Food & Nutrition

Let’s Go Out for… Thai: What to Eat

This spicy cuisine can be both interesting and healthy — if you order wisely.

What to Know        What to Eat    

The great news about classic Thai menu items? There’s not a boring bite in the bunch. Even the healthiest options pack lots of flavor, and with a little sound advice you can avoid dietary stumbles and lighten up the more decadent dishes. The below Thai favorites can be found in most places, from white tablecloth restaurants to street carts.

Appetizers
Thai Spring Roll (Po Pia Tod)
These apps are made by filling a rice paper wrapper with mushrooms, bean sprouts and shrimp (pork and chicken versions are also available). Sounds great — but then they hit the fryer to become a crispy, golden brown Thai version of an eggroll, with 4 SmartPoints value each.

Lighten it up: Try Vietnamese-inspired spring rolls (Po Pia Sot), which forgo the frying. At about 80 calories each, they offer the same great fillings, with a SmartPoints value of only 2.

Satay Skewers
Beef or chicken chunks are marinated overnight with turmeric, a little palm sugar, salt, coconut milk and bay leaf. The downfall is that after grilling, they're traditionally served smothered with peanut sauce, so two skewers can run 12 SmartPoints value.

Lighten it up: Unsauced, two skewers drops to 5 SmartPoints value for beef and only 2 SmartPoints value for chicken. Get the sauce on the side and enjoy a taste, adding 2 SmartPoints value for each tablespoon used.

Hot and Sour Soup (Tom Yum Goong)
This spicy, sour soup has many variations across Thailand and neighboring countries. The combination of prawns, chilis, and kaffir lime is a healthful choice, with one cup offering up to 24 grams of protein and just 2 SmartPoints value. (The fish paste used for flavoring can impart a lot of sodium.)

Lighten it up: This soup is a good option, but be wary of modern variations like Tom yam namkhon, which adds heavy coconut milk.

Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam Thai)
This salad is prepared by crushing the papaya with a mortar and pestle, while adding flavorful ingredients like garlic, spicy chilis, lime juice, and palm sugar. Peanuts deliver crunch; fish sauce makes it savory and salty. The result: All the classic flavors of Thai cuisine, with 4 grams of fiber for only 2 SmartPoints value.

Good to know: Green Papaya salad is often served with a side of sticky rice or noodles. Unless you're having it as a meal, pass on the rice to avoid adding 6 SmartPoints value.

Main Entrees
Stir Fry Beef with Thai Basil (Pad Kra Pow)
With the distinct licorice flavor of Thai basil, a shot of oyster sauce, plenty of garlic, and Thai chilis, this dish delivers big flavor. A restaurant version is typically heavy on the beef, with about 5 oz. of beef and 3 oz. of vegetables, meaning you could be looking at 21 SmartPoints value or more — before adding rice.

Lighten it up: As with any stir-fry, ask the kitchen to go easy on the oil. Each Tbsp. spared saves 4 SmartPoints value. Request extra vegetables to replace some of the beef.

Fried Whole Fish with Chili and Tamarind Sauce (Pla Rad Prig)
In the U.S. this dish is typically made using a whole red snapper or Barramundi, which is flavored with a mix of tart tamarind paste, sweet palm sugar and spicy chilis before being deep fried. Nutritionally speaking, “fried” says it all. With a whole fish of about 1 1/4 pounds, you’ll get two filets with 63 g of protein, but the frying fat will up the tally to 30 SmartPoints value.

Lighten it up: “fish that is sautéed or, ideally, steamed. A single satisfying steamed filet, served with rice and vegetables, will be closer to 12 SmartPoints value.

Pad Thai
For many, this noodle dish is the gateway to Thai cuisine. With rice noodles coated with oil, firm egg and a topping of crunchy peanut, it’s a delicious treat. But American portions make it a belly-buster. “In Thailand this is a few bites, but here it is a main course, and often gets lots of additions, like chicken,” says Bank. Even optimistic counts put a 10 oz. restaurant portion with chicken at 40 SmartPoints value. If you get this from a greasy food court stand, add another 8 SmartPoints value for extra oil.

Lighten it up: Avoid the super-sized portion: save half for another meal.

Massaman Curry
This is one of the richest dishes available, with coconut milk and coconut cream adding saturated fats. And it often has calorie-intense meats, like fatty beef, duck, or dark-meat chicken. Just a single-cup portion with beef will contain 33 SmartPoints value; you could well be served two cups.
Red Curry
If you’re in the mood for curry, red curry with vegetables is one of the better choices. This curry usually has coconut milk, but not cream. Choose vegetables or chicken over beef and try this: Eat it with a fork, not a spoon, so you are enjoying the flavor but not slurping up every drop of fat. With these tips, you can enjoy a one-cup portion for about 9 SmartPoints value.
Sides
Thai Fried Rice (Khao Phat) 
Thai fried rice comes bursting with the flavors of Thailand, most notably aromatic Jasmine rice. A typical two-cup restaurant portion will be about 20 SmartPoints value, but adding flavorings like sausage or coconut will up the ante.

Lighten it up: Ask for extra vegetables to displace some of the rice. Replace a half cup of white rice and you’ll trim about 3 SmartPoints value.

Sweet, Sticky Coconut Rice with Mango
A 1 1/2 cup serving of this classic dessert, which is like coconut rice pudding topped with fresh mango, will tally up to 16 SmartPoints value.

Lighten it up: “Thai desserts are made with sticky rice, a highly glutinous rice that will fill you up in five bites, so this is a satisfying dessert for splitting among the table,” says Bank. Or, go for nothing but the mango, which is free — at least in terms of SmartPoints value.

Jasmine rice
Jasmine rice Similar to white rice, this Thai variety is slightly sweeter and is frequently prepared with a light touch of spices. One half-cup serving contains about 3 SmartPoints value.
Desserts and Drinks
Fried Banana (Kluay Kaek) 
Sliced baby bananas, braised in coconut milk and deep-fried, are a popular Thai restaurant pick. Bananas offer good nutrition with 0 SmartPoints value, but this dessert comes with a high price, easily reaching 5 SmartPoints value (or more).

Lighten it up: Go for fresh, sweet, ripe bananas drizzled with a little coconut milk for just 1 SmartPoints value.

Thai Iced Tea
Made with brewed tea that has been sweetened with condensed milk, or sometimes coconut milk, an 8-ounce glass of Thai iced tea can add 5 SmartPoints value to your meal. If you really want to enjoy this traditional beverage, order just one, then drink water for the rest of your meal.

*Given that ingredients, cooking methods, and portions sizes can vary greatly among restaurants, all SmartPoints values for restaurant dishes are estimates.

Next: Where to Go