The malling of America has spawned more than chain clothing stores in shopping centers from Fresno to Fairfax. Along with the demise of Main Street, food halls have replaced the corner drugstore as a respite for shoppers, moviegoers or noontime lunchers.
With jazzy menu boards, colorful neon signs and tempting displays of smoky ribs or gigantic cookies, these food courts could easily become a fattening shop-'til-you-drop orgy of empty calories. But for those who exercise some restraint and focus on lower-fat choices, they offer variety and some nutritional advantages, according to Yvonne Bronner, associate professor of nutrition at Howard University.
For one thing, said Bronner, perched atop a stool at Union Station's cavernous food hall, consumers can see the food before buying it. Thus, if the Chinese stir fry is soaked in oil or deli meats are riddled with fat, you can choose something else.
Because many dishes are prepared as you watch, you can ask for more or less of certain ingredients. Sandwich chefs tend to "glob on" mayonnaise, noted Bronner; you can request a thin smear on only one piece of bread. Conversely, lettuce, tomatoes and sprouts are often added to sandwiches as an afterthought; you might ask for more.
"Look at the size of that! It's two doughnuts" in one, exclaimed Bronner, eyeing an enormous pastry as she toured the football-field-size food hall. When it comes to baked goods, moderation is the key, warned Bronner, and so is size. But if you decide to indulge, choose a high-fiber cereal for breakfast the next day, she added. Similarly, if you have the urge to splurge on a "killer"-size cinnamon bun, split it with a friend and round it out with a fresh fruit salad. Don't consume it as part of a high-fat breakfast of bacon and eggs.
People should realize that while nuts are high in protein, they are higher in fat, said Bronner, passing a dried fruit-and-nut stall. Therefore, they should be eaten occasionally and sparingly. One idea, Bronner suggested, would be to top a green salad from another stall with a small handful of raisins and nuts, or sprinkle a bit of chopped, dried fruit over an order of frozen yogurt.
"This is great, absolutely great," said Bronner, cruising by a carryout counter filled with an array of cold salads -- black bean with chopped peppers, cole slaw with lots of red cabbage but little dressing, colorful pasta salads.
At the bagel stall, Bronner said that turkey breast or tuna and chicken salads are better choices than corned beef or ham and swiss. Likewise, at deli counters, lean roast beef, turkey or ham without the cheese is nutritionally preferable to fattier corned beef or pastrami. And beware of the "health nut" sandwiches, which are sometimes loaded with three different cheeses, mayonnaise, avocados and other high-fat items, then sprinkled with a few alfafa sprouts.
Think before you order more than one scoop of ice cream. What starts as a 150-calorie scoop could easily end up being 700 or 800 calories with a big cone, plus lots of toppings, Bronner said. The same goes for the frozen yogurt stand and baked potato carryout. Ask for a potato without butter if you're going to opt for a dollop of sour cream and chives, she added. Order toppings such as vegetarian chili more often than bacon bits and cheddar cheese.
When it comes to hot dogs and hamburgers, pick a plain all-beef hot dog over a Polish sausage or kielbasa, Bronner said, scanning the menu board of a hot-dog eatery. And if you order a six-ounce hamburger, remember that it fulfills the daily requirement for meat. As for pizza, pile on the vegetable toppings but skimp on sausage and pepperoni.
Ethnic stalls offer interesting alternatives. Stick with roasted meats at Greek eateries; enchiladas, burritos and other non-fried items at Mexican places -- but avoid taco salads, whose sizes and contents can be "deadly," she advised --
teriyaki instead of tempura at Japanese stalls and vegetable curries at Indian eateries instead of fried pakoras and samosas.
Fried fish dominates seafood stalls, so steamed shrimp or tomato-based soups are better choices. And fried chicken wings are best shared as appetizers, not main courses, she said.
The tour complete, Bronner headed off in search of her own lunch: a slice of deep-dish vegetarian pizza and a homemade lemonade -- minus the sugar.
Eating Right appears on alternate Tuesdays.