We’re getting more adventurous with our lunch choices

The days of the traditional white sliced pan may be toast, but we are filling up our lunch boxes with a healthy variety of tasty alternatives, says Helen O’Callaghan.
We’re getting more adventurous with our lunch choices

SO what’s in your lunchbox today?

A slab of cheddar cheese sandwiched between two doorsteps of bread?

Or its more meagre cousin — the white sliced-pan ham sanger?

Not likely, if you’re a fan of the Atkins low-carb diet.

And certainly not if you applaud Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘no pasta, bread or grains’ approach to feeding her family.

In Britain, sales of the traditional sliced loaf fell by 50 million units in the last year.

According to Bord Bia’s bakery sector manager Orla Donohue, there’s a similar trend here.

“There has been a decline in white sliced bread and what we’d call everyday breads — a reduction in volume and a switch to other bread types.”

A survey of 1,000 people found one in four had a baguette for their weekday lunch, while equal numbers had a wrap or soda bread (24%) and 18% ate a roll.

Donohue says the UK saw a 10% increase in sales of seeded bread in the last year.

“Sales of bread with speciality grains — such as einkorn and teff — went up 30%. These more unusual variants are coming to the fore, though they’re still quite niche. I would say we’re following these UK trends.”

Does this mean sandwiches are toast, kaput?

That they’ve met their demise?

Surprisingly, no — a 2013 Consumer Insight study into lunchtime habits found sandwiches are the number one option for 42% of us eating lunch in the workplace.

And that figure won’t have changed since, confirms Paula Donoghue, Bord Bia’s consumer insight manager. She says sandwiches tick a lot of boxes.

“Lunchtime is all about control — over finances, health, waistline and ingredients. Sandwiches are quick, cost-effective and you can see what’s going into them.”

Kevin Daly’s Taste Food company has had an online lunch delivery service targeting the Dublin area since 1998 (www.lunchesready.ie), as well as a café and bistro since 2008.

Sandwiches are still popular, he says, but there’s definitely a “bread is evil” trend.

“In the café, open sandwiches — less bread — and warm tortillas are very popular. And wraps and more interesting breads are popular — tomato & fennel and granary.

But people still enjoy a nice fresh sandwich, so it’s not over for the sambo just yet.”

Daly says punters are also paying more attention to sandwich fillers. “Processed meats are out and more interesting fillings are in, like pulled pork and marinated chicken.”

The latest addition to his café menu has been ‘from the salad bar’ — mix a protein option with a healthy salad selection, a good trend indicator, he says, as to how he sees tastes developing.

His most popular salad boxes include sweet potato and goats’ cheese salad with courgette, chilli, rocket and spring onion, served with lentil, quinoa and raw beetroot salads; and poached salmon salad served on mixed leaves with a lemon wedge, carrot, papaya, broccoli and coconut salads with a lemon dressing side.

Daly was surprised recently by a definite first in his catering experience.

“We had a few young working males in. They ordered burgers – but instead of chips they had a trio of salads from the menu. This I have never seen before!”

More than half of us bring our workplace lunch in from home.

Next most popular places to buy it are supermarkets and convenience stores.

The lunchtime spend ranges from €4 to over €7 if going to a specialist sandwich store and the nod to health is visible across the lunch ranges.

A quick browse in M&S found a free range egg and watercress sandwich for €2.50, a cheddar cheese and celery for the same price and a roast chicken and sweet corn for €3.70.

Salad options for €4.45 included spiced chicken and quinoa with rice and a smoky tomato salsa and Moroccan spiced butternut squash with chickpeas, apricots and roasted carrot dip.

Kevin Daly finds gluten-free wraps, with less than 100 calories, “very popular”.

And a 2015 Safefood survey found one in three people believe wraps a healthier choice than a sandwich.

Which isn’t always true, says Dr Aileen Mac Gloin, nutritionist with Safefood.

She points to the survey finding that takeaway wraps are a major dietary source of salt.

Some exceeded the 6g adult GDA for salt by up to 50%.

“And the average tortilla wrap contained a similar calorie content to two regular slices of white bread. In fact, the calorie content varied in the 240 wraps investigated between 267 and almost 1,000 calories,” says Mac Gloin.

The survey found chicken wraps to be the most popular wrap type, with the Chicken Caesar Salad wrap packing the highest punch in terms of calories, fat, protein and salt, followed by the Chicken Tikka & Salad wrap and the Chicken & Salad wrap.

But let’s face it — when you’re grabbing something to sustain you through the afternoon, you want food that will energise you, not have you slumped over the desk in a semi-stupor.

Mac Gloin says the traditional sandwich can be as healthy or unhealthy as you want it to be.

“Best option is two slices of brown bread, which makes it much easier to get a handle on your portion sizes. The bagels and demi-baguettes weigh more so you eat greater portions.”

In fact, a Safefood ‘how much bread is in your bread’ study found a demi-baguette is equal to four regular slices of pan bread, a bagel equals two and a half slices, while one pitta bread is equal to two regular slices of pan bread.

It’s also important to watch the fillings, says Mac Gloin.

“Lean meats, vegetables and small amounts of cheese are fantastic. Where people go wrong are the sauces and coleslaws — these contain a lot of fat and salt — and fried fillings like breaded chicken.”

Salads are a great summer option (stick to French/Italian dressing; avoid cream or mayonnaise-based ones), with soups a good winter choice. And ditch the crisps.

“A sandwich is a carbohydrate, so no need to have crisps on the side — better to have a piece of fruit. And avoid sweetened coffee drinks. Water’s ideal.”

While we’re getting more adventurous with our lunch choices, once we hit on something we tend to stick to it.

“We don’t like to vary our lunch much. One third of us eat the same lunch every day and just over half of us vary it a little,” says Paula Donoghue.

Weekends bring more variety with 16% of us eating roast dinners at lunchtime.

But during the week, we don’t so much want experience over a functional munch — convenience trumps experience every time. Which is understandable considering we spend an average of 22 minutes a day having our lunch break and eating isn’t always the top priority, a fact highlighted by Bord Bia’s 2013 Consumer Insight Study.

“Lunch isn’t just about food. People are using the time to stay connected and catch up on news,” says Donoghue.

The study found 70% read during lunchtime, 60% check social media, 60% read news online and 56% make or return phone calls.

And one in two of us work through our lunch break at least once a week, with 21% doing it two or three times every week.

In this scenario, sandwiches — quick to make, get and eat, portable and potentially very healthy — seem here to stay.


Fashion stylist Brendan Courtney is an ambassador for Uncle Ben’s ‘Make a Healthier Plate’ campaign.

“My favourite lunch is fresh prawns. I fry them with garlic and chilli and I pour wholegrain rice over them. I put it in a box and take it to work and it’s my healthy protein. I’d sometimes cook a big pot of it on a Monday and have it a couple of times a week. If I’m feeling a bit cheeky, I put in some butter and salt.

“I don’t eat white bread or pasta. The only carbs I eat are wholegrain rice or, at a push, wholegrain bread. My daytime tipple is sparkling water.”

Brendan and designer Sonia Lennon are among five ‘healthy pairs’ who share short videos of their recipes for healthier plates on the Uncle Ben’s Facebook Twitter pages.


Dietician Paula Mee is the consultant dietician on TV3’s Doctor in the House and is co-author of Your Middle Years.

“I’m having smoked salmon with brown bread and a side salad.

“I like rocket with smoked salmon because it’s peppery.

“I might put in goat’s cheese or mozzarella, as well as olives. My favourite vegetable is red pepper so I include that.

“I try to get in one good protein at lunchtime. If it isn’t salmon, it’ll be chicken or an egg.

“I like an egg at lunchtime. Hummus on wholegrain crackers is good too.”


Cassie Stokes is the newest member of TV3’s Xposé team.

“A ham and cheese sandwich is my go to. Right now, I’m having a ham and cheese croissant. I love them with Ballymaloe relish and with avocado too.

“That’s about as wild as I get. I always finish off lunch with a square of Cadbury’s chocolate.

“I’m a big believer in eating whatever I’m craving. About two years ago, I was probably eating more salads.

“But then I cut down my portions, so now I feel I can eat whatever I like.”

Catch Cassie on Xposé weekdays from 6pm on TV3.


Clinical psychologist and Operation Transformation expert Dr Eddie Murphy: “I’m having wholemeal brown bread with a thin spread of mayonnaise, tuna fish, red onion and lettuce.

“If I’m naughty today, I’ll have a packet of Tayto crisps — I’d have them one day in five.

“I drink an Americano — that’s 10 calories. I bring fruit — a mandarin or banana — and water with me to work.

“I’m happy the protein’s not ham or processed meat. I probably should be reducing the carbs and going for more salads.”

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