When I think about Common Ground Food Co-op, I imagine aisles of fresh produce, locally sourced breads, meats, and cheeses, and a place to get my bulk ingredients. Common Ground takes all those great ingredients, wraps them up, and serves them up as staple and unique lunch options.

An excellent way to sample from the seasonal fare that Central Illinois has to offer at a reasonable price is through Common Ground’s to-go food selections. Housed on the left side of the store, just past the produce, there is a fresh salad bar, deli, and a refrigerated area offering a wide selection of meals. As someone who is a habitual lunch packer, it was refreshing to visit a place that had such an array of affordable, healthy options. I invited my husband to join me on a few lunch dates, and we embarked on dining at this grocery store — one lunch was cold foods and a second date focused on their hot selections.

Maybe it was all of the encouraging signage, but I selected the strawberry basil salad ($4.99) as my main instead of the salad bar. The pre-made salad trumps the bar when you’re in a rush and need your greens. It was a hearty portion with the freshest strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes. The house-made dressing was where the basil shined. It tasted like summer, balancing the tartness of strawberry with the earthy tones of the basil. The dressing had the consistency of yogurt, and I appreciated the extra oompfh since the salad alone was very light. I went all in on basil, by selecting the Lemon Basil Pasta Salad ($2.88) as my side. My husband and I got into a fork fight over bites of this. The pasta was paired with fine cuts of zucchini, tomato, and red onion, and coated in an oil-based sauce.

My husband's main was an old-faithful option, turkey and colby jack sandwich on herbed bread ($6.25). Thick slices of roasted turkey paired perfectly with the cheddar and rich, filling baked bread. This sandwich was large enough to cut in half and save. The sandwich doesn’t come with any garden accoutrements, but you can find them close by at the salad bar if needed.

His side of the quintessential quinoa tabouli ($2.73) was a fresh, palate-cleansing choice that we both enjoyed after the garlic from my pasta salad. The quinoa was well-cooked, mixed with parsley, cucumber, and tomato with a variety of herbs and spices. This summer salad is light and provides just enough sustenance to get you through the workday without feeling stuffed.

On our second visit, we wanted to go all-in on hot items to test how they would reheat back at your home or work environment after travel. Common Ground has a selection of take-and-make grain bowls that looked promising. I grabbed the Asian-inspired rice bowl ($6) with tofu, cabbage, carrots, sesame seeds, and edamame on a bed of brown rice. We drizzled the tangy sriracha-inspired dressing over, shook it up, and popped it into the microwave for about a minute and a half. The bowl was bursting with flavor and had a good mix of crunchy, fresh vegetables paired with the silky tofu in each bite. The portion size was enough for two meals.

My husband went a little more traditional with a cup of minestrone ($3.99 for 12 oz) and a side of the butternut squash mac and cheese (which I think he had been eyeing since our first visit; $4.15). The vegetable soup was flavorful, simple and has broth base filled with a traditional mix of summer veggies. This is a lighter option that was surprisingly filling. The delicious daily soups are worth going back for. We heated the mac in the microwave for just over a minute. The thick noodles are a perfect delivery mechanism for the creamy cheese and butternut squash mix. Topped with a bit of smoked paprika, this is modern take on a traditional favorite.

I can never just walk by a bakery, a sweets display in a grocery store, or even a floor cookie without giving it another glance. So of course, both times I stopped by Common Ground we treated ourselves to dessert. On our first visit we split a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie ($2.73). The second time, my husband had learned his lesson in sharing sugars with me, and we each got our own cookies: chocolate chip and snickerdoodle ($1.99 each). All of the baked goods we tried were divine. Sugary, sweet, buttery, and memorable; it's hard to pass by that baked good section now without grabbing something. 

Vegan, vegetarians, gluten-free folks, and others with dietary restrictions will find something in the grab and go cases. And the staff is always friendly, helpful, and willing to answer any questions or concerns you may have. Common Ground has seating inside, picnic tables outdoors, and all of these selections are perfect to take back to work or home. I appreciate the value and prices at Common Ground. You can eat healthy meals, with some locally-sourced ingredients, for under $10 a person, and have leftovers to toss in your work fridge and leave until the next day. If you can control yourself.

Common Ground Food Co-op
Lincoln Square Mall
300 S Broadway
Urbana
8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Photos by Jordan Goebig