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Chinese New Year Food: Breaking Down the History and Nutrition

Yiwen Lu, MS, RD
4
January 22, 2020

In China, Chinese New Year is as significant as the combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Super Bowl together. During Chinese New Year, family members get together and enjoy a feast that symbolizes unity and prosperity.

Before we sit to eat during this new year, let's look at the traditional foods eaten during this time to help navigate the holiday in a healthy way.

Eat More

Steamed Fish

In Chinese, the pronunciation of fish is the same as “surplus.” More specifically, a surplus in wealth. Therefore, Chinese people like to eat fish during the New Years. Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a.k.a. the “good fat” which benefits heart health. To limit the loss of healthy omega-3 fats, retain the most nutrients and minimize the formation of harmful compounds, steaming is one of the more preferred methods. Other preferred methods of cooking fish include baking and poaching. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least 2 servings of fish per week. For reference, one serving of fish is the size of a deck of cards or a soap. So don’t be shy and dig in when you see fish being served!

Tofu

Tofu is another popular protein during the New Years because the “fu” part of the pronunciation sounds the same as “blessing.” Like fish, tofu is also an excellent source of protein, and a great heart-healthy replacement for meat. Tofu contains all nine essential amino acids. Moreover, tofu is rich in iron, calcium, manganese, and phosphorous, minerals that are required for good bone and heart health. A nutrient-dense food indeed!


Dumplings (Savory)

People from the Northern part of China like to eat dumplings because they look like ingots, which symbolizes prosperity. While the stuffing is always a combination of meat and vegetables, the wrapper can be made from either white all purpose flour or eggs. Choosing egg wrapper here would be a better option since eggs contain high quality protein, iron, vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids. In comparison, flour wrapping is composed of mostly carbohydrate. The vitamins and minerals in white all purpose flour are scarce except for iron. One dumpling contains about 7.5 grams of carbohydrates, so two dumplings already count as one portion of carbohydrate (15g). That means a small woman will only need around 3-4 dumplings in a meal. Therefore, please be mindful of how many dumplings you are going to eat!

Bok Choy

Bok choy is consumed during the New Years because the “choy” part of the pronunciation sounds the same as “wealth.” Bok Choy is from the cruciferous family. High intake of cruciferous vegetables has been shown to lower the risks of certain cancers. Bok Choy is rich in vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene, which are powerful antioxidants that fight free radicals. The American Heart Association recommends adults to eat 4 to 5 servings of vegetables a day. The size of a serving is defined as half a cup of cooked vegetables or one cup of raw vegetables. To quickly estimate serving sizes, a cup is about the size of a fist.


“Fortune Fruits”

In Chinese, the pronunciation of “orange” is the same as “success” and the pronunciation of “tangerine” is the same as “luck.” Thus, oranges and tangerines are called “fortune fruits.” Both oranges and tangerines are rich in vitamin C, which is necessary for the growth, development and repair of all body tissues.

Since fruits generally contain a considerable amount of carbohydrate, we recommend you to eat fruits between meals. When eating fortune fruits, we recommend you to eat one fruit at a time, and save it for a snack.


Eat Less

Dumplings (Sweet)

Sweet dumplings are consumed during the New Years because the pronunciation sounds like “unity.” However, it is a less desirable food from the perspective of health. The skin of sweet dumplings is made of glutinous flour and the stuffing is usually a sweet paste often made from peanuts, red beans, or sesame mixed of sugar. So do watch out for the sugar content when consuming sweet dumplings! Since sweet dumplings are usually served as dessert after you’ve already consumed a considerable amount of carbohydrates during the meal, we recommend you not to eat over 2 of these at a time.

Pan Fried Cakes

In Chinese, “cake” has the same pronunciation as “high.” Chinese people eat pan fried cakes during the New Years to wish that each year is better than the preceding. Some popular pan fried cakes include New Year cake, radish cake, and chestnut cake. In order to form the shape of a pan fried cake, usually a generous amount of flour is mixed in. For sweet pan fried cakes, a lot of sugar is called for in the recipe. Eating not over one piece of pan fried cake at a meal may help with better blood glucose and blood lipid control.

Sugar Coated Snacks

In Southern China, people enjoy eating sugar coated snacks (lotus seed, lotus root, winter melon, chestnut, etc) during the New Years. These snacks can symbolize a blooming business, wealth, and more children and other prosperous outcomes. Although these treats are made from healthy natural sources, they are dried so some nutrients are removed. Also, as the name implies, these snacks are high in sugar and should be consumed in moderation.

So while you are feasting with family this season, try to stay mindful about the healthiest options for you. Have a happy and prosperous new year!