Food Court Cheat Sheet

Stopping to eat at the mall doesn't have to derail your whole day.
Published January 19, 2016

You've been at the mall for hours, walking from one end to the other in search of bargains. By now, you've worked up an appetite. As you head toward the food court, temptation strikes in the form of a cinnamon-scented breeze. You know you must resist the big-as-your-head bun, but you're overwhelmed with all the other options. Where can you score a healthy meal that still satisfies your mall-food cravings?

Whether you're at the mall, airport, bus terminal or any other public gathering place, you have more fast-food options than ever before — an array of choices beyond the basic burger and fries. It can make your head spin, but it doesn't have to sink your healthy goals. Just follow these tips to navigate the food court with ease.

Plan ahead
Not sure which vendors will be at your destination? Malls and airports have begun including comprehensive directories on their own websites, so start there for a list. Then search the Tracker for menu items, or check each restaurant's website to scout out nutritional information and plug a few options into the calculator. Jot down the best bets or access them on your smartphone. Narrowing down your selections before you're ravenously hungry will make it easier to follow through with smart choices.

Pack snacks to balance your meal
You don't have to load up a cooler with food, says nutritionist Leslie Fink, MS, RD, but stash an apple or some baby carrots in your purse to munch along with whatever you buy at the food court. If you can't do the BYO thing, check the nearest coffee shop or deli for a piece of fruit.

Consider restaurant-hopping
There's no rule that says you can buy food from only one vendor, says Fink. If you want some greens with your burger but the limp side salad sold alongside isn't appealing, hit the deli salad bar next (just be careful with add-ons and dressings). Or get a bowl of steamed broccoli from the Chinese buffet to go with your grilled chicken sandwich.

Look for picks with protein
Whether you're after a snack or a meal, make sure it contains some protein, advises Fink. At breakfast, that means ordering scrambled eggs. Looking for lunch? Think beyond the veggie-only salad - get a cheese-free soft taco to go with it. For a snack, why not have a small cup of fast-food chili? It's packed with protein. If you're really in a pinch, have a small piece of thin-crust pizza, just be wary of veggie toppings that may be sautéed in oil first.

Don't fall for "healthy" traps
Sure, a Cobb salad might look nutritious (all those veggies!) but cheeses, meats, eggs and avocado pack on the SmartPoints. A soft pretzel may seem innocuous enough, but it doesn't offer much in the way of long-lasting satisfaction. Ditto a seemingly virtuous bran muffin, which will cost you a whopping 13 SmartPoints. Trail mix, that convenience-store staple, is loaded with protein-rich nuts, but a quarter-cup (and let's be honest, who can stop there?) will set you back 6 SmartPoints.

Make special requests (and don't be embarrassed)!
Really, is the shame of realizing your pants are getting tight worse than the odd look the burger-stand server gives you when you ask to hold the cheese and mayo but load on extra pickles, lettuce and tomato? Speak up! Most places — even a basic fast-food joint — will accommodate your requests.

Downsize to satisfy cravings
If you just must have the burger and fries, go ahead — but make it a kid's meal. The smaller portion means fewer SmartPoints. Also, trim excess where you can. Ordering a wrap at the deli? Eat half of it with the tortilla, and pick out the rest of the filling with a fork, suggests Fink.

Consider a sit-down restaurant. Or at least sit down for a while
"A lot of malls have higher-end restaurants, too," says Fink. "Depending on the time of day, it might not be that much more expensive or time-consuming to go to one, and you'll likely have more healthy options." If you end up snagging a seat at a food-court table, savour every bite and take a little time to relax there before you're ready to leave.

Account for treats
If it's a between-meal nosh you're after (or just something sweet to finish off a meal), go ahead and let yourself have a little something. Just make sure you really take your time, savouring every last bite and record it in your My Day tracker. Your taste buds — and your waistline — will thank you.