Food Court Chinese – what are the healthy choices?

Written by on Wednesday, 19 July 2017.
Tagged: Chinese, eating out, fast food, guides, healthy eating, tips, vegetables

Food Court Chinese – what are the healthy choices?
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Lunchbreaks are short and most food courts are packed with hungry people in a rush to buy, eat and get back to work. As you queue up, your eyes scan the enticing offerings and the aromas stimulate your senses. 

It’s hard to make a healthy choice when you’re short on time and the most delicious looking dishes are usually the ones with more fat, sugar or salt than is good for you. Not to mention that making a decision while you’re hungry often means your stomach rules your head!

Remember, take-away is not as healthy as home-cooked!

Chinese or Asian take-aways are common in food courts. You can spot large containers of beef in black bean sauce or stir-fried ginger chicken with chilli waiting to be sold with rice or noodles. Pre-prepared and hot, they’re super quick if you are in a rush and generally delicious. But they can be a trap of hidden salt, hidden sugar, not enough vegetables and excess kilojoules/Calories.

Fast food can be a trap of hidden salt, hidden sugar, not enough vegetables and excess kilojoules/Calories

When you cook Chinese food at home, you can control the portion size and the amount of sauce. A large stir fry for dinner is great for working folk as it can produce one or two lunch-sized tubs of left overs to take to work. However, if you don’t have the time or energy - despite your best intentions - you’re at the mercy of the food court. Here we outline the best and worst choices to ensure you make the healthiest choice.

Dishes to avoid:

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  • Anything deep fried – including those crunchy spring rolls and that salt-and-pepper calamari.
  • Adding table salt – many Asian sauces have high amounts of salt already, thanks to their soy sauce or MSG.
  • Dishes with sweet sauces such as deep-fried sweet and sour pork or honey chicken (as in the picture). These add even more kilojoules/Calories because of all the added sugar in the sauce.
  • Pre-packed containers – these often have no vegetables because they do not keep well over time.

Dishes that are healthier:

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  • Choose a dish that has lots of vegetables – veggies will keep you fuller for longer. Examples are stir fries such as chilli chicken or chicken and cashews.
  • Ask the outlet for no rice or noodles on the side and instead ask for steamed vegetables. Most have these but they’re not on display.
  • If you are going to opt for a carbohydrate, stick with boiled rice. Forget fried rice. The sauces in the fried rice add a lot of sugar and salt.
  • Some outlets do offer brown rice these days. This is definitely a better option than white.
  • Ask for the smallest serving size the shop offers.
  • Look for fish dishes such as salmon in oyster sauce or steamed halibut. Grilled or stir-fried fish dishes are considerably lower in kilojoules/Calories compared to their meat counterparts.
  • If you can, avoid any Chinese that looks as if it’s been sitting in the heat having been cooked hours before. Instead go to a place that cooks to order – this way you can change the dish as you wish, such as adding in vegetables and reducing the amount of oil.
  • Often food court shops offer lunch in combo deals such as the lunch PLUS a drink. For your drink, stick to water - plain or sparkling. You are getting enough sugar in the meal without adding a soft drink on top.

Handy hacks

  1. Go with the dish with the largest amount of vegetables, often stir fries.
  2. Although the sauces in dishes such as black bean beef or Mongolian lamb are high in salt and sugar, these meals can still make a contribution towards your nutrition, providing protein, vitamins and minerals.

Thank you to student dietitian Caitlin Delaney for her roaming of food courts, her first draft of this post and her photographs.


Downloads / Fact Sheets

Read my Fact Sheet pdf Fast food - healthy options (230 KB) - download.