There’s nothing like curling up with some Netflix and Chinese takeaway, amiright? “Chinese food is a classic comfort food because it’s super-greasy, super-delicious, and is found all over the world in cities big and small,” says Isabel Smith, a New York City-based celebrity dietitian and fitness expert. “Also, the menus don’t tend to differ, so you almost always know what you’re getting into.”
The obvious downside: It makes us feel like crap afterwards. “Chinese food is often overloaded with chemicals, salt, and highly processed ingredients like MSG, which is added to enhance flavor,” says Smith. In addition, fried foods (like those dumplings you love so dearly) may increase the likelihood of acid reflux and leave you feeling sluggish. But don’t put down your chopsticks so fast. These healthier, nutritionist-approved options won’t leave you lying on the couch with a hot water bag on your belly.
1. Skip the egg rolls and go for egg drop soup
If you’re looking for a flavorful start to your meal, opt for a light soup instead of a heavier appetizer. “The hot and sour, wonton, or egg drop soups are all about 70 to 100 calories per serving, compared to the egg roll [which has] almost two times the calories per item,” Smith says. “Soup can also help fill you up before your meal, leaving you more satisfied from less food.” Fair warning: Be mindful that with just one cup of soup, you could be raking in over 800 mg of sodium (over 40 percent of your daily recommended intake!).
2. Choose steamed dumplings over fried
This may seem obvious, but to put it in perspective: One steamed dumpling contains about 80 calories, while a fried dumpling can be upwards of 330. Not to mention the difference in fat—and the grease factor, Smith says. Go ahead and splurge on the pork filling, but be mindful of that dipping sauce, says Elizabeth Shaw, a San Diego-based dietitian. “The dumpling itself is fairly simple, but it’s the sauce that usually takes the dish over the edge with calories, fat, and sodium.” Another safe option: a fresh, non-fried spring roll that’ll be chock full of fresh veggie flavor.
3. Opt for oyster sauce
We know you love sweet and sour chicken (or tofu!), and how could you not? But not only are many of these dishes fried, they’re dowsed in a sticky, sweet sauce that’s loaded with calories and sugar. Oyster sauce, on the other hand, is more like a broth. “It’s lighter and will save on both sugar and calories—though there’s still lots of salt in there,” says Smith.
4. Pass on pan-fried noodles
Fried noodles tend to be loaded with calories and fat. “The total dish can be upwards of 800 to 900 calories per serving,” says Smith. Try chicken and broccoli, instead. Not only is chicken a lean source of protein, but broccoli is full of vitamins and minerals that will help keep hunger at bay. “Ask for the light sauce or, better yet, sauce on the side,” says Shaw. “That way you can monitor the amount you put on and really savor the flavor of your dish.”
5. But don’t give up on shrimp lo mein
“A cup of shrimp lo mein has just under 250 calories, is packed with protein, and is low in fat,” says Shaw. “I always request that they prepare my dish very lightly on the oil front, and then add in my vegetables to add more flavor.” This is a good tactic for helping you feel more full and satisfied for longer periods of time. “If you do this the right way, you could find yourself enjoying a meal for well under 400 calories—including an appetizer, too,” she says.
6. Select steamed rice over fried
Ordering fried rice may feel like a knee-jerk reaction, but pause to consider your options. “A dish made up of primarily fried rice doesn’t offer a whole lot of nutrition and may even leave you feeling sluggish,” says Shaw. Instead, plan to have steamed rice—white or brown—alongside your healthy entree. “I find that the brown rice is usually significantly cheaper and, to no surprise, better for you.”
If you don’t want to part with fried rice altogether, request it be made with brown rice so at least you’re getting in more whole grains. “When your order arrives, portion out half of what you typically would and bulk the rest up with steamed veggies,” says Shaw.
7. Toss the cookie, but enjoy the fortune
Yes, fortune cookies are part of the time-honored tradition of ordering Chinese food, but what you’re looking forward to most is the message inside. “With nearly 13 grams of added sugar, over half the amount recommended for adults per day, its flavor is really not worth savoring,” says Shaw. If you’re craving a sweet finish to your meal, opt for sliced oranges (many Chinese restaurants have them) or settle for the almond cookie, instead. “Though it has a bit more fat, almond cookies have only around 6 grams of added sugar,” says Shaw.