Dining out can often derail the best-laid plans to eat more healthfully. But not if you eat at the Ashland Food Co-op's deli.

Dining out can often derail the best-laid plans to eat more healthfully. But not if you eat at the Ashland Food Co-op's deli.

The Co-op's menu not only can keep the new year's diet plan on track, it can illuminate the unfamiliar path to whole foods.

Dozens of hot and cold dishes — most made with organic ingredients — are available each day, in addition to the Co-op's salad bar and sandwiches made to order. Self-serve items are priced at $8.45 per pound, meaning this isn't exactly a cheap meal. But the quality and variety warrant the cost.

Customers of all ages, income levels and dietary persuasions ensure that the Co-op's deli is the busiest "restaurant" in town. It pays more toward Ashland's total meal tax receipts than any other establishment, according to store spokeswomen.

Indeed, I wondered if I could grab a table during a recent lunch hour. During the warm season, diners spill out onto tables and benches arranged near the store's front entrance. In colder seasons, it can be a mad scramble for the dozen or so tables wedged between the front door and the deli.

I came hoping for my favorite turkey meatloaf, only to find it had surrendered its spot to Emerald Hills grass-fed beef loaf. Yet there were even more choices, including fresh-baked pizza and calzones, than I remembered from my last visit. True to Co-op form, one of the pizzas was vegetarian and wheat-free while the other was a "meat combo" on an enticingly puffed and crisped crust.

The meatless recipes play out in similar fashion down the line. On this day, there was a vegan potpie in addition to the standard chicken. Chilis were beef or vegan. The bacon-laced clam chowder shared space with a spicy vegetable soup.

As one soon realizes, assembling a plate from the hot line can make for a multi-ethnic meal. Shrimp pad Thai and Indian curries often are available.

I chose spanakopita, that beloved Greek spinach-and-cheese pie. While I missed the crunch characteristic of phyllo pastry, it was savory and filling. I also scooped up some of the cold salads: wild rice and apricot, cabbage slaw, roasted beets and Fog City macaroni with peas and large cubes of cheddar cheese, proof that Co-op diners can indulge in some comfort foods.

I can't pass up panna cotta when it's available, but this time I settled for a chocolate-black bean pudding trifle, listed as vegan and organic with an interesting, not-too-sweet flavor and a somewhat grainy texture from the beans.

But that's another perk of dining at the deli: Skeptics can try tiny portions. So-called superfoods, such as kale and quinoa, that Americans are supposed to add to their diets have been expertly prepared here and don't require committing to the cost and quantity of an entire restaurant dish.

The month's menu is posted at www.ashlandfood.coop/deli-hot-bar-menu. There's also a list of sandwich prices and fixings at www.ashlandfood.coop/deli-menus.

But as store employees point out, the day's dishes often look very different from the menu, a fact I confirmed dining the next week at dinnertime, when I expected macaroni and cheese.

The promised Southern-fried tofu was on the line, although I had to wait for a fresh batch — and was so glad I did. Although the crisp triangles resembled no animal part I can think of, they tasted uncannily like fried chicken, making me wish I'd taken two pieces. Quinoa tabbouleh, curry-spiced "yogi" potato salad and oatmeal-topped fruit crisp rounded out the meal.

The longed-for pumpkin panna cotta had all but been consumed, and I didn't want to scrape the dregs from the pan. Staff do seem a bit loathe to replenish such items later in the evening.

Service begins at 7 a.m. with hot breakfast dishes, fruit and housemade granola and yogurt. The lunch and dinner menu runs from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Hot and cold deli items can be carried out, of course, along with prepackaged items: black-bean quesadillas, shrimp-and-corn cakes, vegetable summer rolls, sandwiches, even sushi on the day I was there.

Ashland Food Co-op is at 237 N. First St. Call 541-482-2237 or see www.ashlandfood.coop for information.

— Sarah Lemon