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If you want something done right, do it yourself. That includes packing lunch, and we all could use a few pointers.
A recent JAMA Pediatrics study found the typical elementary and middle school student’s home-prepared lunch is seriously lacking in vegetables, fruit and whole grains, and overflowing with sugar and sodium.
Instead of packing sandwiches laden with sodium and fatty add-ins for the little ones and yourselves, accept some help. Use these tips from registered dietitians to create a healthier lunch full of all the best nutrients.
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1. Add some avocados
“Avocados are a super addition to any sandwich that will help your body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K,” noted Nicole Cormier, a registered dietitian. You’ll be ensuring you pack more nutrients and less saturated fat into your favorite mid-day meal.
2. Pile on the pickles
Add some crunch and an equally flavorful splash of brine by adding some pickles to the lineup. They’re low-cal, filled with fiber and covered in vinegar — which is all good news for your waistline.
In fact, just one large pickle has 15 calories and 2 grams of belly-filling fiber, so eating three or four can actually leave you feeling satiated for less than 100 calories! Plus, studies have found that acidic foods help increase the rate at which the body burns off carbs — and the faster you burn off carbs, the sooner your body starts to burn fat.
3. Make the switch to whole-grain bread
Sometimes, it’s actually good to be unrefined: Whole grains contain more nutrients and fiber and take longer to be broken down by the body, so they keep you feeling fuller longer. White, refined starches are digested much more quickly and turn straight to sugar, making your blood sugar spike and crash. The result: You reach for the snack drawer every day at 3 p.m. like clockwork.
“Choose a sprouted grain bread,” said Cormier. “Or a spelt sourdough bread that is easy to digest and great for individuals with IBS.”
4. Skip the bread altogether
Look beyond the bread aisle next time you’re stocking up on sandwich supplies. Big, crunchy pieces of lettuce used in place of slices of bread are perfect for packing extra produce into your day without feeling like you live at the salad bar. And this fresh twist on your usual sandwich base is perfect for the hot summer months.
Once you try that, Cormier suggested looking for even more inventive ways to wrap up your favorite fillings in a vitamin-packed leafy green. “If you’d like to try a totally out-of-the-box favorite of mine,” she said, “take a collard green leaf, fill it with 1/2 cup of brown rice, 1/2 cup of black beans, 1/2 cup of roasted vegetables and 1/4 of an avocado, sliced. You’ll have a new style burrito without the tortilla.” Brilliant!
5. Pile on the veggies
Grilled or roasted mushrooms make a great alternative to meat for a tasty vegetarian sandwich. And even if you’re including a little meat, you can still load your sandwich up with fresh vegetables to give it a big nutritional boost.
“Building a healthier sandwich can be a great opportunity to add color, nutrients and flavor when you choose a variety of different seasonal vegetables or even fruit to add to a protein and grain,” said Cormier. Instead of counting veggies, simply try incorporating as many colors as possible. “The more colors you can add to your sandwich, the more phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals you’ll be delivering to your body,” she explained.
6. Be wary of deli meats
Sausage and bologna aren’t the only meats with strange ingredients. Highly processed meat products, like many found in the average supermarket deli case, are full of preservatives and chemicals like nitrates and added sodium.
In fact, a 2014 study found that Americans who consumed this popular lunchtime staple consumed not only more sodium, but also more daily calories overall. Instead of relying on your less-than-reputable regular buys, go for fresh meats you cook at home or organic, preservative-free lunch meats.
7. Meet some meat-free proteins
There are plenty of other meatless sources of protein out there that make a great base for a hearty sandwich. “Think plant proteins, such as beans, hummus or nut butters,” said Cormier. “A favorite sandwich of mine is a twist on the typical peanut butter and jelly: Instead of the classic ingredients, I use almond butter and sliced strawberries on a sprouted grain tortilla,” she noted. Using fresh strawberries instead of jelly or jam cuts back on the amount of processed sugar in this classic combo, and almond butter is packed with even more iron and vitamin E than peanut butter.
8. Think beyond basic meat and cheese
Sandwiches don’t have to consist of just turkey, cheese and lettuce. Add a more exotic spread (like baba ganoush, homemade pesto or tahini) for low-sodium flavor, or even fresh fruit (like sliced apples, pears and berries) for a familiar sweetness without the refined sugar.
9. Add flavor with low-calorie extras
Opt for freshly squeezed lemon juice, fragrant herbs or any number of spices to add flavor and nutrients to your sandwich with minimal calories.
Acidic citrus fruits like lemon and lime also have an added benefit: like salt, acid acts as a flavor booster for every other ingredient it comes into contact with, so fresh citrus can help you cut back on sodium, too! Skip the salt in spreads and just add a quick squeeze from a lemon wedge, instead. While you’re at it, add a squirt of lemon to your water glass, too. It’s just one of our quick and easy ways to boost metabolism.
For more stories like this, check out Eat This, Not That!