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8 Easy, RD-Approved Ways to Upgrade Your Lunch Sandwiches

These sandwich hacks are the greatest thing since sliced bread.

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A sandwich is a lunchtime favorite for a few good reasons: It’s generally simple to make, packable and relatively easy to eat in a range of settings. And, let’s face it, the humble sandwich is daily comfort food. There are about as many reasons to love sandwiches as there are ways to make them.

But from a nutritional and flavor standpoint, many sandwiches leave a lot to be desired. Slapping some processed meat and cheese on doughy white bread with a smear of mayo isn’t the best way to fuel up midday. And you can probably guess that those stacks of towering pastrami popular at many delis aren’t the best pick.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to transform this brown-bag mainstay into a meal that’s better for you, and better-tasting, too. Here’s the ultimate formula for how to make your homemade sandwiches taste fresh, flavorful and special in a nutritious way. 

1. Stuff everything between sprouted bread

Sure, choosing 100% whole grain bread when making sandwiches is a good upgrade. But go one step further with whole-grain sprouted bread as the base for your mid-day meal.

Instead of flour, these next-level breads are baked using germinated (sprouted) whole grains and add-ins like nuts, seeds and lentils – a value-added process that improves taste (say yum to a nuttier flavor) and nutrition through bonus amounts of micronutrients and protein. Through germination, so-called ‘anti-nutrients’ like phytic acid in the grains are reduced allowing for increased availability of important minerals. The sprouting process has also been shown to make the bread easier to digest for some people and it also improves the body’s blood sugar response

Scout for loaves of sprouted bread including the popular Ezekiel option in the freezer or refrigerated section of the supermarket. If your bread is refrigerated or frozen, that’s a tip-off it isn’t bathed in preservatives.

2. Cook your own meat

Even though they’re a super low-maintenance protein source, ham, turkey and other popular sandwich deli meats often contain lofty amounts of sodium and preservatives – including nitrates – that don’t make them health standouts. A study of data from 21 countries published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consumption of even relatively small amounts of processed meats (150 grams a week) may raise the risk of major heart disease and death. And a link between processed meat intake and colon cancer has been established

A better option than bologna? Simply cook your own unprocessed meats such as chicken or turkey breast, pork tenderloin or steak, and then slice these thinly for your sandwiches. These options can be prepared ahead of time so they are ready for a week’s worth of lunch meals.  It’s hardly a laboring process. 

3. Try plant-based proteins

For health and environmental reasons, it can be a good idea to stuff your sandwiches with protein that comes from plants more often. But the standard recommendations like hummus or nut butter just don’t give your lunch enough of the protein it deserves. That’s where tofu or tempeh comes to the rescue. 

Both of these plant-based options provide the necessary heft to your sandwich and solid amounts of protein to make the meal more satiating. A 3-ounce serving of tempeh has about 20 grams of protein. Tofu and tempeh are also substantially less processed than many of the meat alternatives available at the grocery store. To add flavor, you can use your favorite marinade to soak a brick of tofu or tempeh in, then grill or pan-sear them so slices are sandwich-ready. 

Roughly mashed legumes like black beans and chickpeas with added seasonings can also serve as a no-meat sandwich filling. As a bonus, this will up the fiber content of your second meal of the day. 

4. Go fish for sardines

No shade to tuna or salmon, but sardines might just be the canned fish that will rock your sandwiches. Not only are these diminutive swimmers less expensive, but they’re also even more nutrient-dense. Sardines are jam-packed with protein, hard-to-get vitamin D and heart-benefiting omega-3 fat. 

A recent study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that consumption of 200 grams of sardines a week (about 2 cans) for 12 months was associated with an increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol as well as a decrease in triglycerides, blood pressure and insulin resistance – and therefore a lower risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events – among older adults with prediabetes. 

If you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t like sardines, then it’s worth trying a few different brands; flavors and texture can vary. One of the better options comes from Wild Planet. You can also try masking some of the fishy flavor by making a mashed sardine spread as you would tuna salad for sandwiches. 

5. Pile on the color

Veggies add nutrients, freshness and flavor. And really, any mix of colors will do to make the meal more balanced and healthier. Leafy greens (the darker, the better), red onion, cucumber, roasted red pepper, juicy tomato slices, pickled beets and grated carrot are all stand-out choices.  To go the extra mile, you can even use wedges of grilled vegetables like zucchini, bell pepper and eggplant.  

You don’t have to limit your sandwiches to veggies, either. Go the extra mile by adding fresh fruit such as apple slices, pear slices or orange segments. The more colors you can add to your sandwich, the more phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals you’ll be delivering to your body. 

6. Say cheese to moisture

If you’re going to add cheese to your sammy, consider using varieties with a soft side. Higher-moisture cheeses such as soft goat, brie, fresh mozzarella, ricotta, provolone and gouda are less calorie-dense than harder brick cheeses like cheddar because they have higher water content. 

You’d be surprised how the calories can really pile up, so to speak, in a sandwich so finding ways to trim a few without sacrificing flavor is the way to go. In most cases, these fromages will add more exciting tastes compared to the standard (and often processed) cheese slices that adorn too many sandwiches. 

7. Add creative flavor boosters

Sneak even more kick into your sandwich for very few calories with extras like sliced olives, capers, sliced sun-dried tomatoes, Peppadew peppers, pickles or microgreens. 

Or, add a little punch using the fermented foods sauerkraut or kimchi.  According to a recent study by scientists at Stanford University, upping the daily intake of fermented foods can improve the microbial diversity in our guts and lower signs of inflammation. 

Fresh herbs such as dill or basil are also an easy way to punch up the fresh flavor. For crunch and added healthy fats, you can even consider sprinkling on some chop nuts such as pistachios, almonds or walnuts. For any sandwich, you ideally want to aim for a good mix of textures. Choose elements across a few categories, including creamy, crunchy, crispy, saucy and soft.

8. Spread the love

Let’s face it: A sandwich is only as good as the spread you use. But you can do better than mayo or ballpark mustard. Instead, pivot to hummus, baba ganoush, tapenade, homemade pesto, tahini or guacamole to go the distance on more exciting, healthier sandwiches. Stir some chili sauce, prepared horseradish or chopped preserved lemon into Greek yogurt or labneh and smear that on. 

Put these sandwich principles into practice

Need some sandwich inspiration? Check out our favorite sandwich recipes here for easy upgrade ideas. Or, try the two recipes below for examples of lunchtime meals that’ll show you just how versatile – and good for you – a sandwich can be.

Chicken Satay Sandwich

Serves 4

Ingredients
½ cup rice vinegar or cider vinegar
2 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 large carrot, shredded
2 cups shredded red cabbage
2 scallions (green onions), thinly sliced
½ cup smooth natural peanut butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
2 teaspoons chili sauce, such as sriracha
juice of ½ lime
2 cups sliced cooked chicken breast
2 cups baby spinach
½ cup cilantro
8 slices of toasted sprouted or whole grain bread

Preparation

  1. Bring ½ cup water to a boil using a saucepan or with a kettle. Place vinegar, sugar and salt in a heatproof container or bowl. Add boiled water and stir until sugar has dissolved. Let cool and then stir in carrot, red cabbage and scallions. Add more liquid if vegetables are not completely submerged. Cover and set aside to pickle for at least 1 hour.
  2. Stir together peanut butter, soy sauce, chili sauce and lime juice.
  3. To assemble a sandwich, spread some of the peanut butter mixture on two slices of bread. Top a bread slice with 1/2 cup chicken, and a quarter of each of the pickled vegetables, spinach and cilantro. Top with the second bread slice, peanut butter side down.

BLT Sandwich

Serves 4

Ingredients
1 block tempeh
¼ cup lower sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 teaspoon liquid smoke
2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup sliced red onion
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons pesto
8 slices toasted sprouted or whole grain bread
1 large tomato, cut into ½-inch slices
2 cups baby greens

Preparation

  1. Place tempeh in a large shallow container. In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, vinegar, maple syrup, liquid smoke, paprika and cumin. Pour mixture over tempeh. Cover and chill tempeh for at least 8 hours, flipping once.
  2. Place onion slices, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, sugar and salt in a bowl. With your hands, massage onions until tender and pink, about 2 minutes. Chill until ready to use.
  3. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a skillet over medium heat. Remove tempeh from marinade and pat dry. Cook tempeh until nicely browned, about 3 minutes per side. Cut into ½-inch slices. 
  4. For each sandwich, spread 1 tablespoon pesto on a slice of bread and top with one-quarter of the tempeh slices, tomato slices, pickled onion and baby greens. Top with a second slice of bread.