In 2017, January 28 marks the Chinese New Year. Consider it a second chance to take a stab at those healthy-eating goals you may have committed to on January 1 — but have let slide. The Chinese New Year is a celebration of your previous year’s accomplishments, as well as a renewal and cleansing in order to make way for incoming luck. If firecrackers, red decorations and dragon dances sound a bit too festive, might we suggest some takeout instead?
In most fast food restaurants, calories are conveniently posted next to each menu item, but Chinese takeout can be a bit more difficult to navigate when it comes to figuring out what’s “healthy” and what’s not. Few even have descriptions to indicate how the dishes are prepared — deep-fried, steamed or stir-fried, for example — making the decision even more difficult. We don’t include many calorie counts here because it’s often impossible to measure them — each restaurant differs immensely in the amount of oil used in cooking and the amount of sauce used to finish a dish. What we can do is steer you toward the dishes that tend to be lighter in calories but still heavy on flavor. Here are eight options that are typically on the lighter side and just might help jump-start your healthy new year (again).
Quick note: Unless plain rice is your dinner plan, it’s difficult to avoid sodium no matter how you order at a Chinese restaurant.
MOO GOO GAI PAN
If your style is bright, savory chicken and vegetables, order the Moo Goo Gai Pan. Thinly sliced chicken breast, mushrooms, snow peas, water chestnuts and a load of other vegetables come together in a simple white sauce. It’s honest, light and filling with less than 400 calories, leaving room for a little rice.
KUNG PAO CHICKEN
Like the “pow”-packed name implies, this spicy stir-fried dish of chicken, peanuts, a few vegetables and chili peppers is delightfully intense, so you’ll likely eat less. Order your Kung Pao with extra steamed veggies on the side, and toss them into the addictively tasty sauce — a perfect balance of spicy, salty, sour and sweet.
STEAMED VEGETABLE OR SHRIMP DUMPLINGS
Skip the pot stickers, which are usually leftover dumplings that get revitalized in the deep fryer or pan-seared in a hefty glug of oil. Instead, order the steamed dumplings, which offer ultimate satisfaction at about 50 calories per pocket. Inside each pouch, you’ll find ginger-packed cabbage and carrots (and sometimes shrimp) surrounded by an ultra thin rice-paper wrapper. They are not only delightfully tasty and filling but also fun to eat. (The pork dumplings are tasty, too, but have twice the calories.)
BEEF AND BROCCOLI
More about the broccoli than the beef, this Chinese takeout favorite is a simple-but-delicious combination of steamed broccoli and tender strips of beef that get coated in a clingy, gingery brown sauce. Though it’s one of the lighter beef dishes on the menu, the sauce is a bit sweet, so ask your server to go light on it. (Chicken and Broccoli is a solid order, too).
Skip the egg roll starter, which may have between 150–200 calories each — and order one of the many broth-based soups instead. Egg drop, hot and sour and wonton soups are all big on flavor but otherwise light, with less than 100 calories per appetizer portion. Most Chinese restaurants have several of these brothy soups on the menu — they’re a light appetizer that can help you avoid overeating later in the meal.
SHRIMP WITH LOBSTER SAUCE
Despite the decadent name, this dish typically contains no lobster. This dish is richly flavored, has less sugar than most other sauces and comes packed with plump shrimp. They’re folded into a chicken stock-based sauce that’s loaded with ginger and garlic, then thickened with cornstarch and fermented black beans. The entire dish is finished with a lightly beaten (protein-packed!) egg — all for about 400 calories.
This simple-but-tasty stir-fry of bean sprouts, celery, water chestnuts and cabbage can be made with your choice of chicken, pork or shrimp. The sauce is light in both flavor and calories, letting the ingredients (namely, vegetables) shine for what they are. Bulk it up even further by adding extra greens or bok choy.
While the ingredients and sauce may vary from one restaurant to another, one thing is certain: This vegetarian dish is packed with plants and is all about texture. Crisp snow peas and cabbage, crunchy water chestnuts, springy mushrooms and a crisp-tender combination of bell peppers, carrots and onions all come together in a light, soy sauce-based broth. Some versions have broccoli, tofu and string beans, too. Buddha’s Delight is one of the most popular dishes during the Chinese New Year because of its leaner calorie profile: A large serving usually has less than 400 calories.
HEALTHY ORDERING TIPS
Want to trim down your Chinese takeout order even more, while packing in nutrition? Here are some helpful hacks.
ORDER BROWN RICE INSTEAD OF WHITE, IF IT’S AN OPTION
Per cup, both have about 200 calories, but brown has triple the amount of fiber (about 3.5 grams per cup) and a lower glycemic index than white, meaning it takes more time to digest and will stick with you longer.
DOUBLE UP ON VEGGIES
Order a side of steamed veggies and toss them into your dish. You’ll not only bulk it up with flavor and texture but stretch the sauce, too.
WATCH OUT FOR THE EGGPLANT-BASED DISHES
Eggplant acts like a sponge, soaking up more oil and sauce than most meats and other vegetables.
ORDER WITH A FRIEND AND SHARE
One takeout entrée is usually enough to serve at least two people. Split one with your dining companion, or box up half (or more) for tomorrow.
KNOW YOUR LINGO
Deep-fried dishes can have nearly 1,000 calories a portion, but there’s often no indication on the menu that this is how they’re prepared. Avoid these words, which describe dishes that are usually deep-fried:
- sweet and sour
- chow mein
- General Tso’s
ORDER THE SAUCE ON THE SIDE
It’s often the sauce — generously loaded with oil, salt and even sugar — that makes Chinese food so unhealthy (and also so tasty). Not convinced? You can also ask the server if the kitchen will lightly sauce the dish, bring extra and add more if needed at the table.
TREAT YOURSELF TO A FORTUNE COOKIE
At just 35 calories, you can have good fortune and eat your cookie, too.
And finally, embrace the Chinese dining traditions. Take some time to enjoy the aesthetics of your food. Notice the different textures of each ingredient. Smell the delicious aroma, then taste it, noticing the balance of sweet and salty or sour and spicy.
Slow down! It’s habit in America to wolf down a meal in less than 10 minutes. Give chopsticks a try. You’ll likely find yourself eating slower, giving your belly time to realize it is full before you’ve overeaten, which only means one thing: more leftovers for tomorrow!
Happy Chinese New Year!