The author explains the intricacies of making a smiley-face pizza. See more photos here.
Ellen Jaskol

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 Tasting Cafe

Closed Location

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.

As for the rest of the recipes, by sheer dumb luck I hit on a menu that was an instant success: Chicken McMarty (a crowd-pleaser for the name alone), pizza faces, a quick gazpacho, a two-ingredient fresh vegetable dip and fruit kebabs. The McMarty involved simply dipping pieces of skinless, boneless chicken in egg and milk, then rolling them in crushed cereal and baking them in the oven with a drizzle of oil; no recipe required. Even simpler: the fruit kebabs. You want kids to eat fruit? Put it on a stick. We did, and we could barely keep up with the demand. Not a single child asked what fruit he or she was eating, and we loaded the skewers with cantaloupe, honeydew, grapes, strawberries and peaches. Later, we adapted the kebab approach for Salad on a Stick. Hand a kid a stick with a bite-size piece of lettuce, baby spinach, a slice of carrot, a cheese cube, a tomato and a crouton on top, and he'll finish it before anyone can say "Pass the dressing."

But not everything was sunshine and lollipops, so to speak. When we tried a second menu, we soon found we'd gotten too ambitious: We thought puréed cauliflower with skim milk, known to South Beach dieters everywhere, would be a crowd-pleasing favorite — but even babies were crinkling their little foreheads and giving us quizzical looks along the lines of "You're kidding me, right?" And for a time, I was fixated on offering a chicken gumbo as one of the recipes. Could all those folks in New Orleans be wrong? I couldn't find fresh okra, so I used the more convenient frozen. There was just one problem: After numerous tries, I realized that I don't like okra that much.

Our surprise success was with a little-known fruit called a pluot. It's a cross between a plum and an apricot that looks like a plum but tastes sweeter. My associate Rosemary Leidholdt and I would cut up dozens of pluots at each Cafe because the fruit was a hit with both kids and adults. Although pluots are becoming more readily available (or so the Internet tells me), I had no trouble finding them at grocery stores and warehouse stores. If some produce manager is smart, he will rename them something a lot catchier and easier to pronounce, along the lines of the kiwi-formerly-known-as-the-Chinese-Gooseberry. But the pluot tastes so good that I didn't have to sell the name to this crowd.

We took an all-hands-on-deck approach to the Cafe, relying on WIC counselors at Tri-County to bring people through the door, where a cute little smiley face was plastered with an open sign. Even though folks could enter the Cafe at will, they were suspicious at first: "Hmm, free food? What's the catch?" So the counselors would explain the program and we'd take it from there. Because some of the clientele spoke only Spanish, the counselors would often walk them through and describe the foods in Spanish. I would supplement with my high-school Spanish — which, aside from "¿Dónde está la biblioteca?" (Where is the library?) includes "caliente" (hot), which I picked up from Taco Bell commercials.

To engage the kids, we used the toaster oven to make whole-wheat pizza faces, which involved spreading tomato sauce on whole wheat bread or English muffins, letting the kids choose their favorite vegetables to make a face, and adding cheese. Later, we used the same tactic for monster yogurt faces, using fruit for the faces and cereal for the hair. All I had to ask was, "Who wants to make a pizza?" and the kids immediately lined up. And the parents would go from tentatively tasting to comments like, "Oh, that's good. I'm going to fix that for dinner tonight," or "I wish I had brought my seven-year-old — he would love that."

The recipes were no longer just words on a piece of paper.

Currently, we're waiting on a grant to move forward with the program at all the Tri-County Health facilities. To determine if the Tasting Cafe actually accomplished anything besides stroking my ego, we put surveys by each dish, in both English and Spanish, asking if folks would serve a certain food or make one of the recipes. Of the 290 respondents, 96 percent said they'd tried a new food and were likely to serve it at home. But more to the point, there were a lot of happy parents and kids who could shed their everyday concerns for a few minutes and sit down and talk (and eat) food, the universal language.

One day, a three-year-old who'd been to WIC earlier in the month came to the door. "Chicken?" he asked hopefully. And there wasn't a drive-thru in sight.

Recipes from the Tasting Cafe

Serves 4
2 ½ to 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed
6 to 8 ounces cornflakes
1 egg
1/8 cup skim milk
Canola oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Crush cornflakes in a plastic bag with a rolling pin until they turn into fine crumbs. Mix egg and milk with a fork. Sprinkle salt on chicken cubes. Dip in egg/milk mixture. Roll nuggets in crumbs in the plastic bag. Place nuggets on a baking tray, drizzle with oil. Bake 20 minutes or until cooked through.

Serves 4
4 sweet potatoes
Canola oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel potatoes and slice very thin. Place on baking sheet, drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake 15 to 20 minutes (depending on thickness) until softened and browned. (Check during baking to avoid overbrowning.)

Serves 8
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeds removed
5 tomatoes, quartered, seeds squeezed out (if desired)
1 green or yellow or red bell pepper, or a combination, coarsely chopped
1 small onion or red onion, coarsely chopped
1 or 2 stalks celery, diced, optional
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups tomato juice or V8 juice, or combination
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar or any herb vinegar
Fresh basil, about 8 leaves, chopped, if desired

Dice the cucumbers and set aside. Place tomatoes, bell pepper, onion and olive oil in blender or food processor and blend until chopped but still somewhat chunky. (Note: If you don’t have a blender or food processor, cut vegetables into small pieces and add to tomato juice, vinegar and oil in a bowl.) Pour mixture in a large bowl. Add cucumber, celery and all remaining ingredients. Mix in chopped fresh basil, if desired.

1 cup salsa
½ cup sour cream (low-fat is okay)

Mix salsa and sour cream. Serve with platter of broccoli, snap peas, steamed green beans, carrots, zucchini, summer squash or any seasonal vegetables.


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