There are few things easier to do than throwing together a sandwich. Whether you’re rushing to get a quick bite in between meetings, using last night’s leftovers in a creative way, or packing a picnic lunch for the whole family, sandwiches make a convenient go-to meal.
That said, the way you build a sandwich can make or break its nutritional value. For instance, a bulky roll, deli ham, America cheese, and two dollops of mayo will put you straight on the road to Calorie City and possibly tax you with an afternoon energy slump.
Looking to build a healthier sandwich? It’s totally possible with these six nutritionist-approved steps.
Step #1: Buy Quality Bread
The base to any healthier sandwich is your bread choice. So first thing’s first: Back away from the white bread.
“When shopping for bread products, look for the first ingredient as ‘100 percent whole grain,’ which means all the parts of the grains were milled into flour and all the nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein from the whole grain will be found in the product,” says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Roseanne Schnell, C.D.N. (Book a free consultation with her at VitaminShoppe.com.) “Many companies will also add the whole grain stamp to indicate that it is a real whole grain product. The stamp means that the product contains a full serving or more of whole grains in each labeled serving and that all the grain is whole grain.”
Just be careful of sneaky language, Schnell warns. Words like “refined” or “enriched” are used when manufacturers of grain products mill the whole grain, but remove the bran and germ. This results in a refined flour, and strips the ingredient of nutrients. When a product is enriched, some of the nutrients are added back, but the consumer doesn’t know how much.
Beyond the label, Schnell also says to always opt for sliced bread rather than rolls. “When you choose sub rolls or hero bread, you will be consuming larger amounts of carbohydrates,” says Schnell.
Read More: Is There Any Bread That’s Good For You?
If you don’t want to stay in the lane of traditional bread, you can go with fiber-fortified low-carb wraps, flatbreads, lettuce wraps, and even wraps made with non-traditional ingredients like cauliflower or cassava.
For those trying to lose weight, maintain or gain muscle, or support heart health, Schnell suggests Eat Me Guilt Free Protein Bread, which contains 10 grams of carbohydrates, 12 grams of protein, and 150 calories in a two-slice serving.
Step #2: Pack On The Veggies
Perhaps the most important step in building a healthier sandwich, lay those veggies on thick.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when making a sandwich is not including produce, says dietitian Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. A sandwich without lettuce, cucumber, tomato, or peppers doesn’t provide much-needed vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, or phytonutrients, she says.
That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice other favorite sandwich toppings, though. “I believe in adding quality foods to your diet, rather than taking away,” says Harris-Pincus.
The plain fact is, you can never really eat too many veggies. The USDA suggests 50 percent of your meals come from produce. When building a healthier sandwich, Harris-Pincus recommends using a full serving of veggies, which is either half-a-cup cooked or one cup raw.
“My favorite vegetables to pile high on a healthy sandwich are green leafy lettuce, tomato, onion, peppers, cucumbers, pickles, cabbage or slaw, and sprouts,” shares Schnell. However, shelf-stable veggies can go a long way, too. Harris-Pincus loves to crack open a jar of roasted red peppers, sundried tomatoes, jalapenos, artichoke hearts, or banana peppers.
Step #3: Increase The Fiber
According to the USDA, high-fiber meals can help you feel more satiated, ultimately allowing you to consume fewer calories. They can also reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and help keep you regular.
Many Americans don’t hit their daily fiber goals (about 22 to 34 grams per day) and sandwiches can actually be a great way to up your intake.
That’s a big reason why Harris-Pincus suggests using something whole grain as the base of your sandwiches. However, don’t think your healthier sandwich is doomed if you aren’t into whole grains. Though whole grain is always the best choice, you can opt for a high-fiber option of another flour instead. Harris-Pincus recommends breads with at least two or three grams of fiber per slice.
From there, your veggies will also increase your sandwich’s overall fiber content. Schell suggests aiming for nine to 13 grams of fiber. Some great high-fiber options: leafy greens, cabbage slaw, tomatoes, and avocados.
Step #4: Be Picky With Your Proteins
The average person should aim to eat 20 to 30 percent of their calories from protein, which comes out to about three to six ounces per meal, Schnell says. Thing is, people often pile much more than this onto a sandwich.
Additionally, you have to pick the right protein, meaning lean proteins that are low in fat and sodium, such as low-sodium lunch meats (like turkey or lean ham) and grilled or rotisserie chicken.
Read More: Why You Need More Protein As You Age
“My favorites to add to a sandwich are fresh chicken breast, tuna, and salmon,” says Schnell. “Since I like to use healthy fats as spreads, I often choose lean chicken breast as my protein. I also like tuna and salmon because they are rich in omega-3 fats.”
And what about the cheese? (You can’t forget the cheese!!!) “I typically prefer reduced-fat, two-percent cheeses in order to watch cholesterol and calories,” says Harris-Pincus. “The two percent still melts well and has flavor, but doesn’t have as much fat.”
Step #5: Watch Your Spreads
Spreads are key for adding flavor to sandwiches, but Harris-Pincus recommends sticking with quality fats. Some healthy, tasty options include mashed avocado, hummus, nut butter, or yogurt-based veggie spreads like tzatziki, she suggests.
Try to avoid condiments with added sugar, but if you love a creamy dressing, not all is lost. “When choosing mayo or creamy dressings, look for healthier options that have monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil or avocado oil, instead of something labeled ‘light’ or ‘reduced fat,’ which often replace the fat with sugar, starches, or artificial ingredients,” says Schnell. While they’re not necessarily lower in calories, they’re higher in quality.
Step #6: Choose Sides Wisely
You can have the healthiest sandwich that has ever been built and blow all your success with a lousy side. So do your body a favor and hold the chips and onion rings (they don’t count as veggies!). Some carrots with hummus or an apple will put your sammie over the top for nutritional value.