Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
22 Apr

Handy Primal Sandwich Alternatives (Or, Sub Subs)

Last week, I got this email from a reader:

I work 12 hour ER shifts.  Our cafeteria is too expensive and the food is horrendous anyway (where do you think hospital food gets that reputation?)  My staple has been making half sandwiches by just folding a single piece of bread around some meat, cheese or tuna.  But of course Grok didn’t make bread.  The convenience of being able to eat these little sandwiches while standing at the nurses’ station (we often get very limited or no breaks on busy days) is indispensable to me.  Eating things that require utensils and cleanup is not feasible.  Are there more primal, non-carb substitutes that could actually serve as dinner in such an environment as well as my improvised panini?  I’m drawing a blank here.  Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated.


Ah yes, the sandwich. After rice, mashed potatoes, and pancakes, it is perhaps the most pined-for pre-Primal food around. The convenience factor is tough to beat, and that Subway guy who supposedly lost tons of weight eating nothing but sandwiches certainly makes it look appealing. We can almost imagine Grok picnicking with a crusty baguette and gooey brie, pack of Gitanes tucked into his loincloth.

But really, those little sandwiches may be convenient, but that bread is bad news. Though it may be just a single piece, it’s still a single piece of anti-nutrient insulin-spiking starch that serves little purpose other than keeping your hand from getting meaty. If it’s convenience and clean hands you’re after, how about wrapping that meat and cheese in cabbage or lettuce? Same convenience level. I mean, you’re already assembling sandwiches on the fly; lose the bread and opt for a lower-carb wrap. Assuming you bring tupperwear containing the sandwich makings, it won’t take you any more time to swap out the bread for lettuce or cabbage. No clean up or utensils required. You eat the evidence.

Or how about something that doesn’t try to emulate a sandwich? Every week, make a big batch of trail mix. Throw together some almonds, macadamia nuts, pecans, walnuts, dark chocolate chunks, and a bit of dried fruit in a big bag and dole yourself out some before every shift: high fat, high protein, and moderate carbs. Don’t make it your daily meal, but as a snack it’s perfect (hey, a half sandwich isn’t much of a meal, either). You could also turn that trail mix into a homemade protein bar. Make a big batch every week and take one to work. Very filling. Other options include jerky or even a Responsibly Slim shake (maybe augmented with some nuts and fruit and carried sealed in a bottle).

But you’re interested in an actual meal. Twelve hours can be a long time (and it’s probably not feasible to make it a 12-hour fast every single day, although you might want to experiment with Intermittent Fasting), and you want something that’s filling and doesn’t require utensils or cleanup. The lettuce/cabbage wraps would work as a meal. Try cooking and slicing steak, chicken, or lamb the night before and bringing it to work, along with a few sliced veggies (carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers), some homemade dressing or mayo, maybe a few slices of goat cheese or aged gouda (since you can obviously tolerate cheese), and the lettuce/cabbage wrap of your choice. Bring a separate container with some berries for dessert and you’re set.

Or how about a frittata, which is essentially a crustless quiche? Sautee some veggies and meat in butter in an oven-safe pan (spinach and chicken; bacon and mushrooms; steak and peppers), whisk together six eggs, add a bit more butter to the pan and pour the eggs over the meat and veggies. Add some salt and pepper and maybe a light sprinkling of aged parmesan. Stir everything together and let it cook for about four minutes until it begins to set. At this point, pop it in the oven under the broil setting for four minutes, or until it begins to brown. When it’s lightly brown and fluffy, remove it from the oven. Cut it into slices and you have a healthy, Primal hand-held meal that fits in a plastic bag and tastes great at room temperature.

If you absolutely insist on a bread-like item, I have something that may interest you. I call it spinach bread, and it actually works pretty well as a bread substitute. You can certainly slice it and pile meat and cheese and condiments atop it like bread, but it’s ultra-low carb and high in good fat, along with some decent protein.

Pesto Spinach Bread

Five large eggs
16 oz frozen spinach, thawed, cut, and drained
Butter (I used raw pastured-raised)
1/2 cup pine nuts
3 cloves crushed garlic
Small bunch of basil (about 15 leaves)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Grease your glass baking dish with butter. I used a circular pan about 8 inches in diameter.

Toast your pine nuts in a sautee pan with about a tablespoon of butter. Be very careful! Pine nuts burn easily. Watch them like a hawk and stir constantly. When they start to turn golden brown, they’re done and on the verge of burning.

Chop the nuts up in a food processor (or crush them to a similarly fine texture if you don’t have a processor) and mince your basil.

Mix your eggs, garlic, basil, nuts, and spinach together in a mixing bowl. Add some salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Once it’s all mixed together, pour it evenly into your greased pan.

Pop it in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until it has set.

Slice and enjoy as if it were bread, or all by itself!

Nutrition Analysis:
Calories: 1080
Fat: 91 grams (72% calories from fat)
Carbs: 27.6 grams (10% calories from carbs, 12.7 grams from fiber)
Protein: 54 grams (18% calories from protein)

Share your thoughts on low-carb, grain-free bread substitutes in the comment board and check back this weekend for a Primal sandwich recipe featuring the spinach bread. Thanks, everyone!

Further Reading:

It’s Time to “Get Real”

Primal Pie Recipes

The Dope on Energy Drinks

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I found this recipe for cauliflower pizza crust which is fantastic as pizza crust, but would probably make a great sandwich bread substitute as well:

    Today I was rushed so I made 4 little ones, and microwaved them, covered,for 3 minutes, they came out great – not as good as in the oven, but hey hold together fine

    gwen wrote on July 21st, 2009
  2. I used cabbage the other day for burger buns. I pulled off the leaves gently so that they remained intact and then put the burger on there with other veggies. It was delicious.

    Matt wrote on July 21st, 2009
  3. I just made the flax bread recipe that darcy mentioned ( … brilliant!

    Easy to make and genuinly tasty, i cant beleive I’ve found a viable nutritous bread!

    ps. the first batch I made was inedible as I used 1.5tsp of salt for some reason! This batch i sprinkled in about 1/4 tsp and it is lovely!

    alex wrote on August 23rd, 2009
    • This blog does not exist any more. How do I get the recipe!

      Alina wrote on December 17th, 2010
  4. A raw collard leaf makes a great wrap! Just be sure to roll from the uppermost edge of the leaf first ending with the thicker/tougher inner leaf last – which can, of course, be trimmed off to begin with. Nevertheless, collards, though bitter by themselves when raw, make a tasty and sturdy wrap when filled with whatever your primal heart desires!

    Stacey wrote on December 6th, 2009
  5. Very tasty recipe, but not at all bread-like imho. More akin to a crustless quiche. But it made for a good light lunch!

    Christine wrote on January 18th, 2010
  6. I’m gonna have to try this as soon I get more eggs in my house. D;

    Gabrielle wrote on January 26th, 2010
  7. I just made something like this, only I substituted the pine nuts for a mixture of coconut flour and almond flour…

    it turned out pretty good, im really happy i tried it!

    but should I throw this in the refridgerator or is it okay to let sit in the pan under tinfoil? or should i wrap slices in plastic wrap?

    Gabrielle wrote on February 12th, 2010
  8. I cut a large bell pepper in half and fill it with tuna or chicken salad.

    Mac Scott wrote on June 6th, 2010
  9. What can I substitute the pine nuts for? I don’t have them readily…

    Bill Pairaktaridis wrote on July 15th, 2010
    • Try walnuts, Bill. I used them instead of pine nuts and the recipe is delish. The other small change I made was to whir the spinach and basil in the food processor along with the nuts, adding in the whisked eggs in afterward. It’s less fritatta-ish that way.

      Julie wrote on August 2nd, 2010
      • I should say, stirring the whisked eggs in afterward, not actually processing them in the food processor. I would think the eggs would get a bit TOO frothy if you put them into the FP.

        Julie wrote on August 2nd, 2010
  10. I have a adapted a coconut flour bread recipe and am pretty happy with the results. If you try it, please let me know. Thanks.

    Carrol wrote on August 2nd, 2010
  11. This bread looks incredibly awesome. That’s my word for it. I shall try it in a couple of days. I wonder if I could pour this batter in an actual loaf pan so it could turn out as a real bread loaf? Experimentation is on the way…

    Brandon wrote on August 4th, 2010
  12. another good recipe, although it is calorie rich, it’s very filling so all you need is one slice and takes less than 5 minutes to make:

    150 grams ground almonds
    1 tsp baking powder
    2 eggs
    2 tbsp olive oil
    pinch of salt and pepper to taste, or any other herbs and spices you want to add, you can get creative

    Mix well, chuck into a microwaveable dish and ‘bake’ for 2-3 minutes.

    tuula wrote on August 9th, 2010
  13. I don’t mean to sound like a doubting thomas… but isn’t this “bread” basically an omelette? It sounds tasty, and don’t get me wrong, I’m gonna try it and smear some pate on that bad boy… but it doesn’t sound very bread-y.

    e. wrote on September 12th, 2010
  14. I am reading this when I was going for a day with less food. This is a wonderful post like usual. I am now thinking about all the ways that I can use the great recipes.

    Blanche wrote on September 28th, 2010
  15. You could also do a kale version of this bread too… wonder how that would work out?

    Angie wrote on March 24th, 2011
  16. As I was reading this I remembered something that I do when I’m working on-call at the hospital.

    A few days before, I get several gallons of milk and empty a few bottles of lemon juice (you can also use vinegar, or rennet) into it while its warm. This curdles the milk. I then separate the curds as much as possible, lay them on a baking tray, and dry them for a while in a low temperature in the oven.

    They make really nice snack foods, and it probably has a similar nutrition profile to milk, but without the carbohydrate.

    Nadeem wrote on August 23rd, 2011
  17. Who are you trying to kid with your “bread” recipe? It’s a bloody omelette.

    Mike wrote on January 2nd, 2012
  18. I tried the Spinach Bread. In no way is this like bread. I left it in even longer than 15 and it’s still very moist in the middle. I would never be able to eat this like bread or hold it with something sandwiched in the middle. Did I do something wrong? Do I need to back longer?


    Natalie wrote on January 16th, 2012
  19. How about stuffing half a bell pepper? I’ll put some mayo, ham, and turkey in half a cleaned raw bell pepper (pick your color). It’s sturdy and easy to hold in your hand. Tastes great.

    Marc wrote on March 13th, 2012
  20. I just pulled this out of the oven for tonight’s dinner: Turkey & bacon “sandwiches”. My two preschool boys love anything with pesto, and I’m going to broil them open faced with a sprinkle of cheese on top. Hopefully this will satisfy my oldest, who was rolling on the floor yesterday crying for a pesto grilled cheese. Thanks for the recipe! It smells awesome!

    yoolieboolie wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  21. Another great bread substitute I use is grilled eggplant. I usually end up eating it with utensils (because it is rather fragile), but it’s great with sloppy joe meat on top!

    Anna wrote on May 13th, 2012
  22. I just made the spinach bread. I´m not too good wilth US measuring, but i think i did it somewhat right. It turned out more like a spinach omelet. Hahaha. Next time i´ll put in some more pine, and maybe some chopped nuts. Anyway, it tasted really good! Keep up experimenting.

    Kristin wrote on August 13th, 2012
  23. Sorry if this was posted already in the comments, but what about grilling up some portobello mushrooms in the oven and using those instead?

    Mushroom, cheese and meat sandwich, yes please!

    Jack wrote on September 28th, 2013
  24. I always considered myself rather a “purist” when it comes to cooking, even before going paleo. If you are holding a sandwich that you obviously have in a container before you began eating it, why can’t you bring some steak or chicken, some meatballs made with ground meat, seasoned the way you like it and cut, or rolled, into reasonable bite-size pieces? Sure you may have to use a napkin if you need to use your finger for a moment….but you were gonna do that with a sandwich too, right? No need for utensils, just finger food. If you don’t mind some chilled meat on a salad, you probably won’t mind it without the salad, but if that bothers you it only takes a minute or less to warm it in the microwave.

    Clover wrote on October 5th, 2013
  25. If some edible vessel, crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside is you crave, why not stuffing the meat and veggies in pig’s ears?

    kravinec wrote on August 2nd, 2014
  26. I know this is an old post but since people look at old posts for reference (hey the info is still good, right?) I wanted to add a couple things which while not always easily available, offer variety and delicious taste as well as convenience:

    Grape leaves. If you can’t get fresh ones from your garden, you can buy them (typically in glass jars where Italian peppers and olives etc. are sold). They make great little rolls. Instead of the typical rice base for filling, use whatever else you like that is Paleo, perhaps cauliflower “rice”. They are also good for just quickly wrapping something like a piece of fish or chicken. When I had grape vines, I used to always cover my chickens with fresh leaves before baking. You can then either peel off the leaves or eat them with the chicken. I’ve also wrapped them around lamb meatballs.

    Squash blossoms. I’ve lived in places where these were available seasonally in stores, if so you are lucky because they are really delicious either cold or cooked and make great little pouches. Of course if you garden you can grow your own too.

    Nasturtium leaves. The flowers are often available, but the leaves deserve a lot more attention for their light but distinctive peppery flavor. They are delicious especially with an egg salad filling. If you live in a foodie area you can probably buy them; but they grow practically anywhere and produce a LOT of edible and beautiful flowers and leaves with little effort.

    Also something I used to do is take any vegetable or fruit like a homegrown baby squash or an apple, core it, and put a filling in the hole. Then just wrap it up and take it with me. These make great, different and delicious snacks particularly when you have access to really top-notch produce. This also works great with bite-sized tomatoes and little sweet bite-sized peppers.

    Don’t forget thin egg omlettes as “tortillas” too. It might not be Paleo but for applications where I want to be able to roll them up like a burrito, I add a tiny bit of flour (less than a teaspoon) to the mix. Surely if you have powdered flax or any number of other Paleo similar options on hand, those would work as well. You could also use your paleo pancake mix to make “flatbread”.

    DD wrote on June 10th, 2015

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!