A healthy sandwich packed full of vegetables

Sandwiches and brown-bag lunches often go hand in hand. They’re so popular, in fact, that according to a recent report published by the market research firm Datassential, 58 percent of adults pack a sandwich for lunch at least once a week; 68 percent do so for their children.

It’s not surprising. Sandwiches are easy to make—and just as easy to eat.

But not every sandwich is actually good for you. “When you get a takeout sandwich, you don’t have as much control over what goes into it,” says Amy Keating, R.D., one of Consumer Reports' nutrition experts.

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For example, a 6-inch Subway Sandwich Italian B.M.T. (with ham, pepperoni, and salami) has 390 calories, 17 grams of fat, and 1,330 mg of sodium. That’s more than half the recommended 2,300 mg of sodium you should have in a day.

"And even the sandwiches you make for yourself can be loaded with calories, fat, and sodium if you aren’t careful,” says Keating.

But there are simple ways to cut out the bad stuff without compromising on taste.

Here, tips on how to make the most of your bagged lunch.

1. Rethink the Bread

According to the Datassential report, 25 percent of consumers are willing to pay a higher price for healthier "carriers" such as sandwich bread. White breads and rolls are the classic go-to, but they’re much less nutritious than those made from whole grains, such as whole wheat. Two slices of Oroweat’s Country White, for example, have 40 more calories than their whole-grain Double Fiber bread and about 10 fewer grams of fiber. 

Look for breads with fewer than 150 calories per slice. A healthy sandwich, including the bread and fillings, should have no more than about 400 calories. 

2. Get Creative With Condiments

Butter, mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard can jazz up a sandwich, but they can be packed with calories and sodium, and offer little in the way of healthy nutrients. Just one teaspoon of Heinz yellow mustard has 60 mg of sodium, for example. And a tablespoon of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has 90 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 90 mg of sodium.

Use some guacamole (or just some smashed avocado) as a spread instead to add nutrients such as folic acid and vitamins B6, C, E, and K, as well as fiber and healthy fats. If the spread is too bland on its own, try a sprinkle of salt and pepper or a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Hummus is another healthy sandwich spread.  

3. Steer Clear of Processed Meat

Cold cuts are often loaded with sodium as well as nitrates and nitrites, preservatives that have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. The occasional deli-meat sandwich or BLT is fine, but processed meat shouldn’t be on your daily lunch menu. In fact, a recent World Health Organization report classified processed meats as carcinogenic to humans, and found that a daily dose of 1.8 ounces of processed meat—the equivalent of about two slices of deli meat or four strips of bacon a day—raises one's risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Instead of buying your lunch meat at the deli, make your own. Use leftovers from a roast chicken or pull some from a roast pork. Fatty fish such as salmon and canned tuna are high in inflammation-busting omega-3 fatty acids (though Consumer Reports' experts don’t recommend eating canned tuna if you’re pregnant because of high mercury levels). If you do buy cold cuts, try to avoid smoked meats, which are often particularly high in sodium. 

4. Cut Back on Cheese

A good Gouda or aged cheddar can take a sandwich from so-so to superb. But even just a few slices can put a serious dent in your daily calorie, fat, and sodium allotment.

Two slices of cheddar, for example, can add 230 calories, 19 grams of fat, and 370 mg of sodium to your sandwich.

If you can't forgo it completely, try cutting the amount you use: one slice instead of two, for example. Or go for low-fat or low-sodium alternatives. Swapping one slice of Swiss with a low-sodium option can save you 48 mg of the mineral, for example.

5. Veg Out

Consider skipping the meat and cheese altogether on some days. Try marinated tofu and veggies on a whole-grain roll; black beans, onions, peppers, and salsa in a whole-wheat wrap; or almond butter and sliced pears on whole-wheat bread.  

6. Add a Healthy Side

Instead of potato chips, choosing a side of fruit or veggies such as sliced carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, or an apple can add a healthy crunch to your meal without too many extra calories. If you’re looking for something warm, try a half sandwich and a bowl of homemade soup.

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