Movie theater concession stands frequently offer a combination of deals on popcorn, candy, drinks, and other treats, but that bargain isn't always so great for your waistline. With plenty of options at theaters today, it’s easier than you might think to make a smarter choice — if you pick carefully and share with your friends.
Check out these movie food favorites and some healthier options, depending on what you crave.
What you usually eat: A small popcorn with butter, about 950 calories
Try: A medium popcorn, without butter, about 700 calories
Movie popcorn is cooked with oil and it's already higher in calories than the air-popped variety. Downsizing is a great idea, but you should also skip the extra butter. Just one pump is around 120 calories, and a few pumps almost doubles the calories in a small popcorn. Sharing a medium popcorn is around 350 calories, or choose a small popcorn without butter for about the same calories. Don’t be fooled by the word “small,” because any size is sharable. And no one needs a “free refills” tub. A small serving of popcorn goes a long way to keep you full — the combination of fiber and air can boost that satisfied feeling.
What you usually eat: Half a box of Peanut M&Ms, about 315 calories
Try: Half box of gummy bears, around 200 calories
For a sweet treat at the movies, stick with gummy bears. Piece for piece, they have about 30 percent fewer calories compared with the Peanut M&Ms. Don’t mistake the peanuts in the candy shell for a healthy choice. Just eat a handful of nuts, if that's what you're craving. Plus, it takes longer to eat gummy bears because they’re so chewy. And don’t be fooled by the box size of the candy. A half box of each of these treats is only about 25 pieces.
What you usually drink: A "medium soda," about 300 calories
Try: A smaller slushie, around 200 calories
Both of these beverages are laden with sugar, so it’s best to stick with a low-sugar or no sugar drink like water. But keep in mind that a medium soda, even with loads of ice, can be as big as 30 ounces! But when the choice is between a soda and a slushie, like an ICEE, choose the slush to lower the calories by around 30 percent. Made with more water and ice, the slush is “watered down” more than the soda. Depending on the flavor, a 12 ounce ICEE has about 190 calories.
What you normally eat: Nachos with cheese, about 750 calories
Try: Soft Pretzel Pieces with mustard, around 450 calories
Both of these high-calorie, salty snacks are best to share. One soft pretzel is really the equivalent of about five slices of white bread, but mustard is nearly calorie free, so dip away for added flavor. With nachos, nearly half the calories of the nachos come from the cheese. If you’re hankering for those chips and cheese, there’s no food rule that says you need to finish all the cheese with the chips, so dip that chip wisely and, as always, share that gooey goodness.
What you normally eat: Fried mozzarella cheese stick, about 500 calories
Try: A hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut, about 275 calories
It shouldn't be a surprise that fried cheese is not a calorie bargain. Just five sticks have about 500 calories! An all-beef hot dog is a better choice when seeking a savory food, plus it has an added dose of protein. But do skip chili or cheese toppings, and just stick with mustard and sauerkraut, which only has around 10 calories for half a cup.
If you can’t decide…
Pick up a Kiddie Pack.
Many movie theaters offer a “kid’s pack," which is a mix of some popcorn, a fun-size candy, and your choice of drink. In addition to providing a little taste of everything, it's also one of the best calorie bargains around. Choose water, or a low-calorie soda for a combo of around 280 calories.
And not all movie theaters have only processed foods. Some movie theaters now offer healthier options like lean beef jerky, roasted nuts, sunflower seeds, and even whole dill pickles, as well as a variety of bottled low-calorie drinks.
And if you’re trying to avoid eating at the movies altogether, bring along some sugarless gum or mints to keep your mouth busy, along with a bottle of water or your favorite low-calorie drink.
Calorie information sourced from Calorie King and brand websites.
Madelyn Fernstrom is NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.