Astoria Characters: The Editor of Eating

04/28/2015 05:09 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

Picky. It's not a word that Stacey Ornstein usually uses, but it's one that makes her plate too full.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Stacey is the founder of Allergic to Salad.

Picky. Stacey, who teaches after-school healthy-cooking classes to kids, wrinkles her nose when she utters the distasteful descriptive.

"I have parents who tell me their children are picky eaters and are not going to eat anything we cook," says Stacey, the founder of Allergic to Salad. "They say this in front of their kids, so it sets the kids up to reject foods. But I have a rule: You have to try everything we make, you don't have to like it."

Bite by bite, Stacey's out to direct the eating habits of budding taste buds, starting with those of Adrian, her toddler.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Stacey with her son, Adrian.

Adrian, who has golden curls that ring his shoulders, is nearly 2. His favorite food is fish. He's also a fan of kale.

"We were making pizza the other night and when I sprinkled cheese on it, he threw it off," she says, smiling. "When I substituted kale, he ate it right off."

When Stacey, a statuesque woman who looks as though she walked out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, brings out a giant jar of dried figs, Adrian plops one in his mouth with as much enthusiasm as if it were a Hershey's Kiss.

"I don't believe in so-called children's menus," Stacey says. "With Adrian, I used baby-led weaning to introduce him to solid foods early on."


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Learning about food with stickers.

Stacey and her husband, a composer/conductor, have busy careers, but, with Adrian's help, they take time to cook together.

They are not vegetarians or vegans. They don't shun sugar, wheat, eggs or dairy products. And, yes, on occasion, they do order in and eat out.

They are simply people who want their food, calorie for calorie, to work with them to keep their bodies fit and well.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Trying to mend a broken crayon.

Adrian, who is just learning to talk, has a small vocabulary that gives a glimpse of the variety of foods they eat: nut, pizza, butter, milk and cookie.

"We always sit down at the table for meals," Stacey says as Adrian beats on a tambourine. "When we're cooking, Adrian helps with the mixing and pouring."

Stacey prepares homemade meals to actually save time.

"We cook as if we're making dinner for 10 people," she says. "For instance, when we make rice and beans, we hold some aside, and the next night we have bean tacos. Then we do stir-fry, then a biryani dish and then add some chicken stock to make soup."


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Adrian likes to help out in the kitchen.

Stacey, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, didn't like every meal her parents prepared.

"Sauerkraut was one thing that I pushed around my plate," she says. "There was no pressure on us to eat things we didn't like, but we did have to try them."

She started cooking at an early age.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Mother's hands, baby's feet.

"Once a week, my two brothers and I were in charge of making dinner," she says. "We did easy dishes like spaghetti and meatballs or lasagna."

This is not to say that everything she ate was homemade.

"I had my share of McDonald's Happy Meals and liked them," she says.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
They eat their meals at the dining table.

It was college, not cooking that brought her to New York City. After earning a degree in mass media communications with a minor in studio art from New York University, Stacey got a job with a publisher.

While she worked on a master's in the history of education, she took a variety of nonprofit jobs, including one with an art education organization.

"We prepared high school students for art school, and one of my tasks was ordering lunch," she says. "I was only allowed to order pizza, hamburgers and chips. When I asked to change the menu, I was told the kids wouldn't eat anything else."


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Adrian snacking on pistachios.

After cobbling together a series of part-time freelance jobs, Stacey founded Allergic to Salad in 2010.

"I got the name from one of our students, who not only declared herself allergic to salad but also threw herself on the ground to prove her dislike of green vegetables," Stacey says. "I told her that that was too bad because we were going to make chocolate salad the next week and she would have to sit out on that, too. Miraculously, she was cured."

Today, Allergic to Salad, which offers cooking classes for children and adults as well as cooking parties and food tours, is more than a full-time job for Stacey and her four employees.

The work, she says happily, is all consuming.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A helpinig hand for children.

"I've changed the lives of many kids," she says. "I had one student whose parents always made gazpacho, but she would never even try it. After we made it in class, she liked it and made it for her family."

It is success stories like this that excite Stacey, who wants to initially expand Allergic to Salad to Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey.

If nothing more, Stacey hopes to keep the art of home cooking alive for Adrian and his generation.

He's already way ahead of his peers.

Just this morning, he "fried" some plastic eggs in his Melissa & Doug play kitchen.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; nruhling on Instagram.
Copyright 2015 by Nancy A. Ruhling