Sandwiches are a lunchtime staple for good reasons. “From a convenience standpoint, sandwiches are relatively easy to eat in any setting, they can be as simple or intricate to put together as you want, some require little to no temperature control for at least four hours depending on the ingredients, and they travel easily in a reusable bag,” says Trista Best, RD, MPH, an environmental health specialist and consultant with Balance One Supplements (a company that sells supplements) in Dalton, Georgia.
But from a nutritional standpoint, a lot of sandwiches are lacking. Slapping some processed meat and cheese on refined white bread with mayo isn’t the best way to fuel up midday. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to make this lunchbox mainstay better for you, and better tasting, too. Just follow these easy guidelines for building a better sandwich.
Rethink what goes between the bread with these healthy sandwich ideas.
1. Load it with fruits or vegetables. In many sandwich recipes, vegetables are seen as secondary. Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, RD, the founder of Hispanic Food Communications, says that when it comes to fresh, delicious, and healthy sandwich ideas, vegetables can be the star. “Cucumber, tomato, and zucchini slices, water chestnuts, or your other favorite vegetables are all great,” she says.
“Fruits add a wonderful tasty crunch to sandwiches. Try thin-sliced cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew, pears, and apples with your sandwiches,” Melendez-Klinger says. And don't forget the classics — lettuce, onions, pickles, and fresh peppers, Best says. “For those who prefer hot sandwiches or less-crunchy toppings, avocados, cooked peppers, cooked mushrooms, grilled onions, and spinach are great choices,” Best says. “By adding a variety of produce over high-fat condiments and a variety of meats you are making this meal more balanced and healthier.”
2. Lay down a lighter spread. Many a healthy sandwich is undone by high-calorie spreads like full-fat mayonnaise. Instead, find ways to add flavor without a lot of fat, says Kathy Taylor, RD, the director of nutrition at Grady Hospital in Atlanta. “Choose low-fat condiments like low-fat mayo or salad dressing, mustard, or hummus to add moisture to your sandwich and still keep it in a good calorie range,” she says. A few slices of avocado can be another good choice; although it is high in fat, it is the healthy monounsaturated kind. Holly Klamer, RD, based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, adds guacamole and a splash of olive oil vinaigrette to the list of light-yet-flavorful dressings.
3. Go with lean protein. “The base of your sandwich is typically a protein, whether it be peanut butter or an animal protein of some sort,” Best says. Meat can be part of a healthy sandwich — the secret is choosing lean, healthy sources of protein that don’t burden your sandwich with excess fat and calories. “Choose healthy proteins like sliced chicken, fish, or turkey, or even canned tuna or salmon,” Taylor suggests. Look for light tuna in a can or pouch, which has less mercury than albacore according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Peanut butter or another nut butter is a good option for plant-based eaters. “If it is an option, choose natural peanut or almond butter, because there are less fillers and it tends to be more nutrient dense,” Best says. Plus, an article published August 2021 in Nature Foodfound that each serving of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can add 33 minutes of healthy life.
4. Choose whole-wheat bread. One of the best ways to make your sandwich recipe both filling and nutritious is to choose the right bread, explains Melendez-Klinger. “Mix up your sandwich selection by trying breads higher in fiber, such as whole wheat,” she says. “These choices will help you feel fuller longer.” That’s because high-fiber foods are bulkier and also slow the absorption of sugar to improve blood sugar levels, according to the Mayo Clinic.
5. Eat a smaller sandwich. Finally, one of the simplest ideas is also one of the easiest — avoid the monster sandwiches that are available at many restaurants in favor of a smaller portion, Taylor says. “A footlong adds double the calories,” she says. Or, if the sandwich comes on thick bread, try removing the top or bottom slice to slim the sandwich down, Klamer suggests.
For a truly healthy sandwich, what you leave out is just as important as what you include. “There are a few ingredients you'll want to avoid specifically when it comes to condiments and toppings,” Best says.
1. Don’t load up on cold cuts. Cold cuts are certainly the easiest sandwich filling to use, but Melendez-Klinger says you need to be careful, as many traditional prepackaged “luncheon meats” are loaded with fat, sodium, and preservatives. Saturated fat and sodium may increase your risk of cancer, obesity, and heart disease, according to Cleveland Clinic. If you do go the deli meat route, choose fresh over prepackaged and low-sodium when available. Fresh slices of cooked chicken or turkey (ideally that you have cooked yourself) are a better and leaner alternative, Best says.
2. Don’t layer on the cheese. Cheese is another easy way to make an otherwise healthy sandwich unhealthy. Make sure you’re using genuine cheese rather than a cheese product, Best says. “I recommend avoiding American cheese slices at all costs,” she says, since it is categorized as a cheese product and not simply cheese. Bleu cheese and feta are better options, though they’re more frequently found on hot than cold sandwiches, Best says. Or, you can just avoid cheese entirely in favor of a flavorful sandwich spread, such as hummus or plenty of delicious fruits and vegetables, Melendez-Klinger says.
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3. Don’t put it on white bread. White bread is one of the worst bases you can use for any sandwich, explains Taylor. “White bread made with preservatives and processed flours provides very little nutrition,” she says. White bread is stripped of fiber, protein, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Healthier alternatives include whole-wheat bread, other whole-grain breads, and healthy wraps made of whole grains — just look for the word “whole” on the package and make sure whole grains are listed at the top of the ingredients list, advises the Mayo Clinic. Sometimes you can even skip the carbs altogether and wrap your sandwich fillings in lettuce, though make sure you have enough ingredients to satisfy your appetite, Klamer says.
4. Don’t overdo it on grilled sandwiches. They may be delicious, but Melendez-Klinger says these grilled sandwiches can be secret diet busters. “Grilled or panini sandwiches are really popular, but are usually prepared with lots of oils or butter to give them a crusty texture,” she says. Instead, just have the bread toasted if you want the flavor of a hot sandwich with fewer calories and less fat, Klamer says.
5. Don’t eat prepackaged sandwiches. We’re often in a hurry at lunchtime, but Jeannette Bessinger and Tracee Yablon-Brenner, RD, authors of Simple Food for Busy Families, say it’s best to steer clear of prepackaged sandwiches in almost all shapes and forms. “Most are not ultra-fresh, are made on some form of white bread, and are made with the cheapest meats, cheeses, and spreads,” they say. Premade sandwiches are also light on vegetables, since they can get soggy, Klamer says. Instead, take a few minutes in the morning to make yourself a healthy sandwich to eat that day for lunch. “Generally homemade is healthier,” Klamer says. “You can add more options to a sandwich, like different vegetables.” Plus, takeout portion sizes are usually larger than you'd make at home, making it easier to overeat, Klamer says.
Remember, when you make them yourself with whole-grain bread or wraps and avoid the hidden diet busters, your sandwiches will truly be healthy choices.