Kevin Kusinski's Three square meals

Sampling the meal service of K Squared Meals

The few subscription meal services I've tried have left me very hungry and usually guilty. The latter arises out of my childhood experience. My mother used such a service when I was a kid, principally because she felt unappreciated for her cooking. In other words, it was punishment. After a few weeks of meals from Kitty's Kitchen, spooned out of canteens, Mama agreed to resume cooking.

Several of the services I've tried have felt similarly punitive. I tried a vegan one before vegan cooks developed any imagination. I tried another that cost a zillion dollars because the meals were prepared by a well-known chef. Both of these were lunch and/or dinner only and inevitably left me foraging for real food.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued when I encountered Kevin Kusinski's K Squared Meals online (kevinkusinski@yahoo.com, 404-376-1537). First of all, I admit, I was struck by the low cost. He provides subscribers three meals daily for five days at a total cost of $75. That's $5 each! If you prefer, you can order lunch and dinner only for $50.

Even more impressive was the menu, which changes weekly. Kusinski, a personal trainer at Snap Fitness, is not cooking your usual health food, although his meals are definitely designed to help clients control calorie intake. Vietnamese, Thai, Italian, Brazilian, Greek, Tunisian and Cajun flavors were all featured the week I subscribed.

I picked up my 15 meals at Kusinski's home near East Atlanta Village on a Saturday, like the rest of his subscribers. (He plans to work out of the kitchen of Le Petit Marché in Kirkwood soon.) Just reading over the menu and seeing the 15 heavy plastic containers that contained my meals, I blurted, "This is healthy food?"

He laughed and said, "My thing is nutrition and portion control. I'm providing a substitute for good-quality, home-cooked meals. They're healthy in that I try to keep them gluten-free and use low-calorie substitutes when possible." He says the meals average 400 to 500 calories each and he recommends pairing them with a salad or fresh fruit.

"I started doing this," he explained, "because some of my personal training clients weren't losing the weight they wanted to. I knew this was a problem of diet, so I decided to start cooking for them." This is consistent with recent research that concludes weight loss is much more an effect of diet than exercise, which can, however, help maintain the lower weight.

Kusinski grew up with a Polish mother. "Cooking was all about comfort and flavor," he said, "and I've always stuck to that — I use a lot of spices — but tried to do so in a healthier way." As a "latchkey kid," he began cooking very young. He did a stint with a catering company and worked as a server at La Tavola. His story includes a period of depression and homelessness. Like increasing numbers of people with depression, he discovered that exercise has a strong anti-depressive effect — often more so than pharmaceuticals. Now, besides working as a personal trainer and cook, he's completing a master's degree.

I found the meals mainly delicious. I am not, however, a breakfast person. The most I usually eat in the morning is a cup of oatmeal and a protein bar. So, Kusinski's eggs, sausages and pancakes were far heavier than I'm used to eating. Believe me, you won't go hungry before lunch after his breakfasts — and I typically eat lunch around 2 p.m.

Breakfast was the only meal I found problematic to heat. It did not do well in the microwave if the dish included English muffins, as two did. Bacon also didn't reheat well. Anyone who uses a microwave knows that breads don't usually do well in them, so you may want to pop these in the oven. I also had difficulty with the one fish dish — a grilled Atlantic salmon fillet, topped with rémoulade, over red beans and rice. The fish was way too dry after microwaving.

My favorite dish of the week was a version of Vietnamese pho made with a very rich chicken stock. Chunks of juicy chicken and carrots were in the bowl, along with the novelty of soba noodles. But it was the flavors of the broth that were particularly surprising. Underlying the usual star anise, ginger and cilantro was a faint sweetness that turned out to be cinnamon and a bit of nutmeg.

Other really good dishes include eggplant Parmesan with marinara sauce and mozzarella over pasta; chicken puttanesca (with not-so-appealing polenta); cashew-curried chicken salad with apples and sesame; whole-wheat penne with turkey meatballs; chicken jambalaya with turkey sausage; beef and barley stew; and Tunisian pork chops over an amazingly flavored quinoa.

If you want to give Kusinski's meals a try, you need to order them by 11 a.m. Wednesday for Saturday pickup.

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