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Sandwiches: They're what's for dinner

USA Today, December 18, 2006

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As families strive to make dinner as quick, convenient and crowd-pleasing as possible, a recent study suggests sandwiches have turned out to be the most popular option for supper.

The study released by the NPD Group, which researches consumer trends, says more than one in nine dinners eaten at home is a sandwich.

"It's unbelievable," says Harry Balzer, author of the report "Eating Patterns in America."

In the study, a sandwich was defined as food placed between bread and included anything from peanut butter and jelly to hamburgers and wraps.

Balzer says the motivation behind the trend is convenience.

"It's always about convenience, and if it's not about convenience, it's about money," he says. He notes that when people come home after work, they ask themselves, "How do I make dinner the easiest way possible, with stuff on hand that everyone agrees on?"

A sandwich seems to fill that bill.

But sandwiches may not be the healthiest option when sitting down to dinner with the family, according to some dietitians and nutritionists.

"The evening meal is where most people get the bulk of their vegetables," registered dietitian Robyn Flipse says. "A leaf of lettuce and a slice of tomato are not a serving of vegetables."

If recent trends are any indication, Americans aren't making the effort to incorporate fresh foods. The NPD study found that only 47% of in-home meals have some sort of fresh food, down from 56% in 1985.

Flipse says many people regard fresh fruits and vegetables as a hassle and avoid them because they bruise easily or go bad fairly quickly. She said some people simply don't know how to tell when some food is ripe and ready to eat.

Another nutritional hazard may lie with what is eaten along with sandwiches. Balzer points out that the most common side dish at dinner is potato chips.

A better option would be soup or a salad, says Barbara Rolls, author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan, a book about feeling full with fewer calories. She says it wouldn't be difficult to make a sandwich dinner more nutritious if a little thought were put into it.

"You can make a sandwich healthy by choosing the whole grains, using lean meat and still have it be popular," she says. She also says it is a good way to sneak vegetables into children's diets.

Rolls and Flipse both raise concerns that eating sandwiches is a sign families aren't eating dinner together. "If this is a way not to have a family meal, that's not good," Rolls says.

But the NPD study reported the contrary. It found that 75% of families are going to have all members of the household present for dinner five days a week.

"Sitting down together is convenient. You get everyone at once," Balzer says. "It's the easiest way to feed a family."

If this is true, Flipse says, the outlook may not be so grim. She says eating together as a family helps children gain social skills and learn how to fix healthful meals. "Bringing the family together around the table is way more important than nitpicking what is served."

Rolls is still skeptical. "It's hard to imagine sitting around the table and having a family dinner over sandwiches." She says many of the time constraints people say they have may be imagined.

"People say they don't have time to cook, but they have time for a couple of hours of TV," she says. "It's a matter of priority."

But that doesn't mean a dinner of sandwiches is never a good idea. Rolls and Flipse both say that if people can incorporate whole-wheat bread, vegetables and lean meat into their meals while avoiding unhealthy toppings such as mayonnaise and ketchup, then it may not be such a bad option.

"Start with a whole-grain bread, hummus, cucumber, tomato, and that works great for me," Rolls says. "Most of the sandwich meats now are fat-free."

Flipse suggests pulling out a pot or pan may take as little time as putting together a sandwich.

"I would say there are many things you could do that are of much better nutritional value," she says. One option would be to take some pasta, frozen vegetables and white beans, throw them into a pot, and voilĂ : a quick, easy-to-make, balanced meal.

"People are much more reluctant to take that first pot out because now there's cleaning involved," she says. "It may take 10 minutes, but this is your family. What are you doing that is more important than a meal for your family?"