The best-laid plans to eat for health often derail while dining out. Dining at Ashland Food Co-op's deli, however, not only can keep diet plans on track. It can forge a path through unfamiliar whole foods.

The best-laid plans to eat for health often derail while dining out. Dining at Ashland Food Co-op's deli, however, not only can keep diet plans on track. It can forge a path through unfamiliar 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. Per-pound pricing ensures this isn't a cheap meal. But the quality and variety warrant the cost. Paying by the pound also goes a long way toward illustrating proper portions.

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 a store spokeswomen.

Indeed, claiming a table during weekday lunch hours can be a feat. During the warm season, diners spill out onto tables and benches arranged near the store's front entrance. But in colder seasons, it can be a mad scramble for the dozen or so tables wedged between the front door and the deli.

In addition to the hot-bar menu posted online (www.ashlandfood.coop/deli-hot-bar-menu) every month, look for even more choices, such as fresh-baked pizza and calzones. True to Co-op form, a vegetarian and wheat-free pizza complements a "meat combo" pie.

Recipes play out in similar fashion down the line. Vegan potpie offsets standard chicken. Chilis are beef or vegan. Bacon-laced clam chowder shares space with a spicy vegetable soup.

Interspersed among entrees are a diverse array of vegetable side dishes. There's no excuse to skip veggies when the self-serve model allows for sampling tiny portions. Skeptics can rest assured that the Co-op's expert preparation could persuade anyone to try so-called superfoods, like kale and quinoa.

Recommended: Turkey meatloaf is moist and rich; crisp triangles of Southern-fried tofu taste uncannily like fried chicken; garlic-roasted beets and braised greens are as delicious as these vegetables come; pumpkin panna cotta is garnished with crunchy pumpkin seeds.

Alternative diets: For nearly every mainstream hot dish, there's a vegan or vegetarian counterpart; numerous cold, vegetarian salads; many dishes made with organic ingredients.

Beverages: Self-serve drip coffee, yerba mate and complimentary water; specialty coffee drinks from locally roasted, organic Noble Coffee; organic fresh-squeezed juices and smoothies; milkshakes and Italian-style sodas.

Price range: Self-serve hot line, cold bar and green-salad bar, $8.45 per pound; rice and beans, $2.99 per pound; sandwiches and wraps made to order, $5 to $11.95 each.

Extras: Some items go unreplenished near the end of service; customers clear their own dishes; outdoor seating available.

Serving: Breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m., lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

Info: 237 N. First St.; 541-482-2237; www.ashlandfood.coop.