8 Tricks for Surviving the Mall Food Court

How to shop till you drop without blowing your calorie budget.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

You set the alarm, get up early, and race to the mall for a day of power shopping. Then, a few hours later, you feel tired and cranky -- and realize you've been so consumed with shopping that you haven't eaten in hours. So you head to the mall food court -- where if you're not careful, you could inhale a 510-calorie peppermint hot chocolate, a 570-calorie glazed pretzel, a 700-calorie slice of pizza, or a 1000-calorie burrito in a matter of seconds. Yikes!

But don't despair. While food courts are loaded with places serving burgers, fries, ice cream, cookies, fancy pretzels, pizza, fancy coffees, and donuts, there are also plenty of lower-calorie options.

How do you find them? Don't expect to see calorie counts posted on the menu board. For that, you'll need to do a little homework. Check out the nutrition information on the restaurant web sites, either on your BlackBerry or before you leave home. Or follow some of these eight expert tips on how to navigate the mall food court without blowing your calorie budget:

8 Tricks to Control Calories at the Mall Food Court

1. Eat Breakfast. Before you head to the mall, start with a good night's sleep, followed by a hearty breakfast that will keep you energized for hours. "Eating every few hours will keep your energy up and help you resist the temptation of those tantalizing smells from cinnamon rolls, decadent cookies, or holiday coffee drinks that waft through the mall," says Jo Lichten, RD, PhD, author of Dining Lean.

Make sure your morning meal contains both protein and fiber. "Have a bowl of oatmeal with some dried fruit and nuts, or whole-grain toast and a few eggs," Lichten suggests

2. Drink Plenty of Fluids, Especially Water. It's easy to overlook the importance of hydration when you're busy. But enough fluid keeps muscles performing well, and is essential to feeling good.

3. Bring Some Munchies. "If you take along nutritious foods or mini-meals you will be less likely to indulge in a mega-calorie snack," says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Kerry Neville, MS, RD. These are her favorite snacks to stash in her bag and eat at the mall:

  • Fresh fruit -- an apple, banana, grapes
  • Low-fat cheese slices
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Granola bars that contain plenty of protein and fiber
  • Turkey sandwich
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • 100-calorie packs of nuts, trail mix, or rice cakes
  • Popcorn
  • Bottle of water

4. Be Choosy at the Food Court. If you didn't get it together to bring your food for the day, be particular about your choices. "Just like you shop for sales and bargains, use the same strategy to check out all the food offerings at the mall and choose the healthiest options," says Neville. What are some of the top choices? Recommendations from the experts include:

  • Unsweetened beverages (hot or cold)
  • 100% fruit juices
  • Fruit smoothies (but be sure to check the ingredients and calorie counts; some can pack up to 600 calories)
  • Salads with vegetables and grilled meats, topped lightly with vinaigrette or low-calorie dressing.
  • Side salads with fruit, vegetables, and/or nuts, topped with vinaigrette or low-cal dressing
  • Grilled chicken or turkey sandwiches (hold the mayo)
  • Wrap sandwiches loaded with veggies (hold the mayo)
  • Nonfat frozen yogurt or sorbet
  • Asian vegetable and chicken stir-fry (make sure the chicken isn't breaded)
  • Fruit and yogurt parfait
  • Nonfat latte without whipped cream or syrup
  • Whole-grain pasta with tomato or non-creamy vegetable sauce
  • Small hamburger
  • Small slice of plain pizza
  • Whole beans, hummus, or chili
  • Low-fat broth- or vegetable-based soup
  • Plain soft pretzel

In his book The Fast Food Diet, Stephen Sinatra, MD, recommends these brand selections:

  • Panda Express: Beef with string beans (170 calories; 9 g fat), spicy chicken with peanuts (200 calories; 7 g fat), or mixed vegetables (70 calories, 3 g fat)
  • Schlotsky's: Dijon chicken sandwich (330 calories, 4 g fat)

5. Avoid High-Calorie Food Court Temptations. Stay away from these over-the-top foods unless you share them with a friend or two or order a mini-version:

  • Iced cinnamon rolls
  • Meat-topped pizza
  • Giant pretzels coated with butter, sugar, icing, or nuts
  • Holiday coffee or hot chocolate drinks with whipped cream
  • Crispy, fried, or heavily sauced foods
  • Jumbo muffins and pastries
  • Super-rich ice cream
  • Candy, cookies, and brownies