Joanna Blythman: A sandwich is not a proper meal

Processed sandwiches are contributing to the UK’s bad health. Regular columnist, Joanna says it's time to swap additive-laden shop-bought sarnies for a more substantial lunchtime meal.

Packaged sandwich on a plate with cutlery

When did a sandwich become a meal? During a recent (thankfully brief) stay in hospital, I was offered one for supper: fridge-cold flaccid sliced bread filled with sweet-tasting beige stuff – purportedly tuna. Its very appearance killed any desire to eat stone dead. Even if I’d had a healthy appetite, this measly apology for a meal would not have satisfied it. I ate food my family had brought instead.

Poor-quality sandwiches – additive-laden bread, waterlogged ham, plastic cheese, fish mulch – aren’t just a hazard for hospital patients. They’re also seen as a suitable meal for children, and turn up like proverbial bad pennies in schools and care homes. Cashstrapped council caterers have got into the habit of serving them as a stand-in for a cooked meal because they’re cheap to prepare and allow them to balance their budgets.

Families struggling to put a meal on the table might see no option but to eat sliced bread with chocolate spread or cheap meat as a meal. The trouble is that there may be no sustaining food to follow that day.

‘Poor-quality sandwiches are becoming the go-to meal replacement for children who are enduring many other struggles, and contribute to the public health crisis that blights so many children nationwide,’ says Robbie Davison, the director of Can Cook, a Liverpool-based social enterprise that tackles food poverty. ‘Processed ingredients between two slices of bread, intended as a meal, have no place whatsoever in feeding hungry children.’

More upmarket sandwiches are enshrined as the UK worker’s default lunch. A whopping 56% of us eat a sandwich every day, a habit that could cost around £1,000 a year – a substantial price tag for what strikes me as an exercise in serial boredom. BLT, chicken mayonnaise, bacon with ketchup or brown sauce, ham and cheese, and cheese and pickle are our top five choices apparently, and they often include additives and high-tech ingredients not found in any domestic larder. These pricier sandwiches are certainly more aspirational and possibly superior to the equivalent encountered in institutional settings.

No doubt many of the factory-made sandwiches Britain consumes theoretically deliver sufficient calories calculated to feed a human being reasonably. But it’s no surprise that they’re often sold as part of a meal deal with a drink and a packet of crisps, because they’re basically unsatisfying in themselves.

Once in a while if I have quality cold-cuts in the fridge – leftover roast beef, cold turkey, crunchy lettuce, good cheese – I might knock up a superior sandwich for a quick lunch. But I think we urgently need to restate a fundamental principle: sandwiches were designed for portability, as an option for situations when eating a sit-down meal wasn’t possible. There’s something heartening about a proper meal on a plate that satisfies both physical hunger pangs and provides the emotional comfort and satisfaction we experience when we’re properly fed. The traditional, triangular British sandwich just doesn’t cut it.

Leftovers make great packed lunches. These are all good cold...

  • Cold roast meat with roast vegetables
  • Vegetable stir-fry with noodles or rice drizzled with a little soy or fish sauce
  • Nut roast (add some cherry tomatoes or tzatziki)
  • Rice with kale and smoked mackerel
  • Falafels with tahini sauce, add crunchy chopped salad or cooked veg

Stir-fry vegetable noodle salad in a bowl

Find more lunch ideas:

Healthy lunch ideas for work
Healthy lunch recipes
Lunchbox recipes
Quick lunchbox ideas for kids

Read more articles by Joanna Blythman...

Can no-death meat replace the real thing?
Enough with the supersized sweets
Stand up for British seasonal fruit and veg
Stop giving children choices at mealtimes
Will the coffee bubble ever burst?


Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.

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