The Best Alternatives to Deli Meat (Plus 13 Yummy Recipes)

It’s no surprise that ultra-processed foods, including deli meats, are not healthy for you. They contribute to the dangerous rise in chronic diseases today- including heart disease, metabolic disorders, diabetes, and cancer (1). The problem with deli meats is that they are so convenient and readily available. In this article, I’ll explain what ultra-processed meats are, what makes deli meat so unhealthy, and give you some of the best alternatives to deli meat so you have healthy options available at all times.

close up picture of processed pork deli meat
Picture: close up of deli meat courtesy of Freepik

Processed vs Ultra-Processed Meats

There are processed meats and then there are ultra-processed meats.

Processed meats use salt, oil, or other substances which are added to the original food during processing. They usually contain 2-3 ingredients.

Examples of processed meats include:

  • Canned fish, such as sardines or tuna packaged without preservatives
  • Salted, dried, smoked, or cured meats
  • Bacon
  • Beef jerky

Ultra-processed meats are made almost entirely from substances extracted or derived from foods or synthesized in a lab. They can contain many ingredients along with high amounts of saturated fat, sodium, hydrogenated oils, or modified starches. Additionally, they will likely contain flavor enhancers, colors, and several food additives to make foods taste better.

Examples of ultra-processed meats include:

  • Lunch meat (deli meat)
  • Chicken “nuggets”
  • Fish “sticks”
  • Pre-prepared burgers, hot dogs, and sausages
  • Other animal products made from remnants

With this said, not all processed and ultra-processed foods are bad. For example, fruits and vegetables that have been pre-cut are considered processed. Likewise, yogurt, whole wheat bread, and tofu are classified as ultra-processed. These are nutritious foods to include in your diet that provide health benefits.

In this article, I am strictly talking about processed and ultra-processed deli meats. These are any animal protein that has been preserved and altered through methods such as smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives.

What Makes Deli Meat Unhealthy?

As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, ultra-processed meats are linked to the development of chronic disease. But did you know that eating processed and ultra-processed foods also increases your risk of early death?

According to research, individuals who eat higher amounts of ultra-processed foods (greater than 4 servings per day) have a 62% increase in all-cause mortality.

Highly processed deli meats are unhealthy because they are generally higher in sodium, saturated fat, and preservatives, and low in vitamins and minerals. In short, they have very low nutritional value which if eaten in large amounts can lead to health issues.

Eating too much processed and ultra-processed foods may increase your risk of certain health conditions, including:

Many health organizations feel similarly about red meat consumption; recommending that you limit your intake due to an increased risk of developing major cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and certain types of cancer (2, 3, 4).

The World Health Organization has even classified processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens. This means that there is convincing evidence that processed meats cause cancer.

What Is The Healthiest Lunch Meat?

While all deli meats are processed, the healthiest types of lunch meat are ones that are minimally processed with very few additives.

For example, sliced chicken, turkey, or roast beef lunch meats are better options compared to more processed lunch meats like bologna, salami, pastrami, head cheese, and others that may contain many different types of animal meats and parts.

I give some tips on choosing the best lunch meat options below. 👇

Now let’s get to the BEST deli meat alternatives!

Plant-Based Lunch Meat Alternatives

There are many different types of plant-based protein options available to use in place of traditionally processed deli meats. Options include:

  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Seitan
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • And other plant-based foods

Plant-based options are a great choice because plant-forward lifestyles are synonymous with greater health outcomes and a lower risk of chronic disease.

Some popular heart-healthy dietary patterns that focus on plant-based foods include the Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, and vegetarian and vegan diets. These patterns recommend getting protein from multiple plant-based sources.

Let’s review some of the best plant-based options you can try in place of deli meat.

Tofu

Tofu is made from soybeans. It is available in different textures from silken to extra firm and tastes almost flavorless. But that is the beauty of tofu; it takes on the flavor of whatever ingredients you add to it!

Tofu is also a great source of protein, comparable to animal sources like eggs. They provide all essential amino acids, except sulfur-containing ones like methionine (5). Tofu also provides a good amount of calcium and is low in sodium.

While it does contain 6 grams of fat per 1/2 cup serving, this is mainly in the form of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats.

As an alternative to lunch meat, you can marinate, bake, grill, or fry your tofu, then sandwich it between two slices of bread for a wholesome and healthy meal.

Tasty recipes using tofu:

Vegan Egg Salad
A great recipe for newbies to tofu and plant-based eating.
View Recipe
vegan egg salad
Cilantro Tofu Sandwich
This delish marinated tofu sandwich recipe comes from the New York Times.
View Recipe
close up of cilantro tofu sandwich

Tempeh

This fermented product is also made from soybeans and is usually sold in blocks like tofu. Tempeh is less processed than tofu and has a nutty taste and meaty texture, making it a great substitute for deli meats in sandwiches.

Tempeh is also a great alternative to lunch meat because it provides plant-based protein and iron. Like tofu, it is also a good low-sodium option.

Tips for marinating tempeh + recipes:

How To Marinate Tempeh (Ultimate Flavor Guide!)
Make sure to save this post from Live Eat Learn which has 8 different tempeh marinades to choose from.
View Recipes
tempeh marinating in storage bags
Vegan BLT with Baked Tempeh Bacon
A classic BLT always hits the spot. Try this vegan version from Vegan Huggs using tempeh.
View Recipe
vegan bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich on a focaccia bun.

Seitan

Seitan may not be as readily available or as widely known as tofu but is another good alternative to deli meat.

This food product is made from wheat protein, AKA vital wheat gluten. Therefore, it is not suitable for those with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity.

Nonetheless, seitan can be used as an alternative to lunch meat for sandwiches. You can make your own using vital wheat gluten or purchase seitan in slices, blocks, or crumbles to use in recipes. Just keep in mind that some forms may be high in sodium.

Make seitan from scratch:

Simple Seitan Recipe
This recipe from the Simple Vegan Blog shows you how to make your own vegan meat substitute using only 8 ingredients.
View Recipe
seitan slices on a white plate

Beans and Legumes

Beans are completely underrated and we all should eat more of them…that’s my expert recommendation. Not to mention beans are a fantastic low-fat, high-fiber alternative to processed deli meats.

Their fiber content helps keep our gastrointestinal system in working order and helps reduce total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels (6). Beans also provide complex carbohydrates and protein to keep you fuller longer along with a multitude of nutrients including phosphorus, magnesium, iron, calcium, and potassium.

My go-to use for beans is in burger form, although you can also stuff them into burritos or pita bread, or puree them and spread them on toast or crackers.

Try chickpeas, black beans, broad beans, pinto beans, or any other kind you wish as a healthy deli meat alternative.

Check out these recipes using beans:

Chipotle Black Bean Burger
This super easy, chipotle black bean burger by The Dietitian Feed is so much better than a lunch meat sandwich.
View Recipe
chipotle black bean burgers
Broad Bean Burgers
This must-try recipe is by legendary chef Yotam Ottolenghi.
View Recipe
broad bean burgers

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts of all kinds provide protein, healthy fats, magnesium, and other nutrients. Seeds, including pumpkin or sunflower seeds, are also packed with nutrients that make great toppings for salads and even sandwiches.

And if you choose walnuts, you’ll include the added health benefits of essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

Nuts and seeds are a great addition to all types of meal plans to support a healthy weight, diabetes, and cardiovascular health.

As a substitute for deli meat, nuts are typically used in recipes to make nut “burgers”. I suggest making a large batch and storing some in the freezer for easy access later on.

Recipe using nuts and seeds:

Vegan Nut Burger Recipe
This must-try recipe from the Bowl Me Over blog uses different kinds of nuts as a protein source.
View Recipe
close up of vegan nut burger

Mushrooms

Mushrooms are one of the most convenient alternatives to deli meat because they don’t need much prep work as a lunch meat alternative. There is no need for mixing or using a food processor. You simply add some herbs, spices, or marinade, then cook and enjoy.

Mushrooms naturally have a meaty texture and umami taste. Portobello mushrooms are often used as a sandwich filling and meat substitute. However, you can also use other mushrooms like button, cremini, shiitake, baby Bellas, or morel mushrooms.

Satisfying sandwich recipe using mushrooms:

Portobello Mushroom Sandwich
If you love mushrooms, this recipe from Toaster Oven Love is going to be so GOOD. Add some melted cheese and it's the epitome of a mushroom "cheesesteak".
View Recipe

Eggplant

Eggplant does not provide as much protein as a deli meat alternative compared to animal meat. However, it can still be just as flavorful and fulfilling. This nightshade vegetable (well, technically it is a fruit) is nutrient-dense, providing fiber, potassium, manganese, folate, vitamin K, and some vitamin C.

Try slicing it length-wise, then grilling, roasting, baking, or sautéing it to get all the nutrients this food has to offer. It is perfect as a lower-calorie, healthy lunch meat alternative or for those following a vegan lifestyle.

Try this flavorful eggplant sandwich recipe:

Rustic Italian Eggplant with Roasted Red Peppers Sandwich
This sandwich from Industry Eats is to die for! The eggplant, roasted red peppers, and white bean and artichoke spread combine to form the most satiating meal.
View Recipe
eggplant sandwich with bean and artichoke spread

Animal-Based Lunch Meat Alternatives

To the meat eaters out there, don’t be discouraged. There are also healthy animal-based alternatives to deli meat. Some of these are as simple as opening a package and placing it onto a slice of bread.

Here, I’ll go over some animal-based canned, pre-cooked, frozen, and raw options.

Canned Alternatives to Deli Meat

Canned meat may not seem appetizing, but canned protein sources are versatile, cost-effective, and shelf-stable compared to fresh or refrigerated options. These are also healthier alternatives to lunch meat.

Make sure to choose canned protein sources with a low sodium content and minimal added ingredients.

Here are some great canned alternatives to deli meat:

  • Canned fish– sardines, mackerel, tuna, and salmon provide healthy fats in the form of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as calcium, zinc, selenium, and vitamin D. Try these in a recipe such as salmon patties, tuna salad, or sardine spread.
  • Canned chicken or turkey breast– these are excellent sources of lean protein that provide iron, zinc, vitamin D, and calcium. As a lunch meat alternative, try these in a wrap or taco or mix with low-fat mayo and make a chicken salad sandwich.
  • Canned beef– a high in protein that contains vitamin B12. This is normally used in casseroles or hashes but can also be used to make an open-faced sandwich by adding some gravy.

Try this recipe using canned salmon:

Air Fryer Salmon Patties
Try this air fryer recipe using canned salmon from registered dietitian, Summer Yule.
View Recipe
salmon patties on a plate with lemon slices

Pre-Cooked Alternatives to Deli Meat

This is where the convenience factor comes into play. We’ve all seen those rotisserie chickens at the grocery store, right?

Rotisserie chicken is a widely available option. You may also have options like fully-cooked beef roasts in your area.

These pre-cooked options are less processed than deli meat and can be sliced and used as an alternative to deli meat at any time. Pre-cooked whole meats are also great options because the meat can easily be shredded or diced and used to prepare other healthy meals.

Some delicious and useful ideas for fully-cooked meats include:

  • Hot or cold salads
  • Soups
  • Casseroles
  • Enchiladas or burrito bowls
  • Pot pies
  • Stir-fries
  • And more!

A simple recipe using rotisserie chicken:

Spicy Rotisserie Chicken Pressed Sandwich
This is a super simple rotisserie chicken sandwich recipe from the Cake N Knife blog.
View Recipe
rotisserie chicken sandwich on a blue picnic blanket.

For more ideas on how to use rotisserie chicken, here are some easy rotisserie chicken meal ideas from a fellow dietitian.

Frozen Alternatives to Deli Meat

There are also plenty of frozen options for lunch meat alternatives. These are in the form of patties, fillets, and burgers.

Reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists is important for choosing a healthy alternative. Some frozen burger options can have an entire day’s worth of sodium, fat, or cholesterol per serving!

For example, one original Bubba Burger patty contains:

  • 420 calories
  • 35 grams of total fat
  • 15 grams of saturated fat
  • 25 grams of protein
  • 85 milligrams of sodium
  • 110 milligrams of cholesterol

Surprisingly, the only thing on the low side here is the sodium at 85 mg per burger patty. And while the ingredient list is also impressive with only one ingredient- 100% USDA choice beef from chuck, overall this is not an option I would recommend.

One product I’ve found that is much healthier is Applegate Organics Turkey Burgers. The ingredient list is minimal and the nutrition information per patty is as follows:

  • 150 calories
  • 8 grams of total fat
  • 1.5 grams of saturated fat
  • 20 grams of protein
  • 15 milligrams of sodium
  • 80 milligrams of cholesterol
Applegate Organic Turkey Burgers package
Picture: Courtesy Applegate.com
Applegate Organic Turkey Burgers Nutrition Facts

Much better indeed. Other healthy lunch meat alternatives in the frozen food section are unseasoned chicken, turkey, or fish fillets which you would season and cook yourself.

Raw Alternatives to Deli Meat

This option is going to take some prep work in the form of cooking. However, if you have the time, it’s 100% worth the effort compared to the alternative, which is consuming a highly processed carcinogenic meat product.

Options here are limited only by the selections in the refrigerated meat, seafood, or poultry section of your deli or grocery store. You may even have a hunter or fisherman in the family like I do, who can provide whole meat food sources. Thank you Mr. Campbell!

If not, no worries. By purchasing raw, boneless, and skinless poultry, fish, or lean beef and pork, you’ll still have more control over what you’re putting into your body; which is always a good thing.

Choosing ground versions of these options makes it easy to mix with other ingredients and form into patties to cook and use in place of deli meat. Or you can cook a whole chicken breast for example, then slice, shred, or place whole atop your sandwich.

Recipe using lean, ground turkey:

Tasty Turkey Burgers
A great basic turkey burger recipe that is sure to become part of your regular meal repertoire.
View Recipe
turkey burgers and toppings laid out on a wooden cutting board

How To Choose Healthy Alternatives to Deli Meat

Because not all plant and animal-based lunch meats are healthy options, it’s important to know what to look for on nutrition facts labels.

These are a few things to consider to make the best choice for you:

  1. Consider fat and sodium – look for products with no more than 2 grams of saturated fat and 140 mg of sodium per serving.
  2. Check the ingredients list – make sure there are no added sugars, preservatives, or artificial ingredients.
  3. Look for whole-food-based products – the first ingredients should include whole foods like nuts, seeds, beans, or legumes (if choosing a plant-based option). Or whole animal proteins like chicken or turkey (if choosing animal-based lunch meat).
  4. Choose organic and grass-fed options when available – these can be more environmentally friendly and contain higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may benefit heart health and reduce inflammation (5).
  5. Read the label carefully– take a peek at any labeling claims and the Nutrition Facts panel to ensure the product doesn’t contain any questionable nutrients or additives.
How to choose alternatives to deli meat

Tips for Enjoying Your Lunch Meat Alternatives

You can enjoy any of these lunch meat alternatives at any given moment. Hooray!

I thought I would also include some tips to get even more enjoyment and variety out of your meals using these healthy lunch meat alternatives. Here are my thoughts:

  • Try to include a variety of different lunch meat alternatives in your meals.
  • Look for different flavors and textures when choosing your lunch meat substitutes.
  • Make sure to add extra flavorings to your lunch meat alternative choices, such as dressings or sauces.
  • Use sprouted grain bread in place of traditional white or wheat bread.
  • Think about how you can easily incorporate lunch meat alternatives into sandwiches, wraps, and salads.
  • Choose lunch meat alternatives that are high in protein and nutrient-rich.

Examples of What To Eat Instead of Deli Meat

And if you’d like more ideas for healthy, unprocessed lunch selections, here are a few of my favorites:

  • Include pre-sliced veggies such as carrots, celery, peppers, and cucumbers on a sandwich.
  • Serve fresh fruit or roasted nuts as side items with a sandwich.
  • Make a wrap with whole-wheat tortillas and fill it with hummus and vegetables.
  • Create an open-faced sandwich with grilled vegetables, avocado, and cheese.
  • Keep pouches of low-sodium tuna fish on hand which can be eaten with whole grain crackers, yogurt, and fresh fruit.

FAQ on Processed Deli Meats

Is uncured lunch meat healthier?

Uncured lunch meat is often marketed as a healthier alternative to cured lunch meat, but whether it is healthier depends on the specific product and how it is made. Cured meats can be high in nitrates which can cause health issues, but uncured varieties can also be high in nitrates and nitrites. Look at nutrition labels and the ingredient lists to be sure.

Is sliced ham a processed meat?

Yes, sliced ham is considered processed meat. Ham is typically made from pork, which is processed and cured with salt, sugar, and other additives to enhance its flavor, texture, and shelf life.

sandwich made with alternative to deli meat

Conclusion

As you can see, there are a large number of healthy alternatives to deli meat you can try. These include plant-based and animal-based options.

Options range from very minimal effort to more extensive effort in the form of prep and cooking. Either way, experimenting with different alternatives to deli meat is good for your body and your taste buds.

Remember to always look at nutrition labels and ingredient lists to find more information and make an informed decision about which alternative to deli meat is best for you.

You can always visit my recipes page for more heart-healthy recipes to support a healthy lifestyle!

Happy and healthy eating everyone!

2 thoughts on “The Best Alternatives to Deli Meat (Plus 13 Yummy Recipes)”

  1. I really appreciated your article as my husband is on dialysis for 5 years now and keeping his numbers regulated with food has been harder then the whole process. This will help us more then what has been offered so far. Thank you and I will continue to follow.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words. I’m so glad the article was able to help, even if only giving ideas for what your husband may be able to eat. I know nutrition (and renal diet) can be a hard world to navigate when no one points you in the right direction.

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