11 Healthy Ways to Upgrade Your PB&J

(Photo: Corbis Images)

PB&J sandwiches aren’t just for preschoolers: 30 percent of Americans pick them as their favorite comfort food, and nearly half of millennials consider them their go-to lunch food, according to a new Smucker’s survey of 2,000 people. 

“Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are very emotionally charged for Americans,”  Lee Zalben, founder and owner of Peanut Butter and Co., tells Yahoo Health. “A lot of us brought PB&J sandwiches to school every day, and for a lot of folks, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the first food that they actually prepare for themselves.”

You simply can’t beat the nostalgia of a PB&J. The only downside? If you follow the traditional recipe, with creamy peanut butter, grape jelly, and white bread, the lunch staple is seriously lacking in the nutrition department. Though peanut butter makers are increasingly phasing out trans fat-laden hydrogenated oils, they’re still adding processed fats and sugar to the mix, compromising the nutritional integrity of the peanuts, Michelle Dudash, RDN, a dietitian and Cordon Bleu-certified chef, explains to Yahoo Health.

And the nutritional stats aren’t much better for jelly, which often contains more high-fructose corn syrup than actual fruit. “Jelly is basically juice thickened with a lot of sugar,” Dudash says. Add white bread, which is stripped of fiber, and you’ve got a recipe for a blood-sugar spike.

You don’t have to banish PB&Js from your lunchbox, though. With a few simple tweaks — and some creative twists — you can redeem your childhood favorite:

Pump up your peanut butter

Go back to basics. Look for a peanut butter made with two simple ingredients: peanuts and salt. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that these stripped-down nut butters remind you of the filling of a peanut butter cup, thanks to their thicker, drier texture. Prefer something creamier? “Add a little honey to it — that will make it more fluid,” says Dudash. “Honey is added sugar, but it’s a whole-food sweetener. It’s very sweet, so a little can go a long way.” One to two teaspoons should do the trick.

Honey isn’t the only sweet way to amp up your PB’s flavor — try stirring in cinnamon or even a pinch of pumpkin pie spice, suggests Dudash. Or for a sweet, fall-inspired spread, simmer one-and-a-half cups of peanut butter with a quarter cup of apple juice, along with a few raisins. Spread this on your bread, and you may find that you don’t need jelly after all.

: Think peanut butter only pairs well with sweet stuff, like jelly or chocolate? Not in the world of Asian cuisine. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in savory peanut butter sandwiches,” says Zalben. He suggests adding grilled chicken and cayenne pepper to your peanut butter — an easy way to incorporate protein and metabolism-revving spices into your meal. “It’s almost like a Thai satay, but in a sandwich,” Zalben explains. Try it with pineapple jam or mango chutney.

Ever sprinkled potato chips on your PB&J? If you have, you know that the extra salt and crunch is amazing — but the extra empty calories? Not ideal. Save your waistline by adding texture to your peanut butter with superfoods instead, such as chia seeds, flaxseed meal, or goji berries, says Zalben. “Flaxseed is very high in omega-3s, which are important for brain health,” says Dudash, and both chia seeds and flaxseed offer a shot of filling fiber. Other nutritious ways to add texture: shredded coconut or dried apple chips.

Rejigger your jelly

If only the real deal will do, search for a spread that has fruit — not sugar — listed as the first ingredient, says Dudash. (Hint: Jams are typically more fruit-based than jellies.) But if you’re open to ditching the jelly jar, try layering real fruit on one side of your sandwich. “Fresh strawberries and fresh grape are an awesome swap-out,” says Zalben. “They impart the flavors that we all know and love — strawberry and grape jam — but with a slightly different twist. The flavor is lighter, fresher, a little tarter.” Another delicious jelly substitute: sliced bananas with honey.

If it’s the sweetness of the PB&J that sells you, substitute a few dark chocolate chips for your jelly, suggests Dudash. “You’re probably going to cut your sugar by at least half,” she says. Plus, dark chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants, making it a guilt-free treat (in moderation!).

(Photo: Michelle Dudash)

Pair your peanut butter with pumpkin butter, but don’t settle for the store-bought stuff: Make your own to ensure that only the best ingredients flavor your spread. In Dudash’s recipe, “there’s hardly any added sugar,” she says. “There’s a little maple syrup, but most of the sweetness comes from apple.” The best part? Her signature spread has only 15 calories per tablespoon.

Ingredients
1 ¼ cups pumpkin puree
1 medium sweet apple, like Gala, quartered and cored
2 Tbsp. real maple syrup
½ tsp. pumpkin pie spice
¼ tsp. vanilla
Tiny pinch of salt

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Place the apple pieces skin-side-up on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Bake until fork tender, about 20 minutes. Scrape the apple from the skin, placing the flesh in a food processor with the pumpkin puree. Add syrup, spice, vanilla, and salt, and puree until smooth.

Play with your base

You know 100 percent whole-wheat bread is healthier than the white stuff, and luckily, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to constructing your PB&J on cardboard. If you like sweeter wheat, look for a 100 percent whole-wheat bread infused with honey, suggests Dudash, or try a 100 percent whole-wheat potato bread, such as Martin’s brand, which is more pillowy than traditional wheat bread. For a heartier flavor, try a sprouted grain bread; look for one with a sesame seed crust, since the crunch pairs nicely with PB&Js, says Dudash.

(Photo: Michelle Dudash)

Your sandwich doesn’t have to have four sides — try whipping up a burrito-style PB&J, using a whole-wheat wrap or flatbread as your base, says Zelben. Or, “take your bread and roll it out so it’s flat,” Dudash says. “Then spread your nut butter, and instead of jelly, use quartered grapes, so you have these juicy pops of flavor in your roll.”

If you want to avoid bread altogether, spread peanut butter on one apple slice, jelly on another, and sandwich them together, says Zelben. Or dunk freeze-dried bananas into your PB and J. “They’re like banana chips, but they’re a lot healthier — there’s nothing added to them,” says Dudash. Freeze-dried strawberries work well, too.

If you’re counting calories, you probably avoid peanut butter, since it’s a high-fat food (even though the fats are the healthy kind!). Your salvation? Powdered peanut butter. “We start with peanut paste, which is just peanut butter without any sugar, salt, or stabilizer,” Zalben explains. “We press the peanut paste, much like how you press juice from grapes to make wine.” That squeezes out the peanut oil, leaving a hard peanut cake behind, which is ground up to make powdered peanut butter. You could simply add water to make a low-cal spread — or you could enjoy your PB&J in liquid form, with this recipe from Zalben:

Ingredients:
1 cup frozen raspberries or strawberries
1 small banana
2 Tbsp. powdered peanut butter
1 cup low-fat milk (or almond, soy, or rice milk)

Place the frozen berries, bananas, powdered peanut butter, and milk in a blender, and pulse at high speed for 1 to 2 minutes, or until smooth. Serve in a tall glass and enjoy immediately.

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