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Local health food stores have wholesome Happy Meals at the ready

It hasn't always been easy to eat healthily. There was a time when natural foods were considered suspect, and folks who ate them were viewed as a little odd. I know; I was one of them. Decades ago a pal and I owned a natural foods store in the small upstate New York town where we had attended college. We had bins of sorry-looking produce, shelves of arcane vitamins and supplements, barrels of bulk rice and flour, and a dogged humorlessness that fueled our mission to improve people's approach to food.

Much has changed in 30 years. Mainstream supermarkets have natural foods sections and offer organic fruits and vegetables. Natural foods stores are commonplace. As people become more aware of health and nutrition, more opportunities to cook and eat well abound.

But what about dining out? Folks with food allergies or other health restrictions still have a difficult time at many restaurants. Some local restaurants happily accommodate dietary quirks -- especially restaurants known for their vegetarian fare like Adam's Mountain Caf and Gertrude's. Another option is take-out or eat-in available at some of our local natural foods stores.

Nourishing Colorado Springs since 1979, Mountain Mama added a deli and bakery section about 14 years ago. Besides the regular sandwich menu, the deli has soups, salads and main dish entrees that change daily. There's a nice array of hot and cold sandwiches like the turkey melt (featuring hormone-free turkey) and the tuna melt served on your choice of bread -- whole wheat, sunflower wheat, sprouted wheat or light rye. My favorite is the tempeh burger made with shiitake mushrooms, tempeh marinated in sesame, lettuce, tomato and sprouts, and served on a sprouted grain bun. Add a small bag of green onion and yogurt potato chips and you've got yourself a healthy Happy Meal.

On the day I visited, the deli case contained some other temptations like stuffed cabbage with ginger sauce, zucchini mushroom lasagna, and spinach risotto. There were two bean-and-rice casseroles, one with cheddar cheese and one with soy cheese. They try to have vegan options as often as possible, and use organic produce whenever possible. The folks behind the counter were friendly and willing to answer any question. If you have any dietary concerns, don't be shy about asking for their help.

Another source of great information and great food is Wild Oats Community Market. They have everything a supermarket has, only theirs is better for you. The store is littered with informational brochures and little "Did You Know ..." signs gently urging nutritional information and the advantages of organic food. Anyone unfamiliar with vegetarian or pesticide-free lifestyles will find Wild Oats a terrific educational resource with books, magazines and videos on topics from lifestyle changes to cookbooks to nutritional solutions for specific physical ailments.

But it's the food that you should visit Wild Oats for -- in particular the take-out/eat-in counters. The menu rivals many restaurants in terms of variety: pizzas (everything from cheeseless to pepperoni), a dozen different fruit smoothies and vegetable drinks with 10 optional add-ins for an extra boost, coffee and tea drinks, a dozen sandwich choices, salads to stuff even the staunchest vegan, and dessert selections to shame a French bakery. The salads alone would draw me back, especially when you can get the Salad Sampler, three salads for $6.99. But how does one choose from tabbouleh; Indonesian rice salad; Moroccan beet salad; Hoppin John with black-eyed peas, garlic, parsley, red onion and bell peppers; Greek salad; multiple pasta salads; or spinach salad with poppy seeds? The array of sandwiches presents a similar dilemma. A panino sandwich or a tortilla wrap? A cold smoked-turkey Caesar or a hot portabella mushroom burger? The Ultimate veggie with hummus, lettuce, carrots, cukes, tofu, bean sprouts, zucchini and tomato, or the roast beef and portabella? Tough decisions, great eats.

Even the little guys are getting onto the food-to-go bandwagon. Manitou Natural, a 2-year-old market with the feel of an old-fashioned neighborhood shop, is in the midst of expanding its space to house a deli section. When the addition is completed in April, owners Wayne and Erin Chambers plan to offer soups, salads and sandwiches, with seating indoors and on a patio.

The newest addition to Colorado Springs' natural foods lineup is Sammy's Organics. Opened last July (and named for owner Robert Magruder's young son), Sammy's will offer pre-packaged sandwiches to go by the end of January. In the meantime, shoppers can create their own treats with locally baked breads, organic cheeses and fresh Colorado produce. Toss in some banana soy pudding for dessert. And here's an interesting and thoroughly unscientific aside for those who may think small means expensive: an herbal supplement I purchased at Wild Oats was almost $2 less at Mountain Mama, and $4 less at Sammy's.

Next time you're out and about and hunger strikes, don't head for a drive-up window, head for a healthy take-out. Your body will thank you.

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