The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and their associated MyPlate graphic are commonly referenced resources for learning about healthy and nutritious eating. The recently updated 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans put a stronger focus on meeting dietary recommendations while keeping cultural preferences in mind, and resources highlighting culturally inclusive approaches are valuable tools for translating the general messages of MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines to more Americans.
This article is part of a series that shows how healthy eating can take on many different forms outside of the Western diet. The featured guest authors will demonstrate what healthy eating looks like in their culture and how many of the MyPlate food groups and principles can translate across varying cultures and world cuisines. Each article in this series is written by a registered dietitian who is experienced in integrating culturally inclusive approaches into their work.
About the Author
My name is Michelle Jaelin (in Traditional Chinese, 關靜嫻). I’m a TV-media and communications dietitian, and my main focus in dietetics is on Asian food and cultural nutrition. I’m of Chinese descent, my parents are from Hong Kong, and I am Canadian-born. Watching my English-as-a-second-language parents try to navigate and understand the healthcare system inspired me to focus on this area in dietetics. Given that traditional dietary guidelines are based on Euro-centric diets, I didn’t find the information out there inclusive enough to Asian Canadians and other ethnic groups.
My cultural preference is on mainly the Chinese diet in North America. In China there are many diverse cuisines, eight of which are considered primary or “high” cuisines. This particular article emphasizes mostly cuisine from Guangdong province, a coastal province in South China that has evolved to become a part of American culture.
The History of Chinese People and Cuisine in North America
The Chinese diet cannot be discussed without its people. In the late 1800s, early Chinese immigrants brought over their food to North America. However, misconceptions about Chinese food as strange or peculiar became synonymous with Chinese exclusion laws at the time, which barred Chinese people from entering or settling in the U.S. New Chinese restauranteurs needed to stay in business, so they prepared food differently to fit the taste and preferences of white Anglo-Americans. Popular Chinese American dishes such as General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey were not foods Chinese families ate in the home.
The Chinese Way of Eating
Traditionally, Chinese people strongly value food and family. Eating is often family-style and involves sharing food with others in a communal setting. Without relying on portion sizes or a plate divided into food categories, this style of eating follows an intuitive eating approach. Foods are eaten in bowls with chopsticks rather than with plates and forks. Traditionally, this diet emphasizes eating mostly whole, fresh foods cooked from scratch.
Most days include meals involving tofu/soy products, a broth soup, bread and eggs. White rice is often the main carbohydrate staple, either in the form of noodles or made into a rice porridge like congee. Most meals include cooked Chinese leafy green vegetables called 菜 “choy.” Popular ones are gai lan, bok choy, snow pea shoots (dou miu), and watercress, and are often eaten alongside animal protein dishes such as chicken, fish, seafood, beef or pork. Salads are not part of the menu, as most vegetables are cooked.
A Typical Chinese Meal Structure
Chinese families often eat three meals per day with some snacks in between. Traditional Chinese breakfasts can include either congee, a bāozi (a steamed bun with stuffing: either meat, eggs or rice-noodle), sticky rice, Chinese pancakes with eggs or soybean milk with deep-fried dough sticks.
For lunch, the menu is usually simple: noodles or rice, plus some meat and vegetables.
Snacks can be a piece of fruit, buns (similar to bāozi) or other fun snacks such as Pocky, haw flakes, fish snacks or cookies, which are popular amongst children.
Dinner is the most important meal, as it’s often the one shared with family. Steamed white rice is usually prepared in a rice cooker and portioned out in small bowls. Dishes of vegetables, meat, fish and others are placed in the middle of the table for people to share. Rice is often eaten in the small bowls, and each person adds (with chopsticks) small amounts of each dish to their small bowl of rice.
Every week can include a special meal of either dim sum, dumplings, a specialty prepared dish (seafood or meat prepared in a unique way), fried noodles, or a bun or “bao” from the Chinese bakery. Special occasions call for dishes like Peking Duck or something special from the bakery, such as cake with fruit and egg tarts.
How Do the MyPlate Food Groups Align with the Dietary Preferences of Chinese Cuisine?
Chinese people believe in consuming fresh, delicious and in-season produce. More unique vegetable varieties to Chinese food are bok choy, mung bean sprouts, garland chrysanthemum, yau choy, gai lan, pea shoots, amaranth greens, enoki, king oyster and Chinese mushrooms, bamboo shoots, snow peas, long beans, Chinese celery, napa cabbage, bitter melon, lotus root, Chinese eggplant, cilantro, chayote squash, legumes, tubers (yams or taro) and more.
Unique and popular fruits in Chinese cuisine include persimmons, papayas, lychees, longan, dragon fruit, pomelo and other citrus fruits, durian, rambutans, passion fruit, starfruit, kumquats, Asian pears and goji berries.
Popular grains include cereals like rice, wheat and corn. White rice is a staple at most meals and can also come in the form of noodles or congee.
Common protein foods include fish, meats, eggs, legumes, nuts, tofu and other soy protein including soybeans and seitan (wheat gluten).
Dairy or Dairy Alternatives
These include milk (which may be lactose-free), milk products such as cheese and yogurt, soy milk and soy products.
The Bottom Line
The Chinese diet is a style of intuitive and family-style eating that incorporates lots of freshly prepared and cooked foods. Eating together is important to Chinese culture, as bringing the family together to enjoy food cultivates memories, nourishment and a stronger family bond. Chinese cuisine is one of many diverse cuisines that can serve as examples of healthy and nutritious eating. This cuisine can broadly encompass the recommendations promoted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and their associated MyPlate graphic.
This article was written by Michelle Jaelin, RD.