Mall Eating Madness

by Charles Platkin, PhD

This holiday season, my family will spend three or four hours in our local . We will walk, browse, buy gifts, go to the movies — and eat. And that’s where the potential problems begin. With more than 1,130 malls in the United States and the majority of us something whenever we visit one, there’s potential for doing some serious diet damage during the already difficult holiday “eating season.” With a few key strategies, however, you can steer clear of calorie rip-offs while you’re bargain hunting for the .

Resist the urge to starve yourself until you feel compelled to run to the court and eat the first thing you can get your hands on. Ideally, eat before shopping or, if it’s going to be a full day at the mall, schedule a meal break somewhere in the middle.

When you’re strolling through the food court, watch where you’re going. Research from the University of Pennsylvania has demonstrated that an increase in variety only adds to the amount we end up eating. The more choices there are, the worse it is. Decide what you’re going to have before you get to the food court. Many malls have listings of all their food establishments on their Web sites, or you can look on the many mall directories that list them. Don’t just walk in there without any preparation and be tempted by all the choices.

Remember, there’s no law that says you can’t mix and match foods from different vendors, as long as you’ve planned ahead. For example, get the chicken teriyaki at the Japanese restaurant, a vegetable soup at the Italian place and a low-fat frozen yogurt from the ice cream shop.

You may think you just want something to “hold you over,” but most times you’d be better off having a full-blown meal. Snacks can easily add up to the same amount of calories and fat as a meal — and then you end up eating twice, with double the calories. Just take a look at these classic mall treats: Cinnabon — more than 700 calories; Mrs. Fields cookies — more than 250 calories per cookie; Auntie Anne’s Sesame Pretzel with butter — more than 400 calories. And avoid muffins — they often have well over 500 calories.

Keep in mind that smoothies sold at places like Smoothie King, Orange Julius and Jamba Juice are food, and they have as many calories as most meals (e.g., a 20-ounce Smoothie King Banana Boat has 520 calories). Decide if you’re having the smoothie as a meal replacement or simply as a drink with your burger and fries. Also watch out for specialty coffee drinks at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts; they too can be in the 350-to-500-calorie range.

We pack lunches, drinks and snacks for our younger kids when we go out with them — why not do it for ourselves? Since most malls have an open seating policy, you can bring your own sandwiches or food to enjoy in the food court. You’ll be eating healthier and saving money, too.

Some suggestions:

  • Fruit: Apples, pears and grapes are durable. Cut-up melon or other fruits become portable in a small container with a lid.
  • Nonfat yogurt: Yogurt is a great portable snack, but it is perishable, so pack it in an insulated bag or thermos.
  • Sandwiches: Pre-cut them into portion-controlled sections so you can pull them out at different times without making a mess. Peanut butter, chicken, turkey, cold cuts and cheese (on 100 percent whole-wheat bread) are all great options for sandwiches on the go.

Food courts don’t always feature the mainstream fast-food establishments. But there are food types that you can rely on finding — for example, there’s Chinese; pizza (e.g., Sbarro); sandwiches (often Subway); grilled burgers and chicken; Middle Eastern food; and usually one or two traditional fast-food places such as Burger King or McDonald’s. Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind:

  • Say no to butter, mayo, tartar sauce, creamy dressings or extra cheese.
  • Get Chinese food steamed with the sauce on the side; try the mixed vegetables or chicken and broccoli. Avoid egg rolls, fried rice and deep-fried dishes like sweet and sour chicken, sesame chicken or General Tso’s chicken (more than 1,000 calories). And skip the duck sauce — just 2 tablespoons has 80 calories.
  • Use mustard, ketchup, salt, pepper or vinegar as fat-free ways to season your food.
  • Even nonfat frozen yogurt can be a no-no if you get a large with toppings.
  • Instead of cheese, opt for lettuce, tomato and onion; taking off one slice of cheese can save you about 100 calories.
  • Top your pizza with vegetables instead of meat, and ask for half the cheese. Skip the stuffed pizza and the baked ziti or lasagna.
  • Potatoes sound healthy, but the calories in the toppings can add up — skip the butter, bacon and sour cream. Try vegetables, and sprinkle with a light coating of cheese.

The average mall shopper spends more than 80 minutes per visit during the regular season, and that number probably doubles during the holidays. And since the typical mall is more than 850,000 square feet, there’s plenty of room for walking. Bring a pedometer and see if you can get to 5,000 steps, which is about 2.5 miles. Make it your goal to walk the entire mall before you even start shopping or eating and again afterward — it might even help you find the best bargains. And don’t park too close to the entrance — every step counts!

Holidays bring about many “giveaways,” including the free samples at the food court and in the stores. But remember, just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s calorie-free. In fact, I was just in Williams-Sonoma where they were offering some tasty samples, but when I stopped and looked at the packaging, I was amazed to find that a few of those little “samples” contained almost 300 calories. That’s at least half a meal.

Recently there’s been a trend to increase the food options and bring casual dining establishments into malls. These usually include restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory, Johnny Rockets, T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and P.F. Chang’s. Believe it or not, dining at these restaurants can be worse than eating at the traditional food court. Here are some tips to remember when eating at “casual” restaurants:

  • Look for the “light” or “healthy” menu items.
  • Ask questions about how your dish is prepared, and don’t be shy about requesting it prepared without oil or butter.
  • Look for baked, grilled or broiled choices, and stay away from fried foods.
  • If there is a salad bar, check it out. It may be a meal in itself. Watch the dressing.
  • Ask for all dressings, butter, sour cream and sauces on the side, and use them sparingly.
  • Many of these restaurants pride themselves on huge portions — share a dish or take half home. If you want dessert, share it with a friend and take only a few small bites.
  • Order soup or salad as an appetizer (avoid creamy soups and dressings).
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