Order This, Not That: Panda Express

Find out what to order when dining at Panda Express.

This Chinese food chain has been around since 1983, when it first opened in a mall in Glendale, California. Chinese fast food isn't known for being healthy, and Panda Express is no exception. However, the next time you order Chinese fast food, keep these better-for-you choices in mind.

Appetizers
Order: Cream Cheese Rangoons

This dish (available regionally) consists of wonton wrappers filled with cream cheese and served with sweet and sour sauce. The calories are reasonable for an appetizer, and it's the only one in the bunch that isn't fried or pan-fried.

Nutrition Info (per serving): Calories 190; Fat 8 g (Saturated 5 g); Sodium 180 mg; Carbohydrate 24 g; Protein 5 g

Not: Crispy Shrimp

Shrimp is a very low-calorie protein, but breading and frying it defeats the purpose. The sodium is also pretty out of control for such a small app, coming in at 35 percent of your daily recommended max. (Note: this dish is only available regionally)

Nutrition Info (per serving): Calories 260; Fat 13 g (Saturated 2 g); Sodium 800 mg; Carbohydrate 26 g; Protein 9 g

Entrees
Order: Mushroom Chicken

This dish is labelled as "wok smart," indicating that it's one of Panda Express's healthier choices. It's made from a combo of chicken, mushrooms and zucchini tossed in a light ginger-soy sauce.

Nutrition Info (per serving): Calories 170; Fat 9 g (Saturated 2 g); Sodium 750 mg; Carbohydrate 11 g; Protein 12 g

Not: Beijing Beef

This fried beef option is coated in a sweet-tangy sauce with peppers and onions. With so many wok-friendly options, there is no need to order anything fried.

Nutrition Info (per serving): Calories 470; Fat 27 g (Saturated 5 g); Sodium 660 mg; Carbohydrate 46 g; Protein 21 g

Sides
Order: Mixed Vegetables

According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, 80 percent of Americans don't meet their daily recommended amount of vegetables. Unlike many other fast-food joints, Panda Express offers steamed veggies as a side, making it easier to meet your daily vegetable goals.

Nutrition Info (per serving): Calories 80; Fat 0.5 g (Saturated 0 g); Sodium 540 mg; Carbohydrate 16 g; Protein 4 g

Not: Fried Rice

Although fried rice is a Chinese restaurant favorite, it actually tops the list of the highest-calorie side dishes on the menu. Further, the sodium for this side alone is 37 percent of the daily recommended maximum.

Nutrition Info (per serving): Calories 520; Fat 4 g (Saturated 1 g); Sodium 850 mg; Carbohydrate 85 g; Protein 11 g

Dessert

The only dessert offered is fortune cookies, and this Americanized tradition is worth the 32 calories per cookie!

Nutrition Info (1 cookie): Calories 32; Fat 0 g (Saturated 0 g); Sodium 8 mg; Carbohydrate 7 g; Protein 1 g

Photos courtesy of Panda Express

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of  The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day .

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