The Community Mercantile's nutritionist gives whole grain advice.
Soy milk, tofu, whole grains, rice.
Nancy O'Connor can talk about them all, and make even the most devoted junk-food aficionado think twice about turning to health food.
"I grew up like everyone else, eating meat as a centerpiece for every meal with some kind of potato and a canned vegetable," O'Connor said.
It wasn't until she was in college that she went into a health food store. The experience changed her life.
"I didn't know what to look at," she said. "I didn't know what to buy, so I bought a cookbook."
She read it cover to cover, and years later still refers to the tattered tome.
"It seemed sensible," she said. "It tasted good. It made me look at the way I was eating. It was a progression from there and kept growing and evolving."
Cooking good food and helping others do the same became her passion in life, O'Connor said.
With no formal training, she met with a group other like-minded women in Ozark, Ill., and started planning healthy menus.
"We were young and naive," she said. "I hadn't studied nutrition in school, but I felt there was a better way to eat."
O'Connor's meat dishes slowly gave way to vegetables, rice and pasta. She opened a bakery, Ozark Ovens, and operated it for five years before she moved with her family in 1987 to Lawrence.
It was here that she enrolled at Kansas University to finish a bachelor's degree in art. She went on to get her master's degree in health education.
"I knew I wanted to do more education," she said. She worked as a teaching assistant at KU for three years, teaching others the importance of a healthy diet.
"My whole thesis was the practical aspect of nutrition," she said. "I wanted to teach people on a practical level how to improve their life by eating better."
O'Connor took her philosophy from the classroom to the grocery store. She now works as the nutrition coordinator for the Community Mercantile, 901 Miss., and as a community educator of healthy eating and cooking. She started the job more than five years ago.
Eating better doesn't necessarily mean giving up favorite foods or becoming a vegetarian, O'Connor said.
"You should never do a 180, because that never works," she said. "Give yourself permission to move slowly. Say, 'Today, I am going to make this one small change.' Absorb that change and be successful with it. Then, tomorrow, do another small change so that along the way you can celebrate victories."
And O'Connor doesn't let guilt get in the way. The word "cheating" isn't even in her vocabulary.
"I don't even like to think of it as cheating," she said. "It's really OK to have a chocolate chip cookie. We're very much guilt-based in our food. I hate that."
In her community education classes, O'Connor stresses the importance of preparing and enjoying home-cooked meals.
"Mealtime in our culture is something we give away lightly," she said. "There's a lot more going on at mealtime than eating food. Some of the most important decisions our family makes are around the dinner table."
For Lawrence resident Martha Curtis, one of those decisions was how to change her family's diet without shocking their palate. She recently attended O'Connor's class on soy foods.
"I wanted something where I could experiment before making a big investment that no one would eat," she said. "I wanted to be able to try new things and get new recipe ideas."
Curtis said she got all of that and more from O'Connor's class.
"She had a good assortment of recipes and techniques, especially with tofu," Curtis said. "All of the soy things were pretty much a mystery to me. I didn't know what to do with it. I once tried using tofu in stir fry and it was horrible. I said, 'I think I need some help.'"
After the class, Curtis was confident enough to make a salad using tofu for a group luncheon.
"I made a rice and tofu salad," she said. "Everyone enjoyed it, and then I told them it was tofu. A lot of them thought it was chunks of chicken cut up."
Curtis also sought O'Connor's help on product information while shopping.
"She was very helpful and wonderfully conversational," Curtis said.
It's just one example of why O'Connor is such a popular attraction at the Community Mercantile, said Mike Rundle, customer and membership services coordinator.
"She offers good advice on finding alternatives for eating," he said. "A lot of people come here who are forced to make a change in their diet because of health, and she helps with recipes that offer ways of substituting. She's helped revolutionize our approach to food."
To hear customers sing O'Connor's praises isn't unusual, Rundle said.
"She's the kind of person who gives of her time and energies," he said. "And she has a fun sense of humor."
When she's not chewing the fat with customers, O'Connor is in her country kitchen near Lawrence with her husband, Jim Lewis, and their children, Gabe Lewis-O'Connor and Isaac Lewis-O'Connor.
--JL Watson's phone message number is 832-7145. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.