How to Make a Better PB&J
The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is an American classic.
That combination of peanut butter and jam or jelly on bread just works—and it’s delicious.
But PB&Js don’t have to be just a kid treat and they can be made healthier too!
Why PB&J is good (and not so good)
A basic peanut butter and jelly sandwich has protein and healthy fat from nut butter, sugar (natural and added) and perhaps fiber or vitamins from the fruit jelly and carbohydrates from the bread. This not only makes it tasty but can also provide a burst of energy.
In fact, many NBA players insist on eating PB&Js before a game.
But the added sugar and refined carbs in the average PB&J can also spike your blood sugar and cause inflammation in the body (the source of many health issues and diseases). Some nut butters and breads also have added sugar, salt and inflammatory oils like sunflower, canola or soybean. So, even a “basic” peanut butter and jelly sandwich is often made with ingredients that aren’t that basic or good for you. Let’s truly get back to basics and make a sandwich that tastes good and has simple, more wholesome elements that can fuel you better.
You have several options that are better than refined white bread, depending on your tastes, dietary needs or desires, and allergies. In any case, organic or non-GMO bread is usually best.
If you eat wheat or grains, go organic and try to get bread made from sprouted grains that are easier for the body to digest. Ezekiel is one variety.
While gluten-free breads are now common in grocery stores, most of them have inflammatory oils or added sweetener like we mentioned above. Try and find one that doesn’t use those ingredients. Gluten-free items can be especially starchy, made with rice, potatoes, cassava (a starchy root) or tapioca, so if you want less starch, you may want to go grain-free or make an open-faced sandwich with less bread.
If you don’t want grains at all (this also falls under the gluten-free category), you can make or buy paleo bread. Whole Foods and specialty health food stores usually sell at least one kind of paleo bread but it can be expensive—I’ve seen paleo loaves near $20. Here are some options:
- Mikey’s Muffins: Paleo English muffins that are smaller than slices of bread, but a pack of 4 is about $6-7, so it won’t set you back nearly as much as a loaf of paleo bread. They have a good amount of protein and basic ingredients that include almond flour, coconut flour and eggs.
- Simple Mills Artisanal Bread Mix: This is my go-to for making fresh, fluffy rolls that don’t taste grain-free. This mix can also make flatbread or a loaf. Make the batter plain or add lemon zest, fresh rosemary or spices if you like.
- Paleo bread recipe: Elana’s Pantry has this paleo bread recipe with no added sweetener or oil. It calls for coconut flour and almond flour, both of which can usually be found at Trader Joe’s.
Nut (or seed) Butter
Peanut butter is, of course, the “PB” in PB&J, but some people—myself included—enjoy some alternatives. Some people have peanut allergies or don’t want peanut butter because—Debbie Downer alert—it can also be unhealthy due to mold from peanuts, added oil, and more.
Some tips to find a good nut or seed butter:
- Keep it simple: Only one ingredient is needed to make nut butter—nuts. So steer clear of the kinds with added oil and sugar and try to stick to nut butters that have just that main ingredient.
- Go organic or non-GMO: Look for these on labels to help ensure you’re getting less pesticides and harmful stuff in your food.
- Try a PB alternative: Try almond butter, which is still full of healthy fat and protein. If you’re allergic to nuts, try sunflower seed butter aka, sunbutter. It tastes similar to peanut butter—not exactly, so keep that in mind—and is usually just as inexpensive.
No need for a jelly or jam with added sugar. Fruit is naturally sweet and delicious and has benefits like vitamins or cell-protecting antioxidants.
Here are some ways to make jelly your jam:
- No added sugar. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s sell organic fruit preserves that are just sweetened with fruit for under $5.
- Make your own super easy fruit jam. This no-cook cherry chia jam from 52 Kitchen Adventures has only two ingredients. For more flavors, try subbing the cherries with figs or raspberries.
- Use fruit instead of jelly. Try sliced strawberries or figs, pomegranate seeds or mashed blackberries.
If you want to go beyond the classic for added taste or nutrition, here are some ideas for PB&J toppings:
- Seeds (chia, flax, hemp)
- Shredded coconut
- Fruit (bananas, strawberries, figs, kiwi, etc.)
The sky is the limit with the combo of breads, fruit spreads, nut or seed butters and toppings you could use to make your PB&J, AB&J or whatever you want!
For more inspiration, we are drooling over some of these fancy PB&J recipes that are all grown-up.
It’s peanut butter jelly time!
(Thumbnail Photo: baibaz)
Jessica Hamlin is an LA-born and bred journalist and editor who started taking pictures of food back when everyone used film cameras. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s health coach training program, she’s passionate about wellness and enjoys making and discovering delicious and healthy food. Her work has appeared in Clean Plates, NPR affiliate KPCC, AOL, and Eater LA.