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The Tasting Cafe could be the recipe for healthy, inexpensive eating

How to know if you're boring? Give a speech at a middle school on fruits and vegetables. There I was, droning on and on as a guest speaker, watching the kids work in their first nap of the day, heads lolling, spit dribbling, with the occasional head-jerk movements shorting out a deep sleep. I finally cut the speech short and did what any sane speaker would do: I offered food. Vegetables, to be sure, but food, nonetheless. The kids tripped all over each other to get to the front of the room for a healthy taste of baby carrots and broccoli.

Well, it didn't take a PowerPoint presentation falling on my head: There were lessons to be learned here. First, lose the speech, and second, kids will eat anything if it means I'll stop talking.

With that in mind, after the Rocky Mountain News folded a year ago, taking my job as the paper's food editor along with it, I approached the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant and Children (WIC), administered by the Tri-County Health Department, with an idea for a pilot project. WIC offers nutrition education and counseling to low-income parents and caregivers who have children under the age of five; the clients are issued vouchers that entitle them to buy very specific nutritious foods, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables and soy products. So I proposed a program in which the parents and kids could sample foods, just as if they were at a Costco or a Sam's Club, but without the lunchroom ladies in their blue-capped splendor. They could enjoy samples and talk informally about food without yours truly yapping at them. (Last time I looked, busy people armed with babies, toddlers, strollers and diaper bags weren't up for a serious discussion of soy.) We'd call it the Tasting Cafe, a name I dreamed up somewhere between a drink and a nod on an airplane. We would have specific hours of operation, like any restaurant, and folks could come in and stay as long as they liked after their WIC appointments. The idea was to fit into their schedules, not the other way around.

The author explains the intricacies of making a smiley-face pizza. See more photos here.
Ellen Jaskol
The author explains the intricacies of making a smiley-face pizza. See more photos here.
The Tasting Cafe featured food that was fun and good for you.
Ellen Jaskol
The Tasting Cafe featured food that was fun and good for you.

As I worked on what to serve at the Tasting Cafe, I kept a couple of things in mind. First, most people have a repertoire of ten dishes that they prepare for dinner over and over again, like stir fry or spaghetti. Simple and unfussy, they involve the kind of recipes that are easy to execute when we realize it's actually time to make dinner. (There are those anal types who plan ahead, shop once a week and follow a recipe nightly — but really, who are those people?)

Second, you're not likely to buy a new food if you've never tried it, especially if money is tight. If you know your kids like white bread, are you going to take a chance on whole wheat? No way. I also knew that kids are more inclined to eat something they helped prepare, which is something I learned when my own kids were young. After a field trip to Berry Patch Farms outside of Denver, where you pick whatever's in season, my kids came home and cooked up pattypan squash — an act shocking in the extreme, since their favorite food at the time was Day-Glo mac and cheese.

But the most important point is that the food has to taste delicious. That may seem obvious, but as a friend reminded me, if you sample a product at Costco that's just "good enough," will you really buy it? Sure, not every meal can be a winner, but no one is going to take the time and trouble to make "good enough" when they can get "good enough" at the drive-thru.

And last but not least, I didn't want to compete with the comment "I make it better" — which removed tweaking some of the more obvious dishes. Try as you might, you're not going to convince my kids that their mom's brisket recipe needs a healthy spin — or, conversely, that mom can make sesame chicken better than the Imperial.

With all those factors in the stew, I spent a long time sifting through recipes and talking to friends about their own food preferences.

In the ten-week pilot project set for the fall, the Cafe would operate three afternoons a week at one of the Tri-County Health Department facilities in Aurora. We would make over the conference room with cute signs about food and display bushels of produce to make the Cafe seem inviting. You know that home-selling trick in which you bake cookies to create an enticing smell? That seemed like a good place to start — only we'd offer whole-wheat blueberry muffins instead of cookies. I asked baker friend Michael Bortz if I could use his City Bakery facility to whip up (and by whip up, I mean I stood there looking helpless while he took over) mini-muffins which I would then transport hot and fresh to the Cafe each time. If nothing else, we would show folks that there's a healthier alternative to that bag of Oreos.

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