan meets the husband and wife team keen to make healthy versions of the comforting meals our mums made
PEOPLE all over the country have been coming up with wonderful ideas and new businesses over the past couple of years, but 36-year-old Karen Daly and her husband Frank entered a market that is normally reserved for the big boys -- the corporate food world and major supermarkets -- with their range of Slender Choice ready meals.
Slender Choice offers the health-conscious a selection of homely meals using only 100 per cent Irish meats, with each complete meal having less than 1 per cent fat.
Slender Choice products are for sale in Dunnes Stores, Superquinn and Tesco here at home, while its sausages have recently launched in Dunnes in the North.
Karen and Frank are from Mullaghbawn, Co Armagh, and have been together since 1999. Karen says: "We had our first son, Aaron, in 2008. I sat all summer waiting for the baby weight to disappear, with everybody telling me that it would. But I realised this big weight wasn't going anywhere, and having seen a photograph of myself I realised I had more than four stone to lose.
"Within nine months I lost four stone with Slimming World and became so conscious of what I was eating. I realised that I could in fact eat more than I had ever eaten and still lose weight."
Karen did some part-time voluntary work with Slimming World and started with a group one night a week in Dundalk. Over 12 months, that spiralled into about 40 groups around north Leinster.
"Having a young baby, the two of us working full time, being so busy, it was so easy to follow the plan if you could cook from scratch, but we struggled for something handy and quick.
"In the process of what I was doing I spent a lot of time working with butchers and restaurants in Dundalk, and had them develop ideas and meals that worked, low in fat and tasting just as good as the normal stuff.
"One of the butchers was working on a range of saus-ages as well. I suppose the frustrating thing was that I was spending months and months free of charge just helping them and you would go back into the butcher's shop or restaurant a few weeks later and you had no confidence that they were doing what they were supposed to be doing.
"They would have changed it, or a different chef would be in, and you weren't getting what you had worked on, so I moaned to Frank every other night -- and then one night he said, 'Why don't we do it ourselves'?"
That was in October 2010. "Our parents thought we were bonkers at the time," Frank says. "Karen was pregnant with our second child, Jamie, but we decided to go for it. We had our savings behind us -- we never went mad in the Celtic Tiger.
"Our sausages are made from lean pork shoulder rather than other parts of the pig, there is no actual fat that goes into the sausage. There is only 2 per cent fat overall. And they are MSG and gluten-free. They are 64 per cent meat, but we are working with Bord Bia on bringing the meat level up to 70 per cent."
Their range is based on good, homely comfort foods that our mammies might have cooked -- such as their Cosy Cottage Pie, which is lean Irish minced beef with peas, carrots and onions, topped with fluffy potatoes.
'Big taste, small waist' is Karen's motto, and their Cosy Cottage Pie has only 292 calories, no oils or butters, and less than 1 per cent fat. They also do a Hearty Beef Stew, a Cheeky Chicken Curry and a Cheery Chicken & Leek Pie with a sweet potato topping.
The dishes are produced by Ballymaguire Foods, trading as Country Crest, which manufactures ready meals under many familiar labels.
"We worked with their product development team. These were recipes we were cooking at home and I knew exactly what I wanted in the products, so it was really just getting them right," says Karen.
"It is one thing to make something in your kitchen at home and have it taste the way you want it, but then trying to reproduce it on a mass scale is different. There were limits as well, which were frustrating, so it wasn't always exactly as we wanted it. It takes a while to get it right, testing and retesting, which is expensive. All dishes average around 300 calories and give you two of your five a day as well, less than 1 per cent and virtually no saturated fat."
They launched at the Shop Retail Exhibition in September 2011 and won the award for Best New Taste.
In November 2011 they started selling into shops in north Co Dublin, craft butchers, SuperValu and Tesco. They were offered a Dragon's Den investment, but declined it. However, it gave them confidence and great exposure. Kildare GAA manager Kieran McGeeney has also come on board as an investor and will help with the health and fitness side of the business, which they say is "wonderful".