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4 Tips to Build a Healthier Sandwich for Easy Lunches

“Ham and cheese” is no match for these creative sammy ideas.

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Sandwiches come in many forms. You can find sandwiches that are fried (like a monte cristo), sandwiches that are basically dessert (like a fluffernutter), and sandwiches that stretch the limits of what actually counts as a sandwich (like KFC’s Double Down sandwich that uses pieces of fried chicken in place of the bread).

With all these bizarre creations, it’s easy to forget that a sandwich can actually be a healthy and nutritious meal—not to mention cheap. It’s all about what you stick between those two slices of bread (leave the greasy fried chicken to KFC).

For a healthy and affordable sandwich you can feel good about bringing to work, follow these simple tips:

1. Start with a whole-grain base.

You might hear “healthy sandwich” and immediately think of lettuce wraps, but that’s not necessarily the case. Whole-grain bread provides important vitamins and minerals, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Plus, whole-wheat bread will help you stay full longer, compared to that lettuce wrap. Repeat after us: Carbs are not the enemy.

A whole-wheat bread adds an important boost of natural fiber to your meal. Fiber increases satiety after meals, improves digestion, and can help manage glucose and cholesterol levels, according to the American Heart Association. Need some variety? Don’t forget about whole-wheat pitas, tortillas, or English muffins.

2. Don’t skip the veggies.

Many sandwiches make the mistake of following the meat-cheese-condiment pattern. Adding vegetables to your sandwich adds more fiber, flavor, and texture—and usually for minimal calories.

Think beyond iceberg lettuce (although this green does have health benefits). Experiment with different produce, such as:

  • Bell pepper
  • Hot peppers
  • Tomato
  • Avocado
  • Sauerkraut
  • Onion
  • Spinach
  • Mushrooms
  • Artichokes
  • Beets
  • Or sprouts.

If you find them bland or unpleasant raw, try roasting, grilling, or caramelizing them for incredible flavor. You can also go the fruit route and add thin slices of apples or grilled peach. Just try to avoid or limit the pickled, jarred veggies, which tend to be high in sodium.

3. Rethink your protein.

When it comes to brown-bagging sandwiches, most people turn to the cold cuts. As convenient as these options are, you might want to take caution. 

As of 2015, the World Health Organization classifies processed meat as a carcinogen, meaning it’s something that “probably” causes cancer. Processed meats include meats that are salted, cured, fermented, smoked, preserved or flavored (e.g. hot dogs, chorizo, sausage, bacon, and those deli cold cuts). 

In addition to this risk, deli slices are also high in sodium. The AHA cites sandwiches as one of the “salty six,” or the top six sources of sodium in the average American’s diet. That’s partially due to the salty processed cold cuts.

So what’s a sandwich lover to choose instead? Look for plant-based proteins or unprocessed meats, such as: 

  • Grilled or rotisserie chicken
  • Bean burgers or spreads (e.g., hummus)
  • Baked falafel
  • Sliced hard-boiled eggs
  • Nut butters
  • Chickpea salad (like egg salad but made from chickpeas)
  • Tofu or tempeh 

4. Spread on the plants.

Mayo and cheese might be go-to condiments at lunch time, but both of these spreads are high in saturated fat. A diet high in saturated fat may raise cholesterol levels over time and increase the risk for heart disease, according to the AHA. Learn more about the types of dietary fat here.

Then, there are “low-fat” condiments like ketchup and BBQ sauce. These might be lower in calories and saturated fat, but they’re sky-high in sugar and sodium. #ugh 

Don’t give up hope just yet. There are lots of heart-healthy spread options to jazz up your sandwich without relying on high-fat or high-sodium condiments. In fact, think of condiments as another opportunity to add some high-fiber, nutrient-packed plants, such as:

  • Guacamole
  • Hummus (experiment with different varieties, like roasted red pepper or beet hummus)
  • Low- or no-sodium mustard
  • Pesto
  • Hot sauce
  • Tahini or tahini sauce
  • Salsa

Healthy sandwiches don’t have to be boring sandwiches—quite the opposite, in fact. With these tips, you can say goodbye to stale sandwiches and hello to a new, nutritious on-the-go meal option.