Ordering Chinese takeout on Christmas Eve is a time-honored tradition for many here in ClassPass’s home city of New York, but whether you’re a member of the tribe or not, you’ve probably been tempted by that sweet-and-sour goodness on a cold winter night. The bad news is that most of your go-to favorite menu items aren’t as healthy for you as you’d hope they are. Don’t worry though – you can still give into a little indulgence, without it ruining your week of hard class work. You just have to hack your ordering habits!
We spoke to Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian and nutritionist and founder of Real Nutrition NYC, to get her advice on how to make Chinese takeout healthy—or at least, a totally acceptable holiday indulgence.
Start with soup
“Chinese soups are great, if a bit high in sodium, but they’re actually pretty good for you,” Shapiro says. She recommends starting with soup to help fill you up, and to go with your favorite to maximize enjoyment. (And hey, a few wontons here-and-there are a-okay.)
Skip the sauce
Yes, it’s a little When Harry Met Sally, but sauce on the side is the way to go for any dish, if the restaurant is willing to do it. “It actually is better for delivery, because your food won’t be soggy, and it won’t be swimming in oily, sugary, salty stuff,” Shapiro notes.
Get down with brown
Yeah, you’ve probably heard this one before, but Shapiro insists on brown rice instead of white rice, as it has more fiber. Also, sad news: “No one really realizes that fried rice is actually fried, but it is—it’s quite caloric,” Shapiro says.
Dump the dumplings
“A lot of people tell me ‘Oh, I got veggie dumpling’ and they are just so carb-y,” Shapiro says. “Everyone treats it as an appetizer, because it has steamed vegetables in it, but it’s practically a meal on its own.” Visually unwrap those bready dumpling wrappers and yup, you’ve got the idea—it’s practically a lo mein dish.
Put it on a plate
“Plating your food in any way, with any meal, is a great idea, because it says this is my portion, I can’t go back for more,’” Shapiro says. If you eat out of the container, it’s much harder to gauge how much you’re eating, and a cup of rice—with its 200 calories per serving—can disappear in a flash.
Don’t be a chicken
Bad news for those who default to chicken: A lot of saucy Chinese chicken dishes are first deep-fried and then sauced. “Lemon chicken, orange chicken, sweet and spicy, General Tso’s—those are just calorie bombs,” Shapiro says. “Even my mom is like, ‘It’s just chicken!’ but it’s seriously fried.” Go for a more authentic ordering experience and you’ll feel better after in every way.
Use your noodle
“The noodle dishes are really tricky, because some of them have better grains or are gluten-free, but noodles absorb all of the oil and sauce—they’re very, very rich,” Shapiro says. The good way to enjoy Chinese carbs like rice and noodle and wontons is to pair them with a veggie-rich protein dish. Treat them more like a side or a dessert, not an entrée.
Give MSG a miss
“MSG is definitely a factor, and if you’re sensitive to it specifically, you need to ask for everything steamed—it’s the only way to ensure they’re not throwing it into the mix,” Shapiro says. “Aside from someone with a sensitivity, it’s just a preservative, and food can taste really good without it.” Look for a place that says on the menu that they don’t use it, or ask that they not. If you’ve ever gotten headaches and heart palpitations after takeout, that’s probably the culprit.
“If you are focused, you can put together a healthy meal from Chinese food really easily. A Buddha’s delight, vegetables steamed with tofu, or really light sauce, is really the perfect marriage of foods, and you can get brown rice almost anywhere. I think Chinese can be a really healthy order,” Shapiro says.
If you tend to choose Thai or sushi because you think it’s healthier, think again. “Thai food is very noodle-based, and many dishes use high-fat flavorings like coconut milk. If you know to start with a papaya salad and a satay, you can navigate it well, but it’s a little trickier.”
And sushi calories add up fast. “There aren’t as many veggie options in most sushi restaurants; it’s more fish and rice, so you’re missing out on fiber. It’s the most deceptively healthy, though it’s great if you won’t order or cook fish otherwise. In any case, you have to know how to order.”
Day after detox
So it’s the day after your takeout binge. You’re gonna be bloated, and you’re gonna be puffy. Start with room temperature or warm water first thing in the morning. Stick with low-sodium, nourishing foods. “You don’t want to go on a detox; just come back to the way you eat. For breakfast, fruit and yogurt. Sweet potatoes and asparagus are good diuretics, so incorporate those,” Shapiro says. And most important of all, consider that your splurge for the week and get rid of the leftovers. “It’s not what happens in a one-off that changes health and weight, it’s what happens on the regular.”