Sandwiches are a lunchtime savior: They are portable, mostly make-ahead and completely customizable. It’s no coincidence that nearly half of us eat a sandwich for lunch regularly, according to a study of 27,000 Americans and their dietary habits. The study found that those who consumed a sandwich tended to also eat an average 275 calories more that day than non-sandwich eaters; also sandwiches contributed nearly one-fifth of the day’s total saturated fat and sodium intakes. Here’s how to build the healthiest lunchbox hero around.
Bread, wraps and rolls
Once upon a time, bread was the building block of a sandwich. Now there are wraps, pita pockets, English muffins and tortillas. Whatever you prefer, opt for a whole-grain choice. A sandwich loaf with whole-grain flour as the first ingredient that has visible nuts or seeds (less processing of these ingredients likely means more nutrients for you) will score you some major nutrition points in a smart portion size. (If you prefer the beautiful artisan loaves, use one slice and halve it.)
Also important to note: The smaller your slice of bread, the smaller those portions of meat, cheese, condiments and other yummy fixings are required to make the sandwich feel substantial. Thus, a smaller piece of bread likely means a smaller dollop of mayo, smaller slice of meat and so on to yield fewer calories than the sandwich made on two giant pieces of bread. A salad-stuffed whole-grain pita, a turkey-veggie wrap on whole wheat tortilla or an open-face sandwich on 100% whole-grain bread make for reasonable portions.
Speaking of bread options, gluten-free sandwich loaves can be found in the freezer section of many of our stores. Other fun gluten-free ideas to house savory egg, tofu or chicken salads: a lettuce leaf or even a warm corn tortilla (just wait to assemble until right before eating!).
Protein portions are key
Protein helps you feel full, so make sure to include some of the satiating nutrient in your sandwich. A 2-ounce portion is the standard, so check the label before assembling. (This is where sodium can add up quickly.) You’ll find multiple possibilities in our deli and meat case for turkey, beef, ham and chicken lunchmeat — all with no antibiotics, ever, or synthetic nitrates or nitrites. Looking for organic choices? We have those, too. This turkey sandwich is so easy and has just the right amount of turkey for breakfast or lunch.
For a vegan protein, try no-sugar-added, salt-free nut and seed butters. (They will be lower in sodium than deli meats and still supply some protein.) And tofu can be turned into a salad (for a similar approach to chicken or tuna salad) or made into this riff on the BLT.
Add some vegetables
Sandwiches featuring vegetables are not just getting a boost of fiber, potassium and vitamins, but veggies also add color, texture and flavor. Vegetables can make the whole sandwich, as they do in a fiber- and protein-packed wrap or this veggie-laden pita. Or take a favorite salad, and arrange in a whole wheat pita or wrap. Vary the vegetable colors and preparations: shredded carrots, leafy greens, yellow bell pepper strips, radishes, avocado or mashed black beans.
Don’t hold the cheese
One surprise from the USDA study was that those who consumed a sandwich also nabbed about 15% of daily needs for calcium. Cheese can add calcium, but this dairy darling also harbors saturated fat and sodium. Look for cheeses with less than 100 milligrams sodium and at least 15% DV calcium and 10% DV protein per slice/ounce. (Vegan cheeses typically have all the sodium plus a fraction of the protein found in dairy cheese; calcium may have been added to vegan options—check the nutrition facts label to be sure.) To keep your grilled cheese on target, take a cue from a carrot and cheese version or this greens and cheese one, both of which use whole grain bread and (surprise!) vegetables!
For more out-of-the lunchbox sandwich ideas, visit our Surprising Sandwich Recipe Collection.