Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Food Courts Tempt Shoppers to Eat Poorly. You Can Do Better.

If you must hit the food court, you might want to be there when it's less crowded. That will allow you to relax and maybe lead you to eat less.
If you must hit the food court, you might want to be there when it's less crowded. That will allow you to relax and maybe lead you to eat less. (By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The folks who plan shopping-mall food courts are no dummies. They know that when you've been slogging from store to store all morning, dragging ever-bigger bags of bargains (plus your winter coat) and contending with snippy salesclerks and pushy fellow shoppers, come noontime you'll be ready to eat -- and eat just about anything.

And by "just about anything" I mean the carb- and fat-heavy concoctions beckoning from behind the food court counters: cheeseburgers and fries, sesame chicken, rich and creamy shakes. They tempt you when your guard is down -- and before you know it, you've ingested more calories than you'd choose to consume when your wits are about you.

But you don't have to fall prey to those seductions. I talked to three people who know how to maintain equanimity in a food court: David Zinczenko, editor in chief of Men's Health magazine and author of "Eat This, Not That!" and "Eat This, Not That! For Kids"; dietitian Hope Warshaw, author of "Eat Out, Eat Right" and "What to Eat When You're Eating Out"; and Katherine Brooking, a dietitian and contributor to Self magazine.

Three experts. One basic message: Plan ahead.

That out-of-control feeling, they explain, is a sure sign that your blood sugar has plummeted. When that happens, your energy-starved brain sends you searching for carbs, which Zinczenko calls "the worst solution." Once you've hit that low point, it's nigh on impossible to gird yourself against the siren calls of Cinnabons and Kung Pao chicken, the three agree.

To avoid that point, start the day with a solid breakfast, preferably one with some protein, fruit or vegetables, and fiber. An egg-white omelet with veggies is great, Brooking suggests, as is a bowl of oatmeal topped with almonds or walnuts and fruit.

To keep you going through a day of shopping, pack some healthful snacks: low-fat string cheese, a cup of yogurt, a handful of trail mix. Don't count on caffeine alone to energize you, she adds: "It doesn't give your body the fuel it needs, and you'll end up overeating at lunchtime" to compensate, Brooking says.

"Once hunger hits, you're going to go for the first thing you see," Brooking says. "Very few of us have the willpower to override that impulse." To ensure that the first thing you see is something good for you, Brooking suggests packing a lunch. Peanut butter and banana on whole-grain bread works well, as does a turkey sandwich, also on whole-grain bread, she says. Added bonus: "You'll save lots of money," she says. "Wouldn't you rather spend that money on gifts than on fast food?"

Another option, Warshaw notes, is to treat yourself to a meal in a sit-down, full-service restaurant in the mall. You still have to plan carefully -- chain restaurants are notorious for serving huge portions with more calories than you'd suspect -- but if you're relaxed, you're at least less likely to pig out. Eat a half portion of an entree, try a salad with dressing on the side, and take time to really enjoy every mouthful. (Warshaw's and Zinczenko's books are chock-full of nutrition data for foods served at chain restaurants.)

If you must hit the food court, though, Warshaw suggests you plan to be there at a time when it's likely to be less crowded. That will allow you to relax and enjoy your food, which may help you eat less. Warshaw suggests bringing a water bottle from home to stay hydrated (dehydration just makes you feel that much crabbier, especially in an overheated mall) and to resist the urge to buy a sugary drink. "Don't slurp your calories," she cautions.

Before setting foot in the food court, all three suggest that you decide what you're going to order once you're there. "In a food court there's always Chinese food, an Italian or pizza place, a smoothie place, and a dessert place," Zinczenko notes. "They're the pillars of the food court. There are smart choices to be made at each one." Shoot for 500 calories or fewer for lunch, he suggests, and 300 or fewer for a snack. At the pizza place, for instance, a thin-crust Hawaiian slice (with pineapple and ham displacing lots of the cheese) is a good bet, he says.

At the Chinese counter, avoid the "terrifying trifecta" of sauces (sesame, orange and General Tso), whether they're coating chicken, beef or shrimp, which turn a scoop of food into a 600-calorie orgy; add a scoop of rice and your lunch is up to 1,000 calories or more -- at least half of your calories for the day. Opt instead for a mixture of protein and vegetables -- beef and broccoli, for instance -- and skip the rice. "It's better to get a second entree than to eat the rice," Zinczenko says. "It's become standard to serve Chinese food over a mound of rice, which, whether it's white, brown or fried amounts to about 400 calories," he notes.

For a snack, Zinczenko says, the smoothie place is okay, as long as you stick to all-fruit and yogurt selections that don't include sherbet or ice cream. Or enjoy a frozen yogurt for just 100 to 150 calories. Just steer clear of food-court milkshakes, he says, which can easily have 1,000 calories; the 32-ounce Heath Shake at Baskin-Robbins has a whopping 2,300 calories, he says. Also to be avoided: mall cookies. They're more than 200 calories apiece, Zinczenko says, and a lot of people eat more than one as they mosey through the mall.

As for fast food, Zinczenko's books (and Web site) reveal some surprising and useful information. For instance, a McDonald's Quarter Pounder sans cheese is, at 410 calories, a better choice than the Premium Grilled Chicken Club, which McDonald's says has 530 calories. That flies in the face of my assumption that grilled chicken always trumps a burger.

But if you're really hankering for chicken, go to Chick-fil-A, where, according to "Eat This, Not That!," "not a single sandwich breaks the 500-calorie barrier, a feat unmatched in the fast-food world."

Check out today's Checkup blog, in which Jennifer takes a closer look at fast-food nutrition. Subscribe to the weekly Lean & Fit nutrition newsletter by going to and searching for "newsletters." And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at

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