The Tip Jar: The best cheap eats at the Mall of America

If you're spending big in stores, the least you could do is save on food.

At the Mall of America, your money can disappear in mere minutes. The entire complex is designed to make you spend, and with distractions abound you can easily spend a day there without knowing where the time went.

If you're planning on burning several hours in the Bloomington megamall and have accepted the inevitability you're going to spend big in the stores, the least you can do is save money on food.

There are a wealth of restaurants, cafes and kiosks dotted throughout the mall – most of them on the 3rd floor – but if you're not careful you may end up sitting down for a meal that hits three figures.

So earlier this week I went searching the mall for the best food deals, looking for places you could feed a family of four for around $30.

(By the way, I'm not including drinks in this – because if you're serious about saving money, drink water.)

All locations are on Level 3 unless stated.

Firstly, the well-known chains

I'm not going to go into huge detail on these places – you know what they're all about given how ubiquitous they are – but suffice to say you can get some combination of 4 meals for under $30 at the following places in the MOA.

– Burger King

– Chipotle

– Panera Bread

– Noodle & Co.

– A&W

– Panda Express

Good value elsewhere

Burger Burger: I've been a fan of Burger Burger – found opposite the South Food Court – since I bought a milkshake for myself and a portion of cheese curds for my son and it cost me about 6 bucks.

Right now they're offering a regular portion of wings for $4.95 (so, cheaper than B-Dubs) and their burgers start from a reasonable $5.50. What's more, there's $2 off burgers and $1 off fries during the 3-6 p.m., 8-10 p.m. Mon-Thurs happy hours.

Great Steak: This sandwich outlet has two locations, at Culinary on North and the South Food Court, and sells 7-inch sandwiches ranging from $4.99-$6.09, with fries at $1.99.

Kids meals are also a reasonable $4.19-$4.49.

Pizza Studio: It might come in at slightly above $30 for a family of four, but this place has a good meal deal that costs $7.99.

For that, you get a 4-slice, 7-inch pizza with two toppings, as well as a large soda and the choice of a side salad or a cookie.

Shake Shack: Yes, I know it's a growing chain as well but I argue it's new enough to fall outside of the "well-known chains category."

Either way, the flattened Shack Burger I ate (pictured above) didn't look like much, but tasted fantastic and cost me $5.80 after tax. There are plenty of menu combos available to keep everyone satisfied for relatively low cost as well.

Melt Shop: Another sandwich place in Culinary on North, you can get one of their trademark grilled cheese sandwiches for a reasonable $4.99.

Other variations are a little more expensive, going up to $7.99, while at $5.99-$6.99 the children's menu isn't that cheap, so stick with grilled cheese.

Magic Pan Crepe Stand(1st Floor, West Market): You can get a "chicken dinner" savory crepe from this location for just $7.29 and that's pretty much the most expensive thing on the menu.

I realize crepes are just flour, eggs, milk and butter – inexpensive ingredients – but the MOA is a prime location, so you're going to pay a premium.

Holiday (1st floor, near entrance between Macy's and Nordstrom).

Hey, people gotta eat – and as far as gas stations go Holiday does a reasonable selection of sandwiches and microwave burgers (2 for $4) that are cheaper than anything else you'll find in the mall.

I'm a big fan of their fajita chicken wrap ($3.99).

Sneaky bonus

Ikea: It's technically across the street but if you're looking to load up on calories before a lengthy walk around the mall, Ikea is the place to go.

A plate of (delicious) Swedish meatballs with mash and vegetables can be had for $5.99 and the breakfast, lunch and dinner specials cost just $2, $3 and $4 respectively.

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