The 5 Best Dishes to Order at Panda Express, According To Nutritionists
While some may argue that Panda Express isn’t exactly authentic or the healthiest choice, let’s face it—sometimes kung-pao chicken and lo mein just hits the spot.
Thankfully, there is a way to indulge your craving without totally tanking your healthy-eating goals. Before you hit the food court, registered dietitian nutritionist Mandy Enright suggests keeping the “3 Ps” in mind—preparation, pairing, and portioning. “First and foremost, be aware of how your food is being prepared. If it’s fried or drowning in sauce, put those items lower on your list,” says Enright. “[Know] how the food is paired when it comes to other ingredients and side dishes.” Lastly, don’t forget about portion size. Veggies should be the main star of the meal. Keep protein servings about the size of a palm and starch servings no bigger than the size of a fist.
When ordering, you might want to skip your beloved orange chicken and chow mien. “[Words like] 'crispy,' 'crunchy,' or 'coated' in the menu description for an appetizer or entrée is usually a dead giveaway that these choices contain a large amount of calories and fat—particularly saturated fat that can cause cholesterol levels to creep up,” says Georgia Rounder, R.D.N. Instead, look for words like “grilled”, “sautéed”, or “lightly browned” for lighter fare.
Also smart? Check out theWok Smartmenu selections, which contain 300 calories or less and at least eight grams of protein. And don’t be shy about asking for half orders or selecting from the kids' menu. “Ordering sides or kids' portions also allows you to mix and match items to make a balanced meal,” says Molly Cleary, R.D.—not to mention keep your sodium intake in check.
Related: 4 Major Signs You're Eating Too Much Salt
To help you narrow down your choices, we asked Cleary, Enright, and Rounder to scour the menu for the best healthy options at Panda Express. Here are their top picks. P.S. You can have a fortune cookie, too!
“This is definitely an option where the veggie is as much a star as the main protein,” says Enright. “At 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 520 mg of sodium per serving, this is a better choice compared to the other beef entrée items on the menu.” One serving also packs in nine grams of protein. For an extra kick of veggies, Rounder suggests pairing it with a side of mixed vegetables
Related: 11 'Healthy' Foods Nutritionists Never Eat
The Grilled Teriyaki Chicken is a solid choice that will keep you satisfied. It has 36 grams of protein per serving and the grilling preparation means there’s less fat and calories. Since the chicken is served on its own, add a side of mixed vegetables to boost your fiber intake, says Enright. “An order of [grilled teriyaki chicken] plus a full order of veggies is the perfect sharing meal,” she says.
Cleary likes this entrée choice since chicken is a lean protein (with 12 grams!) and, for this dish, it’s not fried. Not to mention there’s a decent serving of mushrooms and zucchini that accompanies it. “Since the entrée itself is pretty low in carbohydrates, I recommend adding a half order of brown rice to help keep you full and satisfied,” she says.
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“With 14 grams of protein, four grams of fiber, and less than 10 grams of fat, the String Bean Chicken Breast is a well-balanced entrée as the powerful protein-fiber combination provides sustained energy throughout the day,” says Rounder. “I recommend pairing this choice with the mixed vegetables side dish that is a great, low-calorie source of key vitamins and minerals like beta-carotene and vitamin C that keep our eyes and heart healthy.” Enright notes that while it still has nearly 600 mg of sodium, it is one of the lower-sodium entree options on the menu.
Related: Photographic Proof That Soda Seriously Messes with Your Body
You thought shrimp was off-limits, didn’t you? This one gets the green light from our nutritionists. “Although the shrimp is breaded, it's lightly breaded enough that the calorie and fat content is still reasonable,” says Cleary. “Shrimp itself is pretty lean, and the walnuts add heart healthy omega-3 fat.” Plus, it has 13 grams of protein per serving. Cleary does suggesting pairing this dish with a side of steamed vegetables for a low-cal nutrient boost.
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