The Zen of Slow Cooking and the Spice of a Busy Life

by Meg Barnhart, the zen of slow cooking, guest contributor

[Note: Jane McKay of the zen of slow cooking contributed to this article.]

There are many companies that make products that meet the needs of today’s busy lifestyles. But few perform that task with as much of a social mission as the zen of slow cooking.

the zen of slow cooking's logo

the zen of slow cooking’s logo

The spice mixes and recipes developed by owners Meg Barnhart and Jane McKay help busy people make easy slow cooker meals that enable them and their families to have delicious dinners waiting for them when they get home.

And the zen of slow cooking continues its mission to provide employment and cooking lessons for developmentally challenged adults — such as Barnhart’s son Doug.

The zen of slow cooking will be an exhibitor at FamilyFarmed‘s Good Food Festival & Conference, which takes place at Chicago’s UIC Forum March 16-18. 

And if you have a Good Food business and want to also exhibit at this industry-leading event, please click here to take advantage of a $150 discount through Dec. 31.

Enjoy Meg Barnhart’s story below.

In 2012 I decided that I wanted to create a business that could employ individuals with learning challenges — adults like my son, Doug. And this business would be centered on the “the zen of slow cooking” that I had previously developed.

The social mission of the zen of slow cooking — providing adults who have learning disabilities with employment and cooking skills — was inspired by the challenges faced by founder Meg Barnhart's son Doug.

The social mission of the zen of slow cooking — providing adults who have learning disabilities with employment and cooking skills — was inspired by the challenges faced by founder Meg Barnhart’s son Doug.

When I started slow cooking in 2006 to ease my mom-guilt and get a healthy dinner on the table, I never imagined the slow cooker would be a vehicle for change. With my vision in place, I began looking for a partner to help turn my dream into a reality.

My friend Joanie called a few months later to say, “I met a young mom named Jane McKay, I think she’s the person you’ve been searching for.” Jane had just moved to Chicago from the United Kingdom and was developing recipes and writing for a local food artisan.

When we met a few weeks later it was clear that we were meant to build my dream together. With Jane’s food-writing background, starting a blog for the zen of slow cooking made sense.

That fall, we launched the blog, sharing my passion for helping people find a little more Zen in the kitchen with Jane’s desire to create whole food recipes for the slow cooker. As our subscribers grew in numbers, drawn by our contemporary twist on slow cooking, Jane and I knew we were onto something.

Meg Barnhart and Jane McKay of the zen of slow cooking at their first sampling event.

Meg Barnhart and Jane McKay of the zen of slow cooking at their first sampling event.

Using our most widely searched recipes coupled with customer requests, we created even more simplicity for the home cook, and debuted a series of gourmet-inspired spice blends at the Lake Forest Farmers Market in fall 2013. Each blend featured a recipe directly on the tin and a shopping list conveniently located on the back. 

To our delight, our products sold out on the first week, started receiving email requests after the market closed and by year end had sold more than 1,000 blends.

In September 2014, we launched our online store to make purchasing their Zen Blends more accessible.

With our Slow Cooker Spice Blends in production, Jane and I turned our attention to the employment model we were seeking and met with Planet Access Company (PAC). PAC provides training and employment for adults with developmental disabilities and is located in Des Plaines, Illinois, just outside Chicago.

the zen of slow cooking's Jane McKay mixes one of the company's excellent spice blends, tailored for use in slow cookers.

the zen of slow cooking’s Jane McKay mixes one of the company’s excellent spice blends, tailored for use in slow cookers.

By now Jane was blending and packaging more than she could handle, so we turned to PAC for help. Jane remained in the kitchen creating the blends. They were then shipped to PAC to take care of the time-consuming tinning, labeling and heat-sealing process.

With the debut of our Zen blends, my dream slowly started to take shape. Each time someone purchased one of our blends, they made a contribution to our slow-cooking initiative, a “Drishti Donation — where insight meets action.”

We created a visual recipe and a video tutorial for adults who are non-readers. We also taught a workshop about the simplicity and safety of slow cooking to a group of young adults with autism and donated a slow cooker for their community kitchen.

In 2015, Jane and I started teaching cooking classes at a local organic farm and were accepted as Member Candidates into the Specialty Food Association, receiving excellent reviews on the Zen blends. As our wholesale business expanded, we redesigned the packaging of the blends with our talented designer, Linda Cassady. This made them more eye-catching, and more importantly made them easier to package for our partners at Planet Access Company.

Jane McKay and Meg Barnhart's the zen of slow cooking has drawn them media attention, including their participation in Chicago’s Next Best Food competition on the Windy City Live TV show.

Jane McKay and Meg Barnhart’s the zen of slow cooking has drawn them media attention, including their participation in Chicago’s Next Best Food competition on the Windy City Live TV show.

2016 has been a particularly exciting for the business. In February we reached the finals of Chicago’s Next Best Food product competition (sponsored by Peapod) receiving rave reviews from food writer/critic Kevin Pang. After the competition, Peapod’s vice president of merchandising invited us to co-brand two slow cooking meal kits which debuted in June.

With the need to expand production, we staged a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds to move from our test kitchen in Evanston to a co-packer in Waukegan. 

The newly packaged Slow Cooker Spice Blends were then approved by Whole Foods Market. Coupled with new distribution partners at Fortune Fish & Gourmet, the Zen team is expanding our wholesale business throughout Chicagoland area.

We are excited to be joining the Good Food Business. Our desire to help people find more time to gather around the table allows us to bring our vision to life.

The Smoky BBQ blend from the zen of slow cooking made a great rub for this slow-cooked pork shoulder from Chicago's The Butcher & Larder shop. The meat then produced days worth of delicious pulled pork sandwiches. Photo: Bob Benenson/FamilyFarmed

The Smoky BBQ blend from the zen of slow cooking made a great rub for this slow-cooked pork shoulder from Chicago’s The Butcher & Larder shop. The meat then produced days worth of delicious pulled pork sandwiches. Photo: Bob Benenson/FamilyFarmed

Photographs provided by the zen of slow cooking, except where noted.

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