If you build it properly, a sandwich is really just a salad between two slices of bread. Both can deliver protein, healthy fats and lots of veggies. But that demonized carb-rich bread tricks healthy eaters into thinking a sandwich can't be a balanced, nutritious lunch.
"Carbohydrates are the brain's preferred source of energy, and they can also help replete energy stores after high-intensity or longer duration exercise," says Maya Feller, RD, CDN, owner of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition. "Everybody needs carbohydrates!"
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She loves sandwiches because they're easy, portable, customizable and affordable, and if you follow a few simple strategies, you can come up with endless healthy sandwich ideas that meet your nutrition needs, taste great and keep you feeling satisfied all afternoon.
Step 1: Start With Bread or a Wrap
The perfect healthy sandwich begins with a nutrient-rich outer layer. Look for a bread or wrap made with whole grains rather than refined grains, Feller says, and that has a short ingredient list. (She's a fan of alternative grains like spelt and buckwheat.)
Your local bakery likely has homemade options with fewer ingredients than pre-packaged loaves in the bread aisle at the grocery store. But you can still find healthy picks at the supermarket — just take a look at the ingredients before purchasing.
The first ingredient should be "whole-wheat flour." Steer clear of "wheat flour," which is a sneaky way to say white or refined flour. Another red flag: any sweetener — including high-fructose corn syrup, honey or sugar — at the top of the ingredient list.
Start your sandwich with one of these breads or wraps:
- Whole-wheat bread
- Sourdough bread
- Olive bread
- Rosemary bread
- English muffins
- Whole-wheat wrap
- Spinach wrap
- Sun-dried tomato wrap
Stick to loaves with less than 5 grams of sugar, at least 2 to 3 grams of fiber and roughly 3 to 5 grams of protein per slice.
Step 2: Select a Spread
Spreads don't have to be high in calories, fat or sugar to be high in flavor.
"I love avocado," Feller says. "It's a fantastic, good-for-you, heart-healthy fat. I also like hummus and mustard." She skips the mayo, as it's not plant-based nor as nutrient-dense as other choices.
The spreads below add flavor as well as lean protein, healthy fats and vitamins and minerals:
- Bean dip
- Baba ghanoush
- Mixture of plain Greek yogurt and mayonnaise
- Mixture of plain Greek yogurt and your favorite mustard
- Roasted red pepper purée
- Cream cheese
- Smashed avocado
Want more healthy meal ideas? Download the MyPlate app and get simple, tasty meals and snacks tailored to your nutrition goals.
Step 3: Add Vegetables and/or Fruits
The best way to take a sandwich from decent to dietitian-approved is to pile on the produce — for both nutrition and flavor. Fruits and veggies deliver vitamins and minerals, of course, as well as freshness and texture. Feller loves pickled jalapeños in her sandwiches for crunch and heat.
Thinly slice or mash fruits and add vegetables raw or cooked, depending on what you have on hand. Aim for a rainbow of color in your sandwich to reflect a wide range of nutrients in every bite.
Try any of these ideas:
Step 4: Layer on Lean Protein
Lean protein, which helps keep you full, is an essential component to a healthy sandwich. This is your opportunity to think beyond the basic meat-and-cheese combo and get creative with a huge range of choices.
Keep a close eye on sodium levels in pre-packaged animal proteins. If possible, look for fresh meat and poultry prepared in-house at your local grocery store, which will likely taste better and pack fewer preservatives.
Stick to a 2- to 3-ounce serving of any of these proteins:
Protein-based salad (egg, chicken, tuna, salmon, shrimp) with plain Greek yogurt as the base
Cheese (either sliced like cheddar or spreadable like goat)
Step 5: Serve With a Side (Optional)
Complement your meal with a simple side of fruit, such as sliced apple, for fiber, antioxidants and a touch of natural sweetness, or cut vegetables, like carrots and celery, for vitamins, minerals and crunch.
Or try some roasted chickpeas — you won't even miss the chips.
Choose a side from the following:
- Apple slices
- Mixed berries
- Baby carrots
- Sliced bell peppers
- Roasted chickpeas
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