The meatless sandwich

Veg_sandwichSay the word “sandwich” and what comes to mind?  Ham, cheese?  Tuna?  Roast beef?  Turkey?  Sandwiches typically feature meat and/or cheese, making them a major source of protein.  So what do you do if you’re vegetarian or vegan?  How do you pack protein into a meatless sandwich?

Well, there’s always PB & J, or even some other nut butter.  And vegetarians can use cheese.  But peanut butter sandwiches can become boring, and cheese on bread isn’t that compelling.  What to do?

Pump your sandwiches full of vegetables.

Expanding your sandwich vegetable options beyond the standard tomato-and-lettuce just takes a little imagination.  Almost anything will do, even maybe potatoes.  But first, let’s think about the protein ingredients.  Since meat is off the table, the list of high protein ingredients looks like this:

  • cheese (for vegetarians)
  • eggs (for vegetarians), most likely in the form of egg salad or sliced hard boiled eggs.
  • nut butter
  • nuts
  • tofu
  • beans.  Hmmm, beans.  Well, we use refried beans on burritos and tacos.  And hummus is made with garbanzo beans.  But it’s probably a stretch to make a bread-based sandwich with plain beans.

Plain tofu probably isn’t the most exciting meatless sandwich ingredient.  The best way to use it would be to slice firm tofu very thin and sauté it to brown both sides, then use on your sandwich.  You could sauté slices ahead and refrigerate until you need them, to make the process easier.

Nut butter is great.  Easy and tasty.  The flavors of cashew, almond, sesame (tahini) and sunflower butters will complement a variety of vegetable toppings nicely.

When it comes to a meatless sandwich making, nuts seem more difficult to work with.  They’re chunky and don’t stay put on the bread.  But they do add nice crunch to your sandwich texture.  My preference is to use sunflower seeds, which are already small, so you don’t need to chop them.  They’re flat, and will stick to any spreads you’re using, or mix in to other chopped vegetables.

Now that we’ve got the protein figured out, let’s think about vegetables.  Adding an interesting variety of fresh or pre-cooked vegetables can really make a meatless sandwich pop with flavor.  Here are some possibilities that add flavor, texture and nutrients:

  1. sliced fresh tomatoes
  2. minced sun dried tomatoes
  3. fresh dark greens like spinach or arugula
  4. sliced cucumbers
  5. shredded carrots, broccoli, radishes, zucchini, cabbage or even brussels sprouts
  6. pre-cooked (sautéed) slices of eggplant, zucchini, onion or mushrooms
  7. sliced red onion
  8. thin-sliced sweet pepper
  9. roasted red peppers (available in jars)
  10. finely-minced celery
  11. avocado, sliced or mashed into guacamole
  12. pickles, peperoncini, kim chi, pickled artichoke hearts, minced olives and other pickled/preserved vegetables

Have I left out any vegetables?  Well, green beans and peas.  Not sure how those would work on sandwiches.  Sprouts are fabulous on sandwiches, but are increasingly hard to find because they spoil so easily many grocery stores won’t carry them anymore.  Potatoes?  Actually, very thin-sliced and sautéed potatoes might work as one of several vegetables on a sandwich.  Key word: thin.  Also it would help if the potatoes were cooked to a crispy doneness.


Mayonnaise, a sandwich tradition, is off limits to strict vegans because it’s made with eggs.  There are some fake eggless mayo substitutes, if you want to try them.  Recipes for this stuff use soy milk or tofu, a variety of starchy thickeners and lemon juice.  If you really want gunked-up soy milk (mmm, thickened with tapioca starch or corn starch) on your sandwich, that’s your choice.  A product called “Just Mayo”, cooked up by some Silicon Valley start up was outed for paying people to go to stores and buy up the product.  Real honest customers who liked the product were hard to find?  In any event, you can’t make real mayonnaise without the emulsifying effect of eggs.  So why bother with some inferior imposter on your sandwich?

Here’s where beans might come in handy.  You could spread a thin mayo-like layer of refried beans, or hummus or just puréed chickpeas on the bread.  Or use a nut butter.  No rule says you can’t use almond butter along with sunflower seeds on one sandwich.  It boost the protein.  Guacamole is another tasty option.

Mustard, salsa and hot sauce are all possibilities too.  Wasabi?  Tapenade or caponata (both available in jars), made with sautéed vegetables, garlic and olive oil will also work well on a meatless sandwich.  Another possibility: salad dressing.  A drizzle of olive-oil-based Italian or vinaigrette dressing is a very adequate replacement for the flavor punch of mayonnaise.  If you use a salad dressing, drizzle it onto some of the vegetables, not directly onto the bread, or you’ll have soggy bread on one side of your sandwich.

Take Away Message

There’s no reason you can’t put together a vegetable-rich and delicious meatless sandwich that’s also got some protein punch.  Use several different vegetables for flavor variety, and pick one or two complementary condiments.  Compared to a sandwich over-loaded with meat and cheese, your meatless sandwich might turn out to be the healthier tastier choice.

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