A crowded mall food court.

Shopping while hungry has its hazards. First of all, if you’re at a mall, you’ll come home with more stuff. Researchers from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota analyzed the purchases of 81 department store shoppers and found that those who were hungry bought more items and spent about 64 percent more money than those who weren’t famished.

But you’ll also likely end up taking in extra calories. That’s because the scent of cinnamon rolls or charbroiled burgers can lead you by the nose directly to the mall food court, where you can easily pack half a day’s worth—not to mention loads of fat, sodium, and sugars—into a single meal or snack.

More on Healthy Eating

Your best defense against shopping on an empty stomach is to have something healthy and satisfying before you leave the house so those temptations are less alluring.

“At many food court restaurants, it can be hard to find anything that really is a good choice,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a Consumer Reports' nutritionist. “I either eat before I go, or I pack a healthy snack to take with me.”

Some easy portable suggestions: whole-grain crackers and cheese, a piece of fruit and some nuts, a good-for-you snack bar, or a sandwich made with hummus and veggies or nut butter and fresh fruit slices on whole-wheat bread.

The next best thing, she says, is to eat at a restaurant where you can choose real, whole foods instead of sugary treats, pretzels, bakery items made with refined grains, or processed dishes.

Still, sometimes you want a treat, or a healthy-sounding dish isn’t quite as healthy as it appears. These head-to-head comparisons from 10 popular mall food-court chain restaurants will help you satisfy your appetite in a healthier way by making small tweaks to a dish or choosing something at least a little bit healthier.  


Go to Consumer Reports’ 2018 Holiday Central for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.
 

Au Bon Pain

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Pick?

Menu Item

Calories

Fat
(g)

Saturated Fat
(g)

Sugars
(g)

Sodium
(mg)

Skip

Chicken Caesar Asiago Salad With Caesar Dressing

470

28

7

5

1,000

Pick

Chicken Caesar Asiago Salad With Balsamic Vinaigrette

360

16

4.5

8

770

Skip

Almond Croissant

500

31

13

16

390

Pick

Apple and Cinnamon Croissant

220

8

4.5

14

290

Small swaps at this mall food-court eatery can make a big dietary difference. A simple change in salad dressing on the Chicken Caesar Asiago Salad results in a savings of 110 calories and 12 grams of fat.

Craving something sweet? Croissants often have fewer calories and sugars than muffins, cookies, and other pastries. But of course it depends on the flavor of the croissant you choose, as this example shows. The almond croissant has more than twice the calories and saturated fat as the apple and cinnamon option. 

Auntie Anne’s

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Menu Item

Calories

Fat
(g)

Saturated Fat
(g)

Sugars
(g)

Sodium
(mg)

Skip

Original Pretzel with Cheese Dip

430

13

6

11

1,360

Pick

Original Pretzel
(no butter, no salt, with Marinara Dip)

355

2

0

14

640

Skip

Cinnamon Sugar Pretzel

470

12

7

29

400

Pick

Sweet Almond Pretzel
(no butter)

350

2

1

17

400

At Auntie Anne’s, pretzels are slathered in butter and rolled in salt, a double-header of nutrition no-nos. 

The chain gives you the option of holding the butter and salt, which cuts calories, fat, and sodium. If only dip'll do ya, go for the marinara. The other dips cram extra calories, fat, sodium, or sugars into these twisters.

California Pizza Kitchen

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or Pick?

Menu ItemCaloriesFat

 (g)

Saturated Fat (g)Sugars

(g)

Sodium

(mg)

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Shanghai Power Bowl with Chicken

800

52

18

16

1,400

Pick

Banh Mi Bowl

540

33

4.5

10

770

Skip

Margherita Thin Crust Pizza (half pie)

660

30

13.5

3

1,320

PickCalifornia Veggie Original Hand-Tossed Pizza (half pie)

540

15

7.5

9

1,230

Both of these power-bowl options are packed with veggies and whole grains. But the Shanghai Power Bowl is an example of how even a healthy-sounding meal can be high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium. It has nearly all the saturated fat someone on a 2,000 calorie a day diet should eat in a day and more than half the sodium.

A better choice is the Banh Mi Bowl. You get similar healthy ingredients for 260 fewer calories and far less saturated fat and sodium. No matter what kind of bowl or salad you order, though, ask for the dressing on the side. Dressings are high in calories and sodium, so you can save significantly if you use just a little bit.

It's likely, though, that when you go to a restaurant with “pizza” in its name, you want pizza. Not one Original Hand-Tossed Pizza has less than 1,000 calories. Some have nearly all the saturated fat and all of them have more sodium than you should have in a day. Changing the crust won't help. The thin crust saves only 10 calories per pie, and the whole-wheat crust actually adds 140 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 14 grams of sugars to any pizza. Our advice: Split a pie with a friend (or two) and choose the California Veggie pizza. It's one of the options lowest in calories and sodium, and highest in fiber, so having a smaller portion will satisfy your appetite.

Cinnabon

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or
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Menu Item

Calories

Fat
(g)

Saturated Fat
(g)

Sugars
(g)

Sodium
(mg)

Skip

Cinnabon Classic Roll

880

37

17

58

820

Pick

Churro

290

10

2

14

340

Skip

Cinnabon Stix (5)

420

22

10

21

440

Pick

CinnaSweeties (5)

250

13

6

13

190

The siren song of the Cinnabon scent makes it nearly impossible to walk by without stopping, and we can swear that the aroma alone must be fattening. So if you find yourself tempted, choose the Churro over the Classic Roll, or the CinnaSweeties instead of the Stix.  

Be sure to say no thanks to the frosting cup: It adds 210 calories, 13 grams of fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 21 grams of sugars, and 120 mg of sodium.  

Five Guys

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Menu Item

Calories

Fat
(g)

Saturated Fat
(g)

Sugars
(g)

Sodium
(mg)

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Cheeseburger

840

55

 27

9

1,050

Pick

Little Cheeseburger

550

32

15

9

690

Skip

Hamburger

700

43

20

8

430

Pick

Little Hamburger

480

26

12

8

380

Portion control is the secret to having the burger you crave without going overboard. The “little” options are still a satisfying 6 to 7 ounces compared with 9 to 11 ounces for the regular-sized burgers.

Forgo the fries, though. A regular order here will set you back 953 calories, 41 grams of fat, and 962 mg of sodium. 

Panda Express

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Menu Item

Calories

Fat
(g)

Saturated Fat
(g)

Sugars
(g)

Sodium
(mg)

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Beijing Beef1

470

26

5

24

660

Pick

Broccoli Beef1

150

7

1.5

7

520

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Veggie Spring Roll (2)

190

8

1.5

3

520

Pick

Chicken Potsticker (3)

160

6

1.5

2

250

  1. Half an order of brown steamed rice adds 210 calories, 2 grams fat, < 1 gram saturated fat, < 1 gram sugars, and 8 mg sodium.

You wouldn’t expect a beef dish to have the equivalent of 6 teaspoons of sugars (24 grams). Some of the sugars in the Beijing Beef at this mall food-court Chinese restaurant come from the onions and red bell peppers, but it's likely that a fair amount is found in the “sweet-tangy” sauce everything is tossed in. Avoid this beef bomber and choose the Broccoli Beef instead.

The Veggie Spring Rolls are a respectable choice, but the Chicken Potstickers actually edge them out as a better sodium pick, proving that just because "veggie" is in the name, it doesn't always win the game.

Starbucks

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Menu Item

Calories

Fat
(g)

Saturated Fat
(g)

Sugars
(g)

Sodium
(mg)

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Turkey Pesto Panini

560

23

6

2

1,230

Pick

Smoked Turkey and Swiss Sandwich Protein Box (with apples and baby carrots)

360

12

6

15

950

Skip

Caffé Mocha

360

15

9

35

150

Pick

Skinny Mocha

170

1.5

1

15

150

Though turkey breast is a low-calorie, low-fat deli meat, you can't assume all turkey sandwiches are the same nutritionally. We suggest the Smoked Turkey and Swiss Sandwich (Protein Box) over the Turkey Pesto Panini. The ingredients are similar—turkey, cheese, peppers, bread—but there's a big difference in the calories and fat. Plus it comes with apple slices and baby carrots, which are factored into the nutrition numbers.

But how much diet damage can you do if you pop in just for a coffee? It depends. The Caffè Mocha is typically made with 2 percent milk and comes topped with sweetened whipped cream. Skip the whip and the calories drop to 290, the fat to 8 grams, and the saturated fat to 5 grams. The Skinny is made with nonfat milk, sugar-free syrup, and no whipped cream. These nutritional values are for the 16-ounce Grande; order a Short (8 ounces) and you’ll slash the numbers in half. 

Subway

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Menu Item
(6-inch subs)

Calories

Fat
(g)

Saturated Fat
(g)

Sugars
(g)

Sodium
(mg)

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Steak & Cheese with Light Mayo

430

15

5.5

9

1,130

Pick

Roast Beef With Yellow Mustard

325

5

1.5

7

770

Skip

Classic Tuna

480

25

4.5

7

580


Pick

Rotisserie-Style Chicken With Spicy Brown Mustard

350

6

1.5

7

770

Have a hankering for beef? Roast beef can be a lean cold-cut option. Adding cheddar cheese increases the calories by 60 and the sodium by 90 mg.

Fish is really healthy, right? Not when it's mixed with a load of mayo. You'll get fewer calories and less saturated fat with the Rotisserie-Style Chicken. Plus, all the chicken served at Subway has been raised without antibiotics

No matter which sandwich you choose, skip condiments if you can—they add lots of sodium and sometimes calories. For example, mustard is practically calorie-free, but you can cut 110 mg of sodium from the roast beef and chicken sandwiches if you skip it. Add extra veggies for flavor and moisture instead. 

Taco Bell

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or
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Menu Item

Calories

Fat
(g)

Saturated Fat
(g)

Sugars
(g)

Sodium
(mg)

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Shredded Chicken Burrito

420

20

5

2

890

Pick

Fresco Soft Taco, Shredded Chicken (2)

300

12

4

2

860

Skip

XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito, Beef

870

40

14

6

2,140

Pick

Beefy Nacho Loaded Griller

370

15

4

3

820

The Fresco Soft Tacos are on the small side, but you can eat two and still be better off nutritionally than if you picked—surprisingly—the Shredded Chicken Burrito. And the sodium count of the Grilled Stuft Burrito—about 150 mg shy of the recommended maximum daily allotment—is a good example of why it’s best to stay away from food with XXL in its name. We found a hearty alternative—the Beefy Nacho Loaded Griller—that has less sodium, far fewer calories, and much less saturated fat.

TCBY

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Menu Item
(4 oz.)

Calories

Fat
(g)

Saturated Fat
(g)

Sugars
(g)

Sodium
(mg)

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Sorbet Fizz, small

340

0

0

68

55

Pick

Orange Sorbet, 4 oz.

91

0

0

14

15

Skip

Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chip Cookie Yogurt (4 oz.) with Brownie Bites

185

4.5

2.5

27

159

Pick

Dutch Chocolate Yogurt (4 oz.) with Strawberries

103

0

0

15

72

Sorbet Fizz sounds so light, doesn’t it? When you look at the numbers you see it’s anything but. The drink is made with sorbet and Sprite. Nutritional information depends on the flavor of sorbet and the serving size; what we used here is the best possible scenario. The counts can rise far higher—up to 610 calories and a whopping 111 grams of sugars. That’s 28 teaspoons. Plain sorbet is a far better pick, or if you want something creamy, frozen yogurt is okay—just watch what you top it with.