Buying lunch every day rather than bringing it from home might be the easy option, but it’s not always the healthy one. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what goes into a premade soup or salad. And thanks to heaping scoops of mayonnaise and other calorie-laden condiments, even sandwiches can be misleading.
We’re here to help take the guesswork out of lunch. Each week, we’ll work with an expert to study menus from popular lunch spots in Washington. Then we’ll help you find some healthy options and highlight the foods you should stay away from. Your waistline will thank us.
This week, we enlisted Lalita Kaul, a nutritionist at Howard University Medical School and the author of Heart Health: South Asian Diet. Her take-home tip: “Watch out for high sodium. Quick takeout lunches are usually swimming in salt.” Too much, she says, contributes to high blood pressure and poor heart health.
At Corner Bakery Cafe, one of the worst items she found in that regard was the chicken-pesto sandwich, made with roasted chicken slathered in a pesto mayonnaise. “A chicken sandwich might seem healthy,” she says. “But look closely. This one has 2,010 milligrams of sodium and only 4 grams of fiber. That’s not much of a payoff.” The sandwich also has 23 grams of fat.
Also stay away from any of the poblano sandwiches, which come in chicken, roast beef, and vegetarian varieties. The killer here is the cheesy bread, which alone has 410 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 800 milligrams of sodium.
If you’re craving a sandwich, Kaul says you’re better off ordering the tomato and mozzarella on ciabatta. Compared with the chicken-pesto sandwich, it has a lower sodium count (1,630 milligrams) and an extra gram of fiber. Even better: Ask for whole-grain bread, which has fewer calories and only two grams of fat.
On the salad front, steer clear of the Santa Fe Ranch, which is made with chicken, corn-and-tomato salsa, cheddar cheese, ranch dressing, and tortilla strips. It’s very high in sodium and has 810 calories—more than half of which are from fat. “This would be half of your calories for the day,” says Kaul.
Another bomb: the Chopped Salad, which is made with chicken, bacon, avocado, and blue cheese. This dish has 520 fat calories and 57 grams of fat.
Better to try the Asian wonton salad, which is the healthiest salad on the menu in almost all categories. It’s made with chicken, edamame, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red bell peppers, carrots, green onions, and a ginger-soy dressing and is topped with crispy wontons. This salad clocks in at just 530 calories (150 from fat), 1 gram of saturated fat, 40 grams of protein, and 11 grams of fiber. When it comes to salads, says Kaul, vinaigrettes are usually your friend: “You want a dressing that looks clear, which means it’s not cream-based.” Yogurt-based dressings are also a good bet.
Another tip from Kaul: “Don’t deny your sweet tooth; just be smart about your choice.” At Corner Bakery, you might try the oatmeal-raisin cookie; with 290 calories and just 90 calories from fat, it’s one of the healthiest sweet options on the list. Plus, it’s made with oatmeal, which packs a good bit of fiber and, studies show, can help lower cholesterol. Says Kaul: “Every little bit helps.”