The Stir-Fry Base
First, you will want to make sure the base of your stir-fry is a colorful array of vegetables. Following MyPlate, half of your plate should always be made up of vegetables and fruits. The more colors you incorporate into your dish, the wider variety of beneficial nutrients you'll receive. If you're using dense vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, broccoli or cauliflower, cook them first and then add in the softer, higher-water-content vegetables--summer squash or onions--a few minutes later.
You don't need much oil--a small amount will do. Canola oil works well and has a high smoke point--400 degrees Fahrenheit. I recommend using a little sesame oil (smoke point 410 degrees Fahrenheit) in stir-fry dishes because it adds an earthy, nutty flavor. Olive oils can also be used but their smoke points vary based on type and quality.
Add in Lean Protein
There are actually quite a few lean proteins you can add into your stir-fry. Chicken breast, fish, shellfish and other seafood, lean pork loin, lean beef and eggs are all high in protein but are fairly lean as long as they aren't battered, deep-fried and then soaked in a sugary sauce. If you're a vegetarian or are just cutting back on your meat consumption, opt for extra-firm tofu or beans (garbanzo beans work really well).
Also, be mindful of the amount of protein you add in. In traditional Asian stir-fry dishes, very little meat or protein is actually added because it's used sparingly to add flavor rather than be the main focus of the dish.
The Spices and Seasonings
Herbs, spices and other seasonings will really bring your dish to life and make the naturally-delicious flavors of the veggies truly stand out. Additionally, using a lot of herbs and spices and low-sodium sauces will take the place of fat, salt and sugar, which are often used in restaurants to add flavor. Garlic, ginger, Thai basil leaves, black pepper, chilies (dried or fresh), cayenne powder, red pepper flakes, Chinese Five-Spice, chili-garlic paste, rice wine vinegar, low-sodium soy sauce, oyster sauce, low-sodium chicken stock, chili oil, and miso paste are commonly used to infuse flavor into stir-fry dishes.
To make a sauce, simply stir together about a quarter cup of low-sodium soy sauce, a little brown sugar, a tablespoon of cornstarch and a dash of vinegar. Stir the sauce and add it to your skillet or wok, bring to a boil, reduce heat and stir until the sauce is thickened and all the veggies are well-coated.
Rice? Noodles? Neither?
Oftentimes stir-fry dishes are served over rice or noodles. If you opt for these, choose steamed brown rice or whole-grain noodles. Again, be mindful of portion sizes as a proper serving of cooked rice, other cooked whole grain, or whole-wheat pasta is one half-cup. Of course, you can always skip the grain altogether and pile on more veggies or enjoy a bowl of fresh fruit topped with a drizzle of warmed vanilla yogurt for dessert.
Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children.