Don’t have the time, or inclination, to make your own packed lunch to take to work every day? A meal deal – which typically gets you a sandwich, a snack and a drink for £3.50 to £5 – can be a tempting alternative.

In fact, a third of us now have meal deals every week, according to research by The Grocer.

Earlier this week meal deals hit the headlines, with Sainsbury’s shoppers in uproar because some yoghurt products had been put in the ‘main course’ category, rather than in the ‘snack’ bit.

The supermarket argues that granola-topped yoghurts are a popular breakfast ‘main’, and that ordinary yoghurts are preferred as a lunchtime snack.

But a bigger worry is that, unless you choose wisely, your lunch could be high in calories and overloaded with fat, sugar or salt – unwittingly sending you down the path towards weight gain and ill-health if you have meal deals regularly.

‘An average woman won’t need more than 600 calories at lunchtime,’ says dietitian Dr Sarah Schenker.

‘Exceeding this by 100 calories every day for a month could lead to nearly a pound of weight gain.’

Yet research by the University of Birmingham last year found 23 per cent of meal deals at supermarkets and High Street stores exceeded the recommended Government guidelines of 600 lunchtime calories.

And as well as potentially sabotaging your waistline, many of the options sit firmly in the ultra-processed food (UPF) camp, meaning they are highly processed, packed with artificial additives, salt, sugar and saturated fat, and increasingly linked to obesity and poor health.

‘The High Street meal deal has become an unhealthy minefield and you can very easily get tripped up unless you take the time to analyse your food choices and scrutinise the labels,’ says Sarah Schenker.

‘Looking at the options available, it’s not easy to create a healthy lunch from most meal deals.’

She admits that she herself will sometimes reach for a meal deal, but she opts for a high-protein salad, fruit and a bottle of water.

Sarah Schenker recommends looking for the most wholesome food you can find. ‘Pick sandwiches on wholegrain bread or a salad with the dressing on the side so you can control how much you use, and choose a piece of fruit as your snack’, she says. You should also go for food with the least amount of processing (‘avoid anything with a long list of chemical ingredients’) and water or plain coffee or tea to drink, rather than squash, juice or a fizzy drink.

‘Instead of worrying about minimising calories, focus on maximising protein and fibre – 20g of protein and plenty of fibre in the form of vegetables, pulses and nuts should provide the nutrients you need and help keep you feeling fuller for longer,’ she says.

To find out which meal deals are a good option, we asked Sarah Schenker for her verdict – and health rating – on a selection of High Street offers.

Sainsbury’s, £3.50

Brie, bacon and chilli chutney sandwich PLUS all butter flapjack PLUS Coca Cola

Total: Calories, 1,014; saturated fat, 17.4g; protein, 28.3g; sugar, 88.5g; salt, 2.23g

Expert verdict: There are all the calories you need for lunch (580) in this meaty sandwich – so you really don’t need the extra 224 calories in the flapjack or the 210 in the cola. And despite being a good source of protein (25g) and fibre (5g), the sandwich also supplies an unhealthy 25g of fat and 2g of salt, which is linked to high blood pressure.

In fact, this meal deal combination adds up to half the daily recommended calorie limit for a woman and 17 teaspoons of sugar. If you make this choice every day, you’ll be on a fast track to obesity and ill-health.

Buying all three items as a meal deal might save you £2.35 but you’d be far better to pick fruit as your snack and water to drink, or to buy the sandwich alone for £3 – saving yourself 50p – and wash it down with a glass of tap water. 2/10

Tesco, £3.90

Salmon and tuna sushi PLUS Kit Kat Chunky Duo PLUS Lucozade Sport still orange drink

Total: Calories, 859; saturated fat, 9.7g; protein, 13.54g; sugar, 74.4g; salt, 3.26g

Expert verdict: Sushi is a popular lunchtime choice and with this option you get some healthy omega-3 fats from the fresh salmon and tuna – but this meal is low in protein and fibre so is unlikely to be very satisfying. Discard the little bottle of soya sauce to reduce your salt intake. More worrying is the huge sugar surge you’d get from the drink and chocolate – you’d be better picking the egg protein pot (two hard boiled eggs) and a zero sugar drink to provide a more balanced meal. 4/10

Co-op premium meal deal, £5.50

Yo! Salmon and avocado poke bowl PLUS carrots and houmous dip PLUS sparkling water

Total: Calories, 568; saturated fat, 4.3g; protein, 20.3g; sugar, 18.3g; salt, 4.2g

Expert verdict: It is sometimes worth paying a little more for a good nutritionally balanced meal deal – this salad bowl contains a healthy amount of filling protein (18g), healthy fats in the salmon and avocado, as well as vegetables and rice.

The meal deal (which saves you £1.69) allows you to add a nutritious snack of carrot sticks and houmous, which improves your nutritional intake further (with more fibre and extra protein in the chickpea dip).

When choosing a salad, look for plenty of mixed vegetables such as beetroot and butternut squash (not just lots of leaves) and a source of protein (fish, meat or a combination of pulses and nuts). 9/10

Morrisons, £3.50

Ham and cheese sandwich PLUS McCoy’s salt and vinegar crisps PLUS Diet Coke

Total: Calories, 635; saturated fat, 6.9g; protein, 25.4g; sugar, 4.7g; salt, 2.65g

Expert verdict: The zero-sugar drink keeps the calorie total down but watch out with any ham and cheese sandwich – the combination is notoriously salty (this one contains 1.7g) and with crisps (0.95g) it nudges up your total towards your daily salt allowance (which is 6g a day), increasing your risk of high blood pressure. Pick a sandwich with some salad to improve the nutrient profile; opt for cheese or ham – not both – and switch those crisps for a fruit pot while you’re at it. 4/10

Sainsbury’s, £3.50

Coronation chicken sandwich PLUS Muller Rice strawberry PLUS Starbucks mocha Frappuccino iced coffee

Total: Calories, 734; saturated fat, 6.97g; protein, 34.15g; sugar, 53.3g; salt, 2.08g

Expert verdict: There’s 11.4g of sugar in this sandwich, 20.4g (five teaspoons) in the rice pudding pot, and 21.5g in the iced coffee – which adds up to an eye-watering 53.3g or 11 teaspoons of sugar in this lunchtime meal deal, which is way over the NHS recommended 30g daily limit and equivalent to five bowls of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes – with very little nutritional benefit to help your body and brain function throughout the afternoon. A sugar surge like this is highly likely to interfere with concentration and energy levels, and you’ll be tempted to reach for a sugary biscuit with your afternoon cup of tea.

The sandwich choice is redeemed by its high protein content (21.8g) but this meal would score higher if you’d chosen one with wholemeal bread, a fruit snack and a zero-sugar drink, such as water. 2/10

Morrisons, £3.50

Chicken salad sandwich PLUS black and green olives snack pot PLUS Plenish Turmeric Defence shot

Total: Calories, 500; saturated fat, 3.22g; protein, 26.84g; sugar, 9.78g; salt, 1.91g

Expert verdict: This is an excellent sandwich choice because it delivers 25.7g of protein with 5.1g of fibre and very little salt or unhealthy fat.

A savoury snack, such as olives, will boost your intake of healthy fats and fibre but it could nudge up your total salt intake, increasing your risk of raised blood pressure. As a bonus, you get a vitamin boost (100 per cent of your daily vitamin B12 needs) in this turmeric shot. You’re not only getting a varied nutritional mix with this meal deal, but you’re also saving £2.45 if you’d bought the items separately. 8/10

Waitrose, £5

Huel vanilla complete meal drink PLUS Kind protein double dark chocolate nut bar PLUS Virtue yerba mate strawberry and lime drink

Total: Calories, 677; saturated fat, 7.8g; protein, 31.5g; sugar, 13g; salt, 0.74g

Expert verdict: If you’re aiming to be healthy, why would you choose an ultra-processed meal replacement drink such as Huel when you can get all the nutrients you need – in the form we are designed to consume – in one of the salads or sandwiches available in these premium-priced meal deals? Yes, this meal delivers a lot of protein (31.5g) but the fat and sugar levels are high. And don’t be fooled by the apparent health halo on the fizzy drink – it’s just water with sweeteners and caffeine. 3/10

Tesco, £3.40

Spicy chicken pasta pot PLUS Propercorn sweet and salty popcorn PLUS Tropicana orange juice

Total: Calories, 658; saturated fat, 1.3g; protein, 20.7g; sugar, 41g; salt, 0.2g

Expert verdict: You get a good amount of protein in this meal, and the orange juice counts as one of your five-a-day. But the hidden sugars in the pasta (11.6g) combine with the orange juice (26g) to hike blood sugar levels too high for one meal. Again, water and whole fruit would improve your meal deal combo. 6/10

Waitrose, £5

Spicy bean and sweet potato wrap PLUS Lindt chocolate bar PLUS Innocent Invigorate Super Smoothie

Total: Calories, 798; saturated fat, 19g; protein, 13.6g; sugar, 54.3g; salt, 1.06g

Expert verdict: This healthy-looking combination shows just how easy it is to slip into unhealthy lunchtime habits. You won’t be getting enough protein to keep you feeling full through the afternoon. When choosing a vegetarian option, it’s good to boost protein by picking a high-protein snack (such as a pack of nuts and seeds which offers 4.6g protein) – and although the smoothie does count as one of your five-a-day, the fruit sugar (33g) takes your lunchtime sugar levels too high. 5/10


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