Chinese takeout is yummy, but like many takeaway foods, some options can pack a lot of salt, sugar, and oil. But don’t worry! You can enjoy flavorful yet healthy meals by opting for dishes prepared using baking, steaming, boiling, or light sautéing.
While we all love some good Chinese takeout, it’s worth noting that certain selections might be high in unwanted ingredients like salt, sugar, oil, or other additives.
American-Chinese dishes, in contrast to traditional Chinese dishes, often lean towards being sweeter and saltier, boasting unique tastes of their own.
The good news? You can find healthier choices on the menu. And don’t hesitate to request modifications to better fit your preferences. Most menus often feature a section spotlighting dishes that are lighter in fat, sugar, and salt.
Here’s a list of 13 wholesome Chinese takeout choices, along with advice for picking main courses, sides, and sauces.
1. Steamed dumplings
Chinese restaurant dumplings are tasty dough pockets stuffed with spiced meats and veggies, typically including pork and cabbage.
Though they’re frequently fried, opting for the steamed version is a great way to save on calories and fat. A medium-sized steamed dumpling only sets you back about 40 calories.
The accompanying soy-sauce dip might be calorie-light, but it’s rich in salt. If you’re watching your sodium intake, be mindful of the amount of sauce you dip.
2. Hot and sour soup or egg drop soup
Hot and sour soup combines mushrooms, bamboo shoots, eggs, and ginger in a flavorful chicken broth, with vinegar and spices providing the titular tastes.
Egg drop soup, on the other hand, is a simple concoction of whisked eggs in chicken broth.
Both these soups are calorie-friendly, offering just 65–90 calories for a 1-cup (240 mL) serving. You can keep it even healthier by skipping the often-offered fried lo mein noodle topping.
3. Moo goo gai pan
Moo goo gai pan is a chicken and veggie stir-fry dish, featuring ingredients like mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, and water chestnuts.
Loaded with veggies and lean chicken, this dish is pretty light on the calorie scale. Plus, the chicken brings a good protein punch to keep you satisfied. A cup (216 grams) only has 160 calories but delivers 15 grams of protein.
If you’re cautious about added sugars or salt, consider getting the sauce separately so you can add as you like.
4. Beef with broccoli
This dish is a straightforward combo of beef stir-fried with broccoli in a mild sauce.
While it’s fairly healthy and rich in protein, the beef used can sometimes be on the fattier side. A cup (217 grams) packs 336 calories, 23 grams of fat, and 23 grams of protein.
To make it even healthier, consider requesting steamed broccoli instead of stir-fried and get the sauce on the side.
5. Chop suey
Chop suey is a tasty stir-fry blend of meat, eggs, and slim veggies in a light sauce. It’s frequently made with pork, but you can also find chicken, beef, or tofu versions.
Given its blend of protein and veggies, it’s a healthier pick. One cup (220 grams) of the pork variant, without noodles, has 216 calories and supplies 23 grams of protein. Keep in mind, its fat content is around 9.5 grams, and this could be higher depending on the restaurant’s preparation method.
Opting for a lighter sauce can help cut down on excess salt and sugar.
6. Chicken with broccoli
This dish is akin to its beef counterpart, combining chicken and broccoli in a stir-fry with a gentle sauce.
Being leaner than the beef version, it still brings a robust protein profile. One cup (153 grams) dishes out 13 grams of protein and only clocks in at 145 calories, alongside around 7 grams of fat.
For a lighter version, consider asking for the dish to be steamed, which cuts out any cooking oil, reducing fat and calories.
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7. Baked salmon
Several Chinese eateries have baked salmon on their menu, and it’s a fantastic pick.
Baked salmon is protein-packed, loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fats, and devoid of carbs. A 3-ounce (85-gram) piece, cooked with a tad of butter, has 156 calories, 21 grams of protein, and 7 grams of fat.
For those watching carbs or on keto, pairing baked salmon with some steamed veggies makes for an excellent meal choice.
8. Happy family dish
Happy family is a mixed stir-fry containing meats like chicken or pork, seafood, and various veggies.
This dish comes with a rich brown sauce and is typically enjoyed over rice. While specific nutritional details might be lacking, it’s a protein-rich dish because of the meat and seafood components. The veggies in it also contribute fiber.
If you’re watching your intake, choosing a lighter sauce can help reduce extra calories, fats, sugars, and salt.
9. Buddha’s feast
For those leaning towards vegan or vegetarian diets, Buddha’s delight is a fantastic choice. This stir-fry is prepared using tofu and steamed veggies such as bok choy, cabbage, and broccoli, and it’s seasoned with a mild, flavorful sauce.
Being purely plant-based, this dish offers fiber, and the tofu contributes protein. A serving, which is about one cup (217 grams), has roughly 193 calories, 3 grams of fiber, and 9 grams of protein.
It’s worth noting that tofu stands out as a complete protein source for vegans and vegetarians. This means it supplies all essential amino acids necessary for our bodies to produce new proteins.
10. Moo shu veggie mix
This beloved takeout dish primarily showcases vegetables but might include stir-fried pork and ingredients like shredded cabbage, mushrooms, carrots, and onions.
Nutrition specifics can change based on the ingredients, but typically, one cup (151 grams) has about 230 calories and a good 16 grams of protein. It can also have around 16 grams of fat, but this can differ from one restaurant to another.
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For a healthier version, be sparing with the sauce and maybe forgo the side of pancakes that commonly accompanies it.
11. Garlic eggplant delight
Eggplant with garlic sauce offers a delightful taste of grilled eggplant, smothered in a zesty garlic sauce.
The main feature, eggplant, is calorie-friendly and packed with beneficial nutrients like fiber, manganese, folate, and potassium.
The dish also benefits from health-packed ingredients like garlic, ginger, and peppers.
For added dietary fiber and a bonus whole grain serving, pair it with brown rice instead of the usual white.
12. Spicy kung pao delight
Kung pao chicken is a fiery Sichuan delicacy that blends stir-fried chicken, peanuts, chili peppers, and assorted veggies.
It’s not just rich in protein but also brings in valuable micronutrients like niacin and selenium. The peanuts in the dish add heart-friendly monounsaturated fats.
For an even healthier meal, ask for extra vegetables. And if you’re sodium-conscious, it might be good to watch your portion size since the dish can sometimes be high in salt.
13. Shrimp in “lobster” essence
Shrimp with lobster sauce, confusingly, doesn’t have lobster in it. Instead, its signature flavor comes from a black bean sauce, commonly used in Cantonese lobster dishes.
The dish merges stir-fried shrimp with veggies such as peas, carrots, garlic, and green onions.
It’s a healthier takeout choice, being relatively calorie-efficient and protein-rich. A 1-cup (185-gram) portion provides around 31 grams of protein, 279 calories, and 14.5 grams of fat.
For an even richer nutrient profile, consider asking for added veggies like broccoli, mushrooms, or bell peppers.
Picking a nutritious main dish
When opting for healthier Chinese takeout or any takeout meals, the cooking technique used is crucial.
A lot of main dishes in Chinese eateries are coated and deep-fried, and these should be sidestepped as they pack in more fats, starches, and calories.
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Some might be water-velveted, meaning they’re covered in cornstarch, which gives meat in several stir-fries that soft, silky feel. While healthier than deep frying, water-velveting does introduce additional starchy carbs and calories.
The best choices are dishes that are either baked, steamed, boiled, or lightly sautéed.
Furthermore, portion size matters. The nutritional values mentioned here are based on a 1-cup serving (200–240 grams), common for takeout mains, particularly stir-fries. However, a single takeout order might give you up to 4 cups.
To stay calorie-conscious, dish out the right serving size and keep the extra for later meals.
Summary: Aim for main dishes that are baked, steamed, boiled, or lightly sautéed. While water-velveting introduces some carbs and calories, deep-fried dishes have significantly more of fats, carbs, and calories.
Making smarter side dish choices
When selecting healthier Chinese takeout sides, your choice matters.
Popular side items such as fried rice, lo mein noodles, crab rangoon, and egg rolls are calorie-dense and fatty.
Better alternatives are steamed brown rice, vegetables cooked via sautéing or steaming, spring rolls, or soups like the egg drop or hot and sour variety.
Other excellent veggie-focused options to consider include edamame, lettuce wraps, braised bamboo shoots, or a refreshing cucumber salad.
Summary: For a healthier Chinese takeout experience, opt for sides like steamed brown rice, vegetables (either sautéed or steamed), spring rolls, specific soups, or veg-centric items such as edamame, lettuce wraps, or fresh salads.
Choosing the right sauces
A majority of American-Chinese takeout dishes come drenched in sauces. These sauces can sometimes covertly add loads of calories, fats, sugars, and salt to the meal, even if they appear sparingly used.
Thicker, more viscous sauces like General Tso’s tend to be richer in sugar and calories. In contrast, lighter, runnier sauces might be a better choice unless they’re loaded with oil.
A smart move is to order dishes with minimal sauce or request the sauce on the side, giving you better control over its quantity.
Summary: Be cautious with sauces; they can silently pile on extra calories, sugar, fat, and salt. Opt for lighter sauces or get them served separately.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) often stirs debate. It’s commonly used in American Chinese cuisine and is also found in other takeout foods, canned soups, dressings, and even some snacks.
MSG is primarily used to elevate the umami or savory taste, closely resembling the flavor one gets from soy sauce.
Despite the myths and concerns around MSG, notably that it could cause headaches, asthma, or weight gain, substantial research doesn’t entirely back these claims. In moderation, MSG has been deemed relatively safe for consumption by most individuals.
However, if MSG concerns you, it’s always a good idea to check with the restaurant about its use. Given the ongoing debate, many establishments have opted not to use this additive.
Summary: While MSG is a widely used ingredient in many Chinese dishes, its consumption in regular quantities is generally considered safe.
Chinese restaurant takeout does have its set of indulgent choices, but there are healthier alternatives too.
Opting for stir-fries is smart as they’re packed with proteins from either meats or tofu and are abundant in veggies, ensuring you get your fiber and essential nutrients.
To make the healthiest choices, be discerning with sauces and side dishes, keep a check on portion sizes, and be aware of ingredients like MSG.
Armed with this knowledge, you’re set to make balanced and nutritious choices at your go-to Chinese eatery.