Panda express restaurant
Nutrition

8 Panda Express Healthy Options to Try, And 1 to Skip

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Most people agree Panda Express isn’t authentic Chinese cuisine, but sometimes a heaping helping of orange chicken and chow mein just hits the spot. Unfortunately, most of the fast food chains’ menu items aren’t very healthy. Fan-favorites like the Beijing Beef and Orange Chicken contain more calories, sugar, and sodium than you’d think. But fear not, Panda Express healthy options do exist. Here’s exactly how to order, and the best RD-approved healthier menu items to look for next time you hit the foot court.

How to Make Healthier Choices at Panda Express

Panda Express recently tweaked the recipe of several of its dishes to lower sugar and sodium content and ramp up the veggies. Still, because deep frying, and sodium- and sugar-laden sauces are a cornerstone of the fast food joint’s offerings, it’s worth checking out Panda’s nutrition info before ordering.

If you don’t have time to dig through the nutritionals, order by these golden rules:

Look for “Wok Smart” dishes

Any menu item with a “Wok Smart” stamp indicates that it has at least 8 grams of protein and 300 calories or less per serving. For what it’s worth, a meal should have at least 20 to 30 grams of protein, so some options are better than others (1). For example, the Grilled Teriyaki Chicken Breast (36 g protein) is a better bet than Broccoli Beef (9 g protein).

Skip fried dishes

Generally speaking, fried foods are significantly higher in fat and calories than their non-fried counterparts. Fried foods are also typically made with seed oils that when exposed to high temperatures (like frying) are prone to oxidation. This process has been linked to adverse health outcomes like cancer, cardiovascular, and neurological disease (2).

Swap the side of fried rice and chow mein for greens

We know, we know, sides are the main event at Panda. But you’ll want to skip the Fried Rice (which contains 520 calories and 850 mg of sodium per serving) and Chow Mein (510 calories, 860 mg of sodium). Go for the Super Greens, Mixed Vegetables, or Steamed Brown Rice which pack more fiber, vitamins, and minerals and less calories, sodium, and fat.

FAST FOOD

Best Panda Express Healthy Options

Here are the healthiest Panda Express menu options that go lighter on calories, sodium, sugar, and fat, and load up on protein and veggies.

String Bean Chicken Breast

String Bean Chicken Breast

Per order: 190 calories, 13g carbs, 5g fiber, 4g sugar, 14g protein, 9g fat, 2g saturated fat, 560 mg sodium

The String Bean Chicken Breast pays homage to traditional Chinese home cooking—where meat is stir-fried with fresh vegetables. As one of Panda’s “Wok Smart” dishes, this meal is a good source of lean protein (14 grams), and fiber (four grams). It’s also lighter on calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium than most options on Panda’s menu. Still, you’ll need more protein to hit the 20 to 30 gram sweet spot (1). Add on an extra serving of lean chicken and you’re golden.

Black Pepper Angus Steak

Per order: 210 calories, 13g carbs, 1g fiber, 7g sugar, 19g protein, 10g fat, 2.5g saturated fat, 560 mg sodium

When you’re in the mood for red meat, order the Black Pepper Angus Steak. The lean steak keeps the saturated fat low, while the green beans, onions, red bell peppers, and mushrooms provide a hit of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. This dish also contains a solid amount of protein (19 grams), more than double the amount you’d get from the Broccoli Beef. Pair this dish with brown rice and greens and you’ve arguably got one of the most well-balanced meals on the Panda menu.

Grilled Teriyaki Chicken

Per order: 300 calories, 8g carbs, 3g fiber, 9g sugar, 36g protein, 4g fat, 3.5g saturated fat, 470 mg sodium

Teriyaki chicken typically ranges from relatively healthy to sugar and sodium bomb. Panda’s version strikes somewhere in the middle at 9 grams of sugar and 470 mg of sodium (it’s worth noting that this is better in sugar and sodium than most Panda options). Since the sauce is added to plain grilled chicken when you order, you can order the chicken plain, or cut down on sauce to slash the sugar and sodium. It also has the most protein (36 grams) for a single dish on the Panda menu—hello, muscle gains.

Firecracker Shrimp

Per order: 210 calories, 27g carbs, 2g fiber, 1g sugar, 13g protein, 10g fat, 2g saturated fat, 340 mg sodium

The only seafood option that isn’t fried on Panda’s menu is the Steamed Ginger Fish, which has a staggering 1990 mg of sodium per serving. Although the Firecracker Shrimp is fried, it may be the lesser of two evils with a modest amount of calories (210), and less fat (10 grams), sugar (1 gram), and sodium (340 mg) than the Honey Walnut Shrimp, Wok-Fried Shrimp, or Golden Treasure Shrimp. Add a side of Super Greens or Mixed Veggies to boost the fiber, vitamin, and mineral profile of your meal.

Grilled Teriyaki Cub Meal

Per order: 400 calories, 36g carbs, 5g fiber, 16g sugar, 28g protein, 16g fat, 3g saturated fat, 520 mg sodium

If you can get away with it, Panda Express kid’s options—called Cub Meals—are a solid way to save money, and get a well-balanced meal for a more reasonable amount of calories. The Grilled Teriyaki Cub Meal is one of the best options with protein-packed grilled chicken breast, one side (or two half-sized sides), and a drink.

Opt for half Brown Steamed Rice and half Super Greens for a boost of fiber and antioxidants, or go all in on Super Greens to cut back on carbs. You’ll also want to stick to water. Soda is packed with sugar and linked to a host of health issues like weight gain, cancer, and a shorter lifespan (345).

Mushroom Chicken

Per order: 220 calories, 10g carbs, 1g fiber, 5g sugar, 13g protein, 14g fat, 2.5g saturated fat, 840 mg sodium

The Mushroom Chicken is another non-fried chicken option with plenty of vegetables. One order delivers 13 grams of protein and only 220 calories. If you’re following a keto diet, this entree is the lowest carb option on the menu at 10 grams of carbs per serving.

That said, the sodium levels are fairly steep at 840 mg of sodium. If you do order this entree, stay away from high-sodium sides like the Chow Mein (860 mg) or Fried Rice (850 mg). High levels of salt consumption have been associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis, even for people who don’t have hypertension (6).

FAST PROTEIN

Healthiest Panda Express Sides

Swap out the high-sodium and high-calorie Chow Mein and Fried Rice for these.

Super Greens

Per order: 90 calories, 10g carbs, 5g fiber, 4g sugar, 6g protein, 3g fat, 0g saturated fat, 240 mg sodium

Meet the hero of the side menu. This green medley of broccoli, kale, and Chinese cabbage is low in calories and fat and a great source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Don’t let the 4 grams of sugar scare you away, because the greens are steamed and sauce-free, there’s no added sugar. In other words: The sugar is only the naturally-occurring sugar found in the veggies.

Brown Steamed Rice

Per order: 420 calories, 86g carbs, 4g fiber, 1g sugar, 9g protein, 4g fat, 1g saturated fat, 15 mg sodium

Since white rice is void of fiber, brown rice is a no-brainer. One study found that opting for whole grains (like brown rice) over refined grains (like white rice) can slash your risk for cardiovascular disease (7). It’s worth noting that brown rice will add a significant amount of calories (420) and carbs (86 grams) to your meal, especially in comparison to the Super Greens. So you might be best off opting for half rice and half greens. Still, 420 calories added to one of the entree options above won’t top 650 to 700 calories total.

Healthiest Panda Express Appetizer

At Panda you have your choice of four appetizers: Chicken Egg Rolls, Chicken Potstickers, Cream Cheese Rangoon, and Vegetable Spring Rolls. Choose the Potstickers. They’re the lowest in calories (160 calories) and saturated fat (1.5 grams). Plus, unlike the other three options, they are not deep-fried.

Skip the Vegetable Spring Rolls. Despite the seemingly healthy ingredients (cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, green onions) they’re the highest in sodium (560 mg) and lowest in protein (3 grams), and pack 190 calories for a single roll.

Healthiest Panda Express Drinks

All Panda Express locations offer the typical fast-food chain array of fountain drinks like soda and iced tea. Steer clear of sweetened drinks like Coke (a large sized drink packs 140 grams of sugar) and Powerade Fruit Punch (250 grams). Water is always a good choice for washing down your meals, but if you prefer a little flavor go with black tea or lemon green tea.

The Worst Panda Express Order

In general, fried entrees with sugary sauces (like Honey Walnut Shrimp, Beijing Beef, and Eggplant Tofu) and flavor bomb sides (like the Chow Mein and Fried Rice) rank the worst on the Panda Express menu. Here’s the worst of the bunch:

Orange Chicken with Chow Mein

Per order: 1000 calories, 131g carbs, 8g fiber, 28g sugar, 38g protein, 43g fat, 8.5g saturated fat, 1680 mg sodium

Sorry, Orange Chicken stans, but it should come as no surprise that this battered (and fried) chicken drenched in sweet orange sauce is a fat and sugar bomb. Tag team it with Chow Mein or Fried Rice (which are nearly identical in calories and sodium per serving) and you’re looking at calorie, carb, fat, sugar, and sodium overload. That said, if you’re planning to go ham on cheat meal day anyway, you could do worse than 38 grams of protein in one sitting.

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