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Estrogen may course through my veins, but I did not inherit the shopping gene. Mom had it, and my big sister, too, but I could always find other things I'd rather do with my time and money. Such as eat.
And while I would always prefer to dine in my quiet kitchen than contend with a cacophonous food court, The Dollar-Wise Gourmet understands that many of you will be scavenging for sustenance while holiday shopping this month. So as my little gift to you, I recently hauled myself to two area malls, suffering crowds and screaming children in search of meals that not only are affordable, but will give you energy to burn.
Sure, you could chow down on a cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate shake at Johnny Rockets. But that would only weigh you down&emdash;and slow you down&emdash;which is precisely what you don't want when you need to sustain yourself for the shop-a-thon.

The best way to do that, say the dietary gurus, is to have a light, nutrition-rich meal, emphasizing protein, veggies (preferably the dark-green, leafy variety) and whole grains instead of white-flour products. Sugary foods are to be avoided, as they will elevate your blood-sugar levels and then drop you to the ground faster than a Rocky Balboa KO.

So with these ground rules&emdash;and a $10 limit (this column is about saving money, after all)&emdash;The Dollar-Wise Gourmet made the dining rounds just as Rocky circled his opponents in the ring&emdash;like a hungry, caged tiger.

Here's my report.

• Standing out as the obvious choice at the Westfield Galleria at Roseville is Pluto's (on the Promenade), whose primary planetary position is healthful eats. Salads are the stars at Pluto's, where I opted for a plentiful pile of romaine lettuce topped with marinated flank steak and my choice of fixings. (I added kidney beans, red onion, cucumbers, broccoli and red bell pepper, plus a balsamic vinaigrette.) While I ordered my steak medium and was disappointed when it arrived rare, Pluto's produce gets points for freshness, and it was enough for two meals, making it a steal at only $6.38 (with tax).

• At Paradise Bakery & Cafe (food court, Roseville Galleria), the big draw was the healthful bread choices, including multigrain wheat and dark molasses. The half-sandwich and side salad ($7.35 with tax) would be light and nutritionally balanced, I reasoned. Though the chicken salad with walnuts left me asking, Where are the walnuts? (I found only one), the side salad was rich with those dark leafy greens, and the balsamic dressing was pleasingly peppery.

• Hands-down the most culinarily inventive choice was the Thai Cashew Chicken Sandwich wrap ($5.82 with tax) at Rollerz, at the Arden Fair food court. Though my dining companion found the grilled chicken strips a tad gristly, we both enjoyed the crunchy cashews and slightly sweet sesame-ginger dressing.

• Asian food, legendary for its healthful properties (as long as you don't eat the fried stuff), seemed custom-made for this assignment, so Manchu Wok pulled like a magnet at the Arden Fair food court. Here, you can get two items, plus rice and a beverage, for $7.53 (with tax). My beef and broccoli was bathed in a light and tasty brown sauce, and the mixed vegetables were fresh and crisp. The only nutritional no-no was the white rice, but unfortunately, brown rice was not an option. (Hint, hint to mall food operators.)

• What about beverages, you ask? In the spirit of healthfulness, I turned my back on my usual coffee in favor of a 4-ounce shot of green tea, plus soy milk, at Jamba Juice at Roseville's Galleria. This herby, frothy concoction ($1.95) was heaven in a paper cup&emdash;almost, dare I say it, worth a trip to the mall. And that, my friends, is saying a lot.