Working moms dinner dilemma spawns frozen food venture

Fran Lent had a dilemma. She was a working mom with two 4-year-olds, and she was looking for a healthy prepared meal to feed her children after a hectic day at work.

She wanted something free of synthetic flavors, colors and additives.

She could find nothing on the market, so the Burlingame mother created her own.

"Fran's Healthy Helpings sprang from the need I had as a busy working mom to have meals for my children that combined nutrition with convenience and good taste," says Lent, 40. "The meals I have created are foods that kids have traditionally loved."

Lent currently has three frozen meals on the market: Lucky Ducky Chicken, Wacky Whale Pizza and Lovey Dovey Patty. Each colorful package, selling in the $3 range, contains such novelties as duck-shaped chicken, heart-shaped pasta or whale-shaped pizza in kid-sized portions. Targeting 2-to-8-year-olds, Lent says, "The foods are healthy and fun, with ingredients only a mother can love."

When the products were first produced a year ago, Lent brainstormed with the mothers in her children's preschool group at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

"They were willing and helpful in taking their time to give their ideas and opinions on the products being developed," she said. They were also the first major purchasers of the products when Lent's own children, Bradley and Hannah handed out coupons.

Each meal meets the government's requirements by fulfilling guidelines for fat, sodium, cholesterol and key nutrient content. These dinners are also free from artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and synthetic preservatives.

Lent, who has more than 10 years of experience working with consumer packaged foods in the Bay Area, received her master's degree in business administration from the University of Michigan. A native of Los Angeles, she obtained a bachelor's degree from UCLA, majoring in Jewish studies.

For seven years she was a marketing executive with Del Monte, conducting a number of successful marketing programs on a variety of brands. She was particularly responsible for growth of the Del Monte fruit-cup business, targeting parents of young children.

"That background helped me to see what makes a company run," says Lent. She later worked for Specialty Brands, where she was responsible for revamping the Durkee spice line.

In the summer of 1995, she left the company to launch her own food products. Lent and her husband, Robert, invested their life savings in the new endeavor. In writing a business plan, she surveyed 600 Bay Area families on convenience foods for children. Lent was delighted when a large number were not satisfied with products on the market.

She formed a focus group and set strategies for putting Fran's Healthy Helpings on the market. The company would be run completely by moms.

Overhill Farms of Los Angeles was intrigued by the idea of manufacturing healthy frozen foods for children, and committed to helping make the products exactly as Lent specified.

The dinners are now carried in more than 300 markets in Northern California. Plans are under way for national distribution.

The two children, now 5, "give me ideas all the time, on products and names," she said. "I feel like my kids have become businesspeople and understand money and the hard work it takes to start a business."

Lent has already incorporated the principle of tzedakah by sponsoring a child's trip to Disneyland through the Bay Area branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Her company will continue to support the organization from a percentage of net profits.

In April, Lent will add two new products: Soccer One and Cheese (macaroni and cheese) and Twinkle Star Fish with Big Dipper Sauce (fish sticks). Information on the meals can be found on the Web site at

Having recently moved the operation to new office space in Burlingame, Lent hopes for "a banner year" in which "80 percent of the grocery stores in California will carry our product."