The dietitian's guide to making healthy (and tasty) sandwiches

Loading your sandwich with vegetables ensures it's both nutritious and filling.
Loading your sandwich with vegetables ensures it's both nutritious and filling. Photo: iStock

What is your favourite sandwich memory? Soft white bread thickly spread with butter and Vegemite at primary school? Or maybe a piping hot cheese and baked bean jaffle enjoyed with grandparents as a child? Or is it a more gourmet version ordered at a favourite cafe that costs almost as much as a hot meal?

From a nutritional perspective, the humble sandwich has a lot to offer – its combination of carbohydrates for energy and fresh ingredients means that the right sandwich mix can keep you full and satisfied all afternoon while ticking a number of nutritional boxes.

A protein-rich sandwich filling such as smoked salmon and plenty of salad transform a light lunch into a filling meal.
A protein-rich sandwich filling such as smoked salmon and plenty of salad transform a light lunch into a filling meal. Photo: Janie Barrett

Unfortunately, a shift towards gigantic pre-made sandwiches in cafes and food courts can mean that a seemingly simple sandwich can become a complete energy overload.

Here are some easy steps that will help you make (or order) a filling and nutritionally balanced sandwich guaranteed to taste far better than your current lunch order.

Start with your base

Over the past few years, interest in sandwiches has waned as we have become more carb-conscious. But the truth is that it is not bread itself that is the issue. Rather, it's the type of bread often used for pre-made sandwiches, and the size of these slices. For example, Turkish bread teamed with chicken and avo will contain up to 80g of carbohydrate per sandwich, equal to five slices of regular bread. Even a sandwich made with large slices of sourdough can contain more than 60g of carbs.

On the other hand, sandwiches made with small slices of wholegrain, or small (not jumbo) wraps, will equate to 30-40g of carbs overall, a much more reasonable amount for the average adult, who requires just 100g to 150g of carbohydrates in total for the entire day.

If you prefer an even lower carb intake, seek out high-protein loaves or low-carb wraps, available in supermarkets, which contain less than 15g of carbohydrates.

Meatball sandwich with hummus and beetroot. Jill Dupleix MEATBALLS recipes for Epicure and Good Living. Photographed by Marina Oliphant. Food preparation and styling by Caroline Velik. Photographed March 2, 2012. The Age Newspaper and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Jill Dupleix's meatball sandwich with hummus and beetroot. Photo: Marina Oliphant

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Get savvy with your spreads

Thirty years ago, all sandwich orders would have come with a heavy spread of margarine. But we don't actually need to add a spread to our sandwiches. If you prefer something on your base, there are much better options than butter and margarine, which add little other than processed fat to the diet.

Nutritionally, a thin spread of avocado offers healthier fats, and hummus, cottage cheese or reduced-fat cream cheese are protein-based options that work well with most sandwich orders. Even better, spreads including mustard, relish, chutney or chilli sauce add plenty of flavour for very few kilojoules.

Load up the protein

The secret to making satisfying sandwiches is to opt for a protein-rich filling. Adding 20g to 30g of protein per sandwich (found in 100g of lean meat, chicken or turkey, a small can of tuna or salmon, a couple of eggs or legumes, teamed with cheese or hummus) will ensure your blood glucose levels are kept controlled for two or three hours after eating.

But keep in mind that protein options such as fried schnitzel or a mixture involving mayo or avocado significantly increase the kilojoule content of your favourite sandwich.

The Age,GOODFOOD Sandwichs Pope Joan
Mortadella and salad sandwich. Pic Simon Schluter 25 January 2019.

Ask for all the salad ingredients when you're ordering a sandwich. Photo: Simon Schluter

Get serious with salad

Nutritionally, the biggest issue with the average sandwich is that it contains nowhere near the volume of salad or vegetables required to make your sandwich a complete meal. But add ½ to 1 cup of mixed salad or vegetables, rather than just a couple of slices of tomato or a lettuce leaf, and suddenly, your sandwich contains a decent amount of dietary fibre, transforming a light lunch into a filling meal. In fact, a substantial meat and salad sandwich can be so large that just half is more than enough in one sitting, and you can save the rest for your afternoon snack.

What about the dressing?

Your go-to may be mayo or pesto or even a favourite cheese, but inevitably these extras add fat and kilojoules to your sandwich. That's not to say you should skip them entirely. But keep spreads or slices thin so you can enjoy the flavours without adding too many extra kilojoules.

Top sandwich tricks and tips

  • Seek out thin slices of wholegrain bread and steer clear of Turkish bread and focaccia.
  • Lighter, leaner protein choices include turkey or chicken breast, smoked salmon and tuna (minus the mayo).
  • Ask for all salads when ordering a sandwich at a food court.
  • Remember that quarter of an avocado (a tablespoon or two) is a serve.
  • Order your sandwich without butter or spread to reduce fat and kilojoules.

Top sandwich fillings

  • Chicken or turkey breast with salad
  • Boiled eggs, pesto, rocket and tomato
  • Smoked salmon, goat's cheese, cucumber and salad leaves
  • Roasted vegetables with cottage cheese and hummus
  • Tuna, sweet chilli and onion with cottage cheese and salad leaves