Healthier Options To Order At Panda Express

When you're looking for a fast but tasty lunch or dinner, a meal at Panda Express can really hit the spot. The family owned quick-service chain first opened in Glendale, California in 1983, says the Food Network, and since then has added more than 2,000 locations worldwide (per Forbes). Known for its open kitchen where you can see chefs wok-toss Asian-inspired entrees, the restaurant definitely offers a tempting diversion from the usual food court staples of burgers, tacos, and pizza.

But are the glistening, freshly prepared entrees and sides at Panda Express actually healthy for you? After all, its top-selling signature dish is orange chicken that's breaded, fried, and tossed in a sweet orange sauce (via Uber Eats). The good news is that yes, you can eat healthfully at Panda Express by just being vigilant about your selections (Hint: skip the sodium-loaded fried rice and chow mein, as well as the sugary drinks.) Want to know more? Then read on, and let's examine the best options.

Why the amount of sodium matters

No matter where you dine out, the sodium content in restaurant food is much higher than in most home-cooked meals. Nutritionists say they mainly do it to make food taste better. Additionally, salt is a preservative that extends shelf life, explains Time. If you're someone who eats out a lot, the constant exposure to overly salted food can damage your health over time, including upping your risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke, reports the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming less than 2,300 milligrams (1 teaspoon of table salt) of sodium per day if you're healthy. Most Americans consume an average of 3,400 milligrams (1.5 teaspoons) of salt per day. And if you're at high risk for hypertension or heart disease, the guideline is even lower: just 1,500 milligrams daily (per the CDC). 

Keep your sodium intake in check by taking a peek at restaurant menus online beforehand. On Panda Express' site, there's a detailed nutritional chart at the bottom of most pages. Unfortunately, the obvious spot (the menu page) leaves out sodium information entirely. The entrees are fairly high in sodium, but otherwise generally low in calories and rich in vegetables. "I [try] to keep [my selections] at 750 milligrams per meal, though that might be a bit high for those who are over 60 and have high blood pressure," says Janis Jibrin, a registered dietitian based in Washington, D.C. (via AARP).

Grilled Teriyaki Chicken

At only 275 calories, a moderate amount of sodium (470 milligrams), and an ample 33 grams of protein, many nutritionists say the grilled teriyaki chicken at Panda Express is one of their go-to menu favorites. "An order of [this entree] plus a full order of veggies is the perfect sharing meal," declares Mandy Enright, a registered dietitian nutritionist, to Women's Health.

Wok-cooked chicken is a great source of lean protein, and despite the teriyaki sauce adding a bit of a salt and sugar glaze, it's still an excellent option if you pair the dish with a side that's nutritionally dense. Accompany teriyaki chicken with Panda Express' super greens — a combination of broccoli, kale, and cabbage — or even two half-sides of brown rice and super greens for a more filling meal. If you're getting a plate, make your second entree super greens as well, suggests registered dietitian Janis Jibrin (via AARP).  

Broccoli Beef

Broccoli beef is a clear winner in the Panda Express lineup because it's made with lean beef and broccoli elevated with a flavorful ginger-soy sauce — and the whole dish comes in at just 150 calories. It's also a particular standout because the vegetable gets equal star status with the main protein, says Mandy Enright, registered dietitian nutritionist (per Women's Health). She adds that "at 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 520 milligrams of sodium per serving, this is a better choice compared to the other beef entree items on the menu." 

In fact, broccoli not only fills you up, but it's also a superfood, according to Medical News Today. The cruciferous vegetable is low in calories and also high in nutrients and antioxidants. It may even protect against cancer, says the National Cancer Institute

Dietitians Amy Yiu and Janice Chow told Good Housekeeping that the combination of lean beef and broccoli "strikes a great protein-fiber balance" and therefore makes a terrific choice for a healthy and delicious meal, especially when paired with a side of brown rice.

String Bean Chicken Breast

At 210 calories, 560 milligrams of sodium, and just 2 grams of saturated fat, Panda Express' string bean chicken is right up near the top of its most healthful entrees. "Chicken is quite popular in Chinese dishes and white [meat] chicken is a lean protein," says Amy Yiu, a registered dietitian with Health Stand Nutrition (via Good Housekeeping). 

String beans are packed with important nutrients and antioxidants like vitamin C, kaempferol, and quercetin, which can prevent cell damage and possibly reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other serious illnesses, according to WebMD. If you've never heard of quercetin before, it's an antioxidant that a study in the journal of the American Heart Association has shown may help to naturally lower blood pressure.

The flavorful marriage of white meat chicken and string beans and onions in a ginger-soy sauce is a powerful force for nutrition. "I recommend pairing this [entree] with the mixed vegetables side dish that is a great, low-calorie source of key vitamins and minerals like beta-carotene and Vitamin C that keep our eyes and heart healthy," says Georgia Rounder, a registered dietitian nutritionist (via Women's Health).

Super Greens (entree)

Unless you're a vegetarian, you may never have thought of ordering Panda Express' super greens as your main course, but it is indeed an entree on the menu (and a side dish) that's tasty and only has 45 calories, 130 milligrams of sodium, and 2 grams of total fat. The mixture of broccoli, kale, and cabbage, plus a drizzle of garlic sauce, make this simple vegetable dish not only good for you, but also a flavorful meal that's worthy of being the star on your plate.  

"Broccoli is high in many nutrients, including fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, and potassium. It also boasts more protein than most other vegetables," according to Healthine. Heck, broccoli along with kale and certain other vegetables (including cabbage) may even protect eyes from age-related conditions such as macular degeneration, says Nicola Shubrook, a registered nutritionist (via BBC Good Food). 

A study conducted at Buck Institute for Research on Aging showed a compound found in broccoli, indole-3-carbinol (I3C), is showing promise as a possible treatment for this leading cause of blindness among seniors. So next time you're selecting your main course at Panda Express, don't skip over the super greens.

Black Pepper Angus Steak

Coming in at a respectable 19 grams of protein, the black pepper Angus steak at Panda Express is a dream dish worth exploring. Accompanying the tender cubes of wok-seared beef is a melange of broccoli, onions, red bell peppers, and mushrooms all tossed together in a mildly spicy black pepper sauce that kicks up the flavor a notch. At just 210 calories and a moderate 560 milligrams of sodium, this is a yummy and hearty beef dish that's sure to stick to your ribs longer than some of the other lighter fare.

"I recommend ordering it as a bowl, which comes with one side," says Amy Gorin, a registered dietitian nutritionist in the New York City area (via Yahoo! Life). She advises turning your side into two half portions of super greens and brown rice for a nutritionally dense and complete meal that's satisfying. Samar Kullab, a licensed dietitian nutritionist in Chicago (per CNBC) suggests even doubling the fiber-packed super greens as your sole side dish if you're accustomed to eating a large lunch or dinner.

Cub Meals

Say what? Order a children's meal when you're a full-grown adult? Yes, that's what we're saying. Panda Express' Cub meals aren't just for kids. These junior-sized spreads are complete meals that contain nutritional sides, as well as a healthy dessert and a bottle of water. The broccoli beef Cub combo, at 300 calories, 500 milligrams of sodium, and only 1 gram of saturated fat, is our favorite. Other entrees — some with upcharges — are available as well. 

"Ordering sides or kids' portions also allows you to mix and match items to make a balanced meal," says registered dietitian Molly Cleary to Women's Health.

The Cub meals have been approved by a third-party registered dietitian and are part of the Kids LiveWell program. Nearly 13,000 restaurants nationwide participate in this program which aims to boost fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins in diets while reducing unhealthy fats, sugars, and sodium (per the National Restaurant Association). Although children are the focus of the Kids LiveWell plan, Panda Express' Cub meals are also a great choice for adults with lighter appetites who are seeking smaller, balanced portions.

Mushroom Chicken

This entree is higher in sodium (840 milligrams) than many of the other entrees, but it has a lot of good going for it, too. Panda Express' mushroom chicken is a mixture of lean chicken, mushrooms, and zucchini that's wok-fired and drizzled in ginger-soy sauce. At a low 220 calories yet decently high in protein (13 grams), you can easily cut the sodium content in half by simply sharing this meal or taking home the leftovers to eat the next day. 

Mushrooms are a smart choice for pairing with protein. They're anti-inflammatory with plenty of immune-boosting properties, says Nicola Shubrook, a registered nutritionist. "Beta-glucan [in mushrooms] appear to act as prebiotics, fueling the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and promoting a favorable gut environment," she shared via BBC Good Food. Additional benefits that mushrooms bring to the table, according to WebMD, include selenium, copper, thiamin, magnesium, and phosphorous — all good for the body.

When selecting a side to go with this dish, Molly Cleary, a registered dietitian, told Women's Health to opt for something filling like a half order of brown rice, since mushroom chicken is an entree that's otherwise fairly low in carbohydrates.

Kung Pao Chicken

Looking for a spicy meal to kickstart your afternoon or evening? Panda Express' kung pao chicken is a fantastic choice for most people. The fiery dish features chicken, peanuts, and vegetables, plus a sprinkling of red chili peppers. The Szechwan-inspired entree is decently low in saturated fat (31/2 grams) and comes in at only 290 calories. The yummy peanuts also add a terrific source of iron, magnesium, and fiber, according to Consumer Reports. However, the well-known dish does fall short due to its high sodium content. To make up for the 970-milligram salt bomb, this is a main course that we recommend you split in half and share, or take part of it home to eat later. 

Chicken is the foundation of kung pao chicken, a lean protein that research shows "helps with weight control and lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes," says Brierley Horton, a registered dietitian nutritionist (via Cooking Light). 

And the peppers — well, they aren't just there to look pretty or to amp up the spiciness (though they certainly do both). The peppers add healthful properties too, such as vitamins A, B, and E. And here's a surprising tidbit from WebMD: Chili peppers contain three times as much vitamin C as oranges.

Honey Walnut Shrimp

This Western-inspired Cantonese dish is a selection that may raise some eyebrows. After all, it's tempura-battered shrimp tossed in a creamy honey sauce with glazed walnuts. Simply decadent, right? But when you look at the whole picture, shrimp is a lean and nutritious protein that's high in iron, magnesium, and iodine — and this entree's sodium level, at 590 milligrams, is not that bad (neither low nor high). As for the calories: At 360, they're just average on this menu.

The restaurant introduced honey walnut shrimp back in 2010, according to Panda Express, and the tasty premium entree quickly became a fan favorite. "Although the shrimp is breaded, it's lightly breaded enough that the calorie and fat content is still reasonable," says registered dietitian Molly Cleary (via Women's Health).

All in all, let's chalk this one up as a healthy-ish dish — and certainly a cut above the Beijing beef or orange chicken.

Portion sizes make a big difference

Serving sizes are generous at Panda Express, so portion control is key to keeping calories and other important factors in check. Choose from a "Bowl" (1 side, 1 entree), a "Plate" (1 side, 2 entrees), or a "bigger plate" for bigger appetites (1 side, 3 entrees). 

AARP advises getting the "Plate," as the "Bowl" comes with more rice than necessary and the "Bigger Plate" is just too much food (unless you're planning to share it with others). The organization also has another bit of good advice: "Check to see which entrees are available at your local Panda Express. Most [locations] don't carry all the items on the website's national menu. For example, very few serve any tofu entrees."

If you have a lighter appetite, there's no shame in ordering a Cub meal. Sure they're designed for kids, but adults can eat them, too — trust us, no one will judge you. Cub meals are just smaller portions packaged as complete, nutritionally sound meals that are less than 600 calories. They feature a small-sized entree plus two half-portion sides, and a fruit snack and drink. 

No matter which entree you select, just always be mindful of the size of the portions, advises the Iowa Department of Public Health. Protein servings should be about 3 ounces or the size of your palm. Starches should be roughly 1 cup or less, or the size of your fist, reports Women's Health