Come Into My Kitchen

Kansas City dietitian Leigh Wagner helps promote healthy habits through classes

Leigh Wagner, a registered dietitian at the University of Kansas Integrative Medicine’s Clinical Research Center, helps people eat more healthfully with dishes such as her Almond-Crusted Chicken Veggie Pizza.
Leigh Wagner, a registered dietitian at the University of Kansas Integrative Medicine’s Clinical Research Center, helps people eat more healthfully with dishes such as her Almond-Crusted Chicken Veggie Pizza.

How do you begin to educate people about the best food choices when there are so many marketing strategies for “low-fat,” “gluten-free” or diets involving the latest food fad? It’s really very simple: The best foods for you don’t come packaged with a long list of ingredients. As humans, we’re meant to eat a variety of foods, and I encourage people to eat as many colorful and organic fruits and vegetables as possible.

For long-term health, it’s important to cut out refined sugars and seek sources of organically raised protein, too. Here in Kansas City, we are so lucky to have groups like Cultivate KC that support urban farming, so you can actually have a relationship with the farmer and the farm on which your food is grown through community supported agriculture (a farm-to-consumer subscription service).

But why doesn’t broccoli ever taste as good as a chocolate chip cookie? Research shows that refined sugar has an addictive effect on the human brain. I’m not here to food shame people, but it’s interesting that sometimes individuals feel the need to confess their slip-ups to me. If you’re trying to limit your refined sugar intake, I’ve found the best thing to do is quit it cold turkey.

And you don’t have to be sick with cancer, diabetes or any other chronic illness to want to eat better. When you get away from refined sugar, it’s amazing how sweet a sweet potato can taste. While I agree it’s no chocolate chip cookie, a sweet potato certainly is better for you.

Were you raised close to your food roots? I grew up in Lincoln, Neb., and while my mother came from a farming background, it wasn’t until my brother, Tyler, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that my entire family started to really take a serious interest in preparing foods that are healthy and feed the body in a way that promotes wellness.

My brother has been cancer-free for more than two years now, and we are thankful for that. My father, Jim, has put together a very detailed recipe box, and we all jokingly fight over who will get that recipe box one day. My mother, Marlene, was raised on 4-H and spends her time in the garden, while my dad cooks. We’ve all heard, “You are what you eat,” but those words are more than just a platitude; they are really true.

Your cooking classes also seem to create a community in your test kitchen. It’s true. There are the regulars, and it’s not only a time for me to share healthy recipes and information. There’s a lot of sharing between people in attendance, too.

The idea of minimizing highly refined sugars from your diet is a simple one, but it isn’t that easy. There can be other catalysts to eating better besides having a chronic illness. Some people are motivated by the idea of what healthy foods they can feed their children, some people want to lose weight and just feel better with more energy.

What people don’t realize is that when you start to eat better foods, it also is better for the environment, because organic practices are more sustainable.

I am not a cancer or chronic disease expert — every person and every case is different. But I am here to help others try to cultivate a healthy relationship with the foods they eat.

Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. E-mail her at to nominate a cook.

Leigh Wagner

Residence: Kansas City

Occupation: Registered dietitian/nutritionist, promoting wellness through healthy cooking demonstrations in the University of Kansas Integrative Medicine’s Clinical Research Center test kitchen. The free Kitchen Therapy classes take place at noon this Thursday, Sept. 17 and Oct. 15. To make a reservation, call 913-945-7624 or go to

Special cooking interest: Creating flavorful food using fresh, organic, local ingredients.

Almond-Crusted Chicken Veggie Pizza

Makes 1 (6- by 12-inch pizza) to serve 8 (3-inch by 3-inch pieces)

For the crust:

2 cups almond flour

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons dried Italian herb blend

For the toppings:

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 Italian chicken sausages, casings removed

1 (12-ounce) package sliced mushrooms

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 small sweet onion, diced

1 tablespoon Italian herb blend

1/2 cup organic, no-sugar-added pizza sauce

To make the crust: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, using a fork, stir almond flour, eggs, olive oil, salt and Italian herbs together until well combined.

Turn out wet dough onto prepared baking sheet. Using clean, slightly damp hands, work dough into a rectangle that is about 6 inches by 12 inches and 1/4-inch-thick.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until crust is set and starting to turn golden.

To prepare toppings: While crust is baking, in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, warm olive oil. Brown chicken sausage and remove from pan.

Add mushrooms, pepper and onion to pan and sauté until caramelized and soft. Drain off excess fat and add chicken sausage back to pan to warm through.

Take baked crust out of oven and immediately top with pizza sauce. Spread sautéed vegetables and chicken sausage evenly over pizza sauce and cut into 8, 3-inch pieces.

Note: Pizza can also be topped with Wagner’s recipe for “Poor Woman’s Pesto,” which can be found at

Per serving: 261 calories (49 percent from fat), 15 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 64 milligrams cholesterol, 16 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams protein, 338 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.