VirginiaLynne has been experimenting in the kitchen for almost 50 years. She loves to share her recipes, cooking tips, and reviews.
Is Chinese Food Healthy?
It depends on which Chinese dishes you choose. American Chinese take-out and restaurant options are often not particularly healthy because they tend to have too much meat, are often fried, and may be covered with thick sugary sauces.
While traveling in China, I enjoyed the lighter sauces and wonderful fresh stir-fried vegetables that are common in authentic Chinese cuisine. Luckily, Chinese dishes are easy to make at home. Here are my tips for cooking dishes that are closer to the healthier—and more authentic—food I found in China.
Healthy Chinese Meals at Home
Chinese techniques of stir-fry and steaming, and the fact that Chinese cooking allows most dishes to have lots of vegetables, means that cooking healthy Chinese meals at home is easy. Just like American home cooking, Chinese home cooking can take advantage of what you already have in the kitchen rather than requiring special ingredients and an extra trip to the store.
Tips for Healthy Home Chinese Cooking
- Use as many different fresh vegetables as you have on hand.
- Keep vegetables in the freezer that stir-fry well, like frozen broccoli, snap peas, and carrots.
- Keep canned Chinese vegetables in your cupboard. I usually stock up on canned ones like mushrooms, baby corn, bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts.
- Have an assortment of Chinese sauces that you like, or the ingredients to make your own: soy sauce, cooking sherry, chicken bouillon.
- Use brown rice and whole wheat noodles for a healthier Chinese meal.
- Steam dumplings, fish, or other ingredients rather than frying them.
Orange Chicken Without Frying
Many Americans love Orange Chicken, Sesame Chicken, or Sweet and Sour Chicken. However, the versions of these that you find in American restaurants often involve frying the meat in oil before adding vegetables and sauce. My kids absolutely love Orange Chicken from Panda Express and Pei Wei's Diner. I wanted to create a healthier version that tasted good but didn't fry the meat in the same way.
So I experimented with a technique I'd learned from cooking Italian food, which coated the meat with cornstarch rather than flour or a batter. It creates a surprisingly good, crisp coating when you stir-fry, and doesn't require any oil! You can use this same technique to cook chicken, pork, or beef for Chinese recipes, replacing any fried meat with this version.
Healthy No-Fat Crispy Chicken or Pork Recipe
- Cut chicken, pork, or beef into bite-sized chunks (about 1 inch).
- Pour on some cornstarch and use a spoon to move the meat pieces around until they are all coated.
- Heat a non-stick pan on medium-high heat. Spray the pan with no-fat spray.
- Put meat in the pan and stir it quickly, adding more non-stick spray so that it does not stick to the pan. Cook about 5 minutes or until the meat is cooked through.
- Take out of the pan and set aside as you cook other ingredients (see recipes below). When you are ready to add any sauces or finish the dish, put the meat in at the last minute, add sauce and heat.
- The outside will have a light crispy coating that absorbs any sauce you put on it, just like fried Chinese foods, but adds no extra oil.
Stir-Fry With Homemade Sauce
|Prep time||Cook time||Ready in||Yields|
- 4 cups or 1 package fresh Chinese vegetables, can use frozen or canned along with fresh
- 1-2 cups cooked chicken, steak, tofu or shrimp, (see recipe for cooking meat with cornstarch above, or use leftover rotisserie chicken
- 1/4 cup chicken broth
- 1/4 cup sherry or other white wine
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1 TB brown sugar
- 2 TB cornstarch
- 4 cups cooked rice or noodles
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- Heat non-stick pan on high, put vegetables in a pan (largest ones first) and stir fry until cooked but still crisp. Put aside in a bowl.
- Mix broth, sherry, soy sauce, brown sugar and cornstarch in bowl. Pour into hot pan and stir quickly. Mixture will boil and then thicken.
- Add vegetables and chopped chicken. Stir until just heated and serve with rice or noodles.
Quicker Stir-Fry With Bottled Sauce
Easy Stir-Fry With Bottled Sauce
Want something even faster? Need to use up some leftovers? That is my life most of the time. This recipe makes a one-dish meal out of whatever you have on hand. I keep an assortment of my family's favorite bottled sauces in my refrigerator. That way I can make a quick meal using whatever I have leftover in my refrigerator. I even use this technique sometimes with leftover spaghetti sauce to make a vegetable pasta dish.
- 3 cups sliced/diced leftover vegetables (I use anything I have on hand, fresh or frozen: onions, carrots, zucchini, cabbage, broccoli, mushrooms, etc.)
- 1 teaspoon oil (or non-stick spray)
- 2 cups cooked noodles or prepared rice
- Optional: 1 cup protein (cubed tofu, cooked shrimp, or other leftover cut-up cooked meat)
- 1/2 cup Sweet Chili Sauce, Teriyaki Sauce, Orange Sauce, or any other sauce
- Put the leftover vegetables in a frying pan. Add the oil or use a non-stick spray. Stir and cook over medium-high heat until vegetables are slightly soft but still a bit crunchy.
- Add the cooked noodles or prepared rice (I use leftover spaghetti noodles or packaged Udon noodles a lot). Stir and cook until heated through.
- If you want a protein, you can use the recipe above for no-oil meat, or add 1 cup cubed tofu, cooked shrimp, or other leftover cut-up cooked meat. Stir and cook until heated through.
- Add the bottled sauce of your choice. I've also used Thai sauces or even a pasta sauce that I want to use up. Stir until bubbling. Serves 4.
Hint: if one child wants Teriyaki and another child wants Sweet and Sour, you can do that with this recipe! Just serve the stir-fry before adding the sauce and let everyone top it the way they like.
Healthy Chinese Restaurant Meals
What about eating out? Can you make a healthy Chinese meal at a restaurant? When ordering in a Chinese restaurant, you may want to skip the buffet. That way, you won't be tempted to eat too much or to eat so many fried foods. You might want to ask the server for the best menu items for healthy eating or ask that sauces be served on the side. Look for menu items that include vegetables and are stir-fried or steamed rather than fried. Here are some good choices:
- All-Vegetable dishes
- Steamed Fish
- Tofu rather than meat
- Lettuce wraps or spring rolls rather than fried won tons or spring rolls
- A dim sum which is steamed or boiled rather than fried
- Meat with vegetables like Beef with Broccoli, Pepper Beef, Mu Shu Chicken with Mushrooms
- Plain rice rather than fried rice (or better yet, brown rice if it is available)
- Plain noodles rather than fried lo mein
Healthy Chinese Take-Out
Many Chinese Take-out menus have a more limited selection, so it can be harder to find healthy options. Don't be afraid to ask for a nutrition guide, or look online. Less healthy Chinese food dishes are often higher in calories than healthy ones, so that can be one way to decide what is best to eat. Just as when eating in a Chinese restaurant, try to choose items which have:
- More vegetables than meat.
- Meat that is stir-fried or steamed rather than deep-fried.
- Noodles or rice that is cooked in water or broth rather than fried in oil.
One advantage of take-out food is that you can choose how much you eat and save the rest for later. Even if you can't resist getting your favorite deep-fried Sweet and Sour, or won tons, you can choose:
- To eat just a small portion of fried Chinese foods.
- Eat plenty of stir-fried vegetables.
- Fill up with soup or plain rice or noodles.