Grassland Beef - U.S. Wellness Meats
  1. Discover Blog
  2. /
  3. US Wellness Meats
  4. /
  5. Product Information
  6. /
  7. Healthiest Lunch Meat: 5 Deli Meat...

Healthiest Lunch Meat: 5 Deli Meat Alternatives

Healthiest lunch meat

Deli meats are a staple in American diets, with more than 10% of Americans eating more than a pound of cold cuts a week [*]. Many people understand that processed deli meats aren’t ideal for health, but their convenience and price make them hard to resist.

So what are the healthiest lunch meats, and are there good alternatives?

Is deli meat bad for you?

Deli meats are often high in sodium, saturated fats, and preservatives, but when eaten in moderation or from more lean, organic sources, these convenient protein staples can still have a place within a balanced diet.

Deli meats are high in sodium

One of the main nutritional concerns with deli meat is its high sodium content. A single slice (28g) of ham deli meat has 362mg (15% DV) [*], although the amount varies depending on the recipe and meat used. Excess sodium intake contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Individuals with hypertension or cardiovascular conditions need to be even more cautious with their sodium intake [*].

Deli meats are high in saturated fats

Deli meats are high in saturated fats, the kinds that are solid at room temperature. A single slice has 3.2g, or 16% of your daily value [*]. Saturated fat have been linked with an increased risk of heart disease and raised cholesterol levels [*].

While leaner deli meats like turkey are available, many deli meats are high in fat. Consuming deli meat in moderation and opting for leaner cuts can help reduce saturated fat intake and promote heart health.

Deli meats contain additives

Many deli meats contain additives and preservatives, such as sodium nitrate/nitrite, phosphates, and flavor enhancers, to improve shelf life, flavor, and texture.

While most additives are generally recognized as safe by regulatory agencies, some individuals may have sensitivities or allergies to certain additives, and eating nitrates and nitrates may be linked to stomach cancer [*]. When you do eat processed meats, it may help to opt for kinds that are nitrate or nitrite-free.

The best pre-made deli meats to choose

If you’re looking to make a quick decision on traditional deli meat, here are our favorite lunch meats, agnostic of brand:

1. Turkey

Sliced turkey is low in fat, low in calories, and full of protein. This makes it ideal for muscle growth and people looking to cut calories.

Look for packaging that says pasture-raised, free-range USDA organic, or the Certified Humane certification for the best, most nutritious birds.

Healthy turkey lunch recipe ideas:

  • Sliced turkey on whole wheat with lettuce, hummus, tomato, onion, and banana peppers. Serve with olives and carrots.
  • Turkey lettuce wraps with jalapenos, diced tomatoes, shredded cheese, a bit of sour cream, and lime juice.
  • No-bread turkey sandwich with sliced avocado, butter leaf lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, and green goddess dressing.

2. Chicken

Chicken shares a lot of the same nutritional qualities as turkey (lean, high in protein, and so on). You usually get a bit more bang for your buck with chicken, though.

The nutritional quality of deli chicken will vary widely based on the producer, so use the tips from earlier to pick a good brand.

One of our favorite (and healthier) things to do is buy a rotisserie chicken for sandwiches. That way, you know exactly what you’re eating, and pulling the meat off takes no time at all. Buy organic, pasture-raised rotisserie birds for the best taste and nutrition.

Healthy chicken lunch recipe ideas:

  • Grilled chicken tenders, avocado, and eggs served with fresh fruit.
  • Sliced chicken, avocado, tomato, spinach, feta, and rice bowl.
  • Chicken sausage, eggs, and fresh fruit.
  • Sliced deli chicken on a salad with diced tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, shredded cheddar cheese, and a light ranch dressing.

3. Roast beef

Roast beef is a lean, delicious choice for deli meat. 100g of sliced roast beef has 18.6g of protein with only 3.7g of fat [*].

Just like poultry, beef sourcing has a big impact on nutrition. Several studies suggest that grass-based diets elevate precursors for Vitamin A and E and cancer-fighting antioxidants compared to grain-fed contemporaries [*].

Opt for grass-fed and grass-finished beef from regenerative farms.

Healthy roast beef lunch recipe ideas:

  • Spinach wrap, sliced roast beef, sliced tomato, avocado, blue cheese crumbles, roasted red rappers, and a little red wine vinegar.
  • No-carb beef roll-ups with rolled roasted beef, cheese, tomato, and pickled red onions.
  • Diced and sauteed roast beef slices, white rice, roasted zucchini, sesame seeds, and teriyaki sauce.

How to choose healthier deli meats from the grocery store

Simple is the name of the game when picking healthy deli meats. Focus on these things:

  • Look for short ingredient lists. Ideally, be able to name everything you see.
  • Order from the deli counter instead of pre-packaged. Deli counter meats are fresher than mass-produced refrigerator aisle options.
  • Choose lower sodium options. Look for low sodium and consider skipping pork.
  • Skip meats with sugar. Meat does not naturally include sugar. Look for 0g sugar on the ingredient labels.
  • Pick nitrate and nitrite-free meats. If you don’t see it on the label, then they are used.
  • Buy from organic sources. Organic is a bit of a nebulous term these days, but look for the Certified Humane label (third-party rigorous certification) on any meat, pasture-raised on chicken or turkey, and grass-finished on beef.
  • Skip the cured meats. Cured meats are cured with salt, which increases their sodium content. Cured meats are also more of a treat and include other added ingredients like sugar more often.
  • Prepare your own when possible. Again, there’s no better way to know what you’re putting in your sandwiches than making your own sandwich meat.

Follow those steps and you’ll be on the right track. Just remember to eat deli meat in moderation within a balanced diet.

What deli meats are not processed?

Processed is a broad term and means any meat that has been modified — usually to extend its shelf life or improve its flavor. That covers everything from the worst of industrial processed meat (think gas station hot dogs), to smoked and seasoned meats from regenerative farms.

Deli meat is also a loose term, referring to store-bought meats that are served cold and for sandwiches.

Regardless, the only guaranteed way to get the least processing and best nutritional value from deli meat is to prepare your own from whole sources.

5 unprocessed deli meats to make at home

Speaking of which, let’s talk about meal-prepping your own deli meat. This is the best way to ensure every sandwich you eat is as nutritious (and delicious) as possible. The only things in the meat are what you choose to include!

It’s not as hard as you may think, and you can make big batches at a time and either refrigerate or freeze them to make them last.

Most people do one of two things: roast meat in bulk and cut thinly, or cure (essentially a multi-day rub) and then roast and cut thinly. The latter will get you closer to the texture of store-bought meat.

1. Homemade turkey lunch meat

Buy pasture-raised turkey, season liberally with salt and olive oil, roast at 350º for 90 minutes or until around 160º, refrigerate overnight, and cut thinly with a serrated knife.

2. Homemade chicken lunch meat

Similarly, you can roast chicken breasts at 350º, let cool, and slice thinly. What’s fun is you can get experimental with the spices, and you can also cure chicken in advance.

3. Homemade roast beef slices

Roast beef takes a little more work than poultry, but the roasting process is similar. You just need to let the beef come to room temperature, broil or sear at a high temperature for a nice crust, transfer to an oven at 325º, roast until desired temp (I am for 130-135º), chill in the fridge overnight, and then cut thinly.

4. Homemade burger patties

For burgers, it’s just a lot of ground beef and some shaping! Then I like to cook them in the oven all at once to save time and clean up. You could grill them all as well and then use them in hamburger salads or any other sandwiches you’d like!

5. Homemade pork lunch meat

Same name of the game here when it comes to pork! Trim any fat. Add the rub of your choice. Cook immediately or let refrigerate overnight for better results, roast anywhere between 250-300º, cool in the fridge, and slice as thinly as you can.

And regardless of what meat you choose, remember that if you aren’t buying meat from good sources using regenerative practices, you won’t get the full nutritional benefits of homemade deli meat.

Other lunch proteins to consider

Here are a few ideas if you want to skip the pre-sliced deli meats:

  • Canned tuna. Tuna is full of protein and relatively cheap. It is also delicious on a sandwich with a bit of mayo and some celery.
  • Eggs. Boil eggs in a batch and mix into your favorite egg salad.
  • Tempeh. Tempeh is fermented soybeans and is delicious when sauteed in teriyaki.
  • Veggie burgers. Black beans and lentil burgers are filling and delicious sandwich proteins.
  • Nut butters. Don’t forget how good peanut and almond butter are in a sandwich. You don’t always have to go with jelly either. Bananas or plain nut butter sandwiches are also good options.

Where to buy healthy lunch meat

You’ll probably find the healthiest pre-made deli meat at the deli counters of high-end grocery stores that stock local farm meat. Making your own, buying from the deli counter, and then choosing from cold cuts is how we would think about it from best to worst.

When making your own, make sure to buy from producers who sell grass-fed and grass-finished beef and have pasture-raised poultry that is Certified Humane.

The bottom line on healthy lunch meat

Lunch meats are notoriously processed, but no food should be wholly observed in a silo. You must consider a wider dietary context and eat a rich, balanced diet with a lot of variety.

Generally speaking, eating turkey, chicken, and grass-finished roast beef are good proteins to opt for when buying lunch meats. And if you’re going to eat cold cuts, try to grab them from the deli counter or ideally make them yourself before choosing the grocery aisle.

But whatever you decide, eat those sandwiches with good bread and fresh vegetables within a varied diet!

Healthy meat doesn’t happen by accident

If you’re into healthy eating, you know that the choices producers make continue to matter after an animal’s life ends. If you prop up chickens and cows their whole lives with antibiotics in filthy pens, with no time outside, and only being fed genetically modified feed, the nutrition, texture, and taste suffer.

Yes, higher-quality meat has a price premium, but we’d argue that eating a bit less, healthier meat and substituting in a few more fresh vegetables and grains outweighs the negatives.

We never use GMO-feed, antibiotics, or growth hormones, and we never compromise on quality. We only raise cows on natural, thick grass and work with farmers who raise cows and poultry the old-fashioned way — just like Mother Nature intended.

See for yourself how good our farmers are.


Nathan PhelpsNathan Phelps

Nathan Phelps owns and writes for Crafted Copy, a boutique copywriting shop that finds the perfect words for interesting products. He is also an ethical foodie, outdoors-aficionado, and hails from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.