Struggling with where to find healthy lunch meats? You’re not alone. Store-bought lunch meats not only come from CAFO-raised animals, but they also contain a strange and unwholesome mix of additives like carageenan and preservatives like sodium nitrate.
If you’re not ready to give up on the idea of cold-served meats for lunch, consider this your guide to nutrient-dense, wholesome lunch meats from grass-fed, wild, or pasture-raised animals.
Your best choice.
As always, your best option to find healthy lunch meats is to know your farmer and buy directly from them. Buy grass-fed rump roast, cook it, and slice it; or buy pasture-raised turkey, roast it, and slice it.
You get the idea. Keep it as simple and close to home as possible, and you’ll do fine.
If you don’t have a local farmer you can trust to raise beyond-organic meats for you, I highly recommend checking out a few online suppliers.
(Click here to buy grass-fed rump roast.)
Don’t want to cook? These are good choices.
If roasting and slicing your own grass-fed lunch meat seems a little too inconvenient for you, then your next best choice is to buy pre-made, nitrate-free lunch meats from good grass-fed or wild sources.
The following are my family’s all time favorite lunch meats that are actually healthy. If something’s not here, it’s not necessarily because it wouldn’t be Food Renegade Approved. This list is simply our personal favorites based on what we routinely buy and enjoy.
Grass-fed Beef Bologna
Made with the beef from grass-fed cows, this bologna tastes just like you’d expect bologna to taste, but without all the additives.
It’s free of nitrates, nitrites, MSG, preservatives, dairy, and gluten.
It easily stores in the freezer, so I buy in bulk to save on shipping. Once defrosted, it’ll keep about a week in the fridge. If we don’t think we’ll be eating that much bologna in a week, I just cut a partially-thawed roll in half and return half of it to the freezer.
(Where to buy Grass-fed Beef Bologna.)
Grass-fed Beef Braunsweiger
Braunsweiger is a kind of liverwurst, but with a more mild liver flavor. It’s an excellent way to work nutrient-dense liver into your family’s diet.
This braunsweiger is made from grass-fed beef and contains no nitrates, nitrites, preservatives, or additives.
It’s got a wholesome and simple list of ingredients: grass-fed beef, grass-fed beef liver, water, sea salt, onion powder, white pepper, coriander, marjoram, allspice. And that’s it!
Like the bologna, it freezes well and keeps for about a week in your fridge once defrosted.
(Where to buy Grass-fed Beef Braunsweiger.)
Wild-Caught BPA-free Tuna by Wild Planet
When it comes to cold lunch meats, most people think of sliced deli meats. I admit I do, too. But a simple tuna salad makes a great and surprisingly healthy lunch meat.
We use this wild-caught, low-mercury, BPA-free canned tuna. I just mix in my homemade mayonnaise or a few tablespoons of sour cream, add some salt and pepper, and call it good.
To get a little creative (while still staying simple), I often mix in dried cranberries or chopped nuts or a hard-boiled egg.
(Where to buy Wild-Caught BPA-free Tuna.)
Avoid these choices.
Please notice I didn’t include many popular brands of “all-natural” lunch meats. That’s because most of these lunch meats contain hidden and excessive amounts of nitrates. They’re also likely to contain other food additives like the stomach-ache inducing carageenan. And, most importantly to me, they’re not from pasture-raised sources and are usually just “natural” or “organic.”
I will admit that there are a few options we buy for convenience, on rare occasion, including Applegate Organics Oven Roasted Turkey Breast Slices (not to be confused with their Naturals line). These are just organic meat, water, salt, broth, potato starch, and rosemary extract. They’re Whole30 approved, gluten-free, and certified GMO-free. Not bad for a compromise food, right? But although it lacks harmful additives, it’s still not from pasture-raised hens and likely comes from turkeys raised entirely indoors with limited to no outdoor access.
What does your family do for lunch meat?
(top photo by stevejohnson)
GiGi Eats says
I actually get a lot my meats from North Star Bison….. Absolutely the most delicious meat source I have ever found 🙂 And I have been ordering from them for about 12 years now!
Andi | greenbasket.me says
I completely agree. My teenagers were with me at the grocery store and questioned this once, until I pointed out the price difference between our cow pool roast beef- ($5 per pound) and the grocery store roast beef- $12 per pound. The price difference between buying a whole ham and slicing it, and buying sliced deli ham is even more dramatic. That alone was enough to get me to stop buying deli meat entirely.
I am not sure if I like US Wellness meat, since they finish their grass-fed beef or pork with corn. So after they grass fed their beef before the end of its life they feed it corn. I would rather have all grass fed beef or pork for all their lives.
Kristen Michaelis says
Do you have a source for that information? I believe you’re mistaken. Their beef is 100% grass-finished.
From their FAQ page: “Are the cattle finished with grain?
Never. From the moment our animals are weaned from their mothers, they consume high quality forage for the rest of their lives. Not only is grain-finish counter to the values of grass-fed farming, but a change to a starchy grain diet can undo omega 6:3 ratios and CLA values in 30 days.”
Really? I hope that’s not true. In my way of thinking, when it comes to beef, the term ‘grass-fed’ should only be used for 100% grass-fed and grass-finished. Finishing with corn or other things is what the industrial, conventional model does. Otherwise, it’s just mis-using (and hijacking) the term grass-fed for marketing purposes.
Whew, thanks for double checking that, Kristen. What a relief.
Kristen Michaelis says
You’re welcome. I should clarify that their pork is fed grains, but because pigs (unlike cows) are omnivores, I’m okay with that.
That said, I think Tendergrass Farms’ pork is a better product since it’s 100% pasture-raised. That’s why I link to their pork products instead of USWM’s.
Any thoughts on Applegate Farms Roasted Turkey Breast?
Kristen Michaelis says
It has carageenan added to it, so it ranks below Organic Prairie’s in my mind.
Why in the world would they add carrageenan to turkey? Isn’t that some kind of thickener? What are they doing to their meats that they need to be thickened?
Kristen Michaelis says
I just got asked this question by my DIL who sends her son to pre-school with processed lunchmeat ( something I used to purchase as well ) but since understanding that the “food” industry is replete with toxic ingredients and detrimental health side effects I advocated her not using store bought, pre-packaged mystery meat. What, though, to replace it with was equally a mystery as she lives in an area that does not have healthy alternatives. Buying a slab of grass fed beef or free range, organic turkey does seem like a good alternative. (Slicing it is the least of my worries.)
What advice would you give for mothers who want to send their children to school with healthy lunches?
Kirkland (Costco) has a honey roasted turkey that seems to be decent. I don’t have any at the moment so I can’t reference the ingredient list, but it used lemon juice as a preservative and had no nitrates. Have you seen it and if so do you have an opinion?
Found the ingredients:
Turkey Breast, Water, Honey, Sugar, Contains 2% or less of salt, rice flour, cultured celery juice, lemon juice concentrate.
Here is the link where I found them:
They have an oven roasted kind, too, but it’s ingredients aren’t quite as clean.
Celery juice is natural nitrate so not better than the Oscar Meyers
Jennifer DiMaggio says
We love lunch meats and I cringe every time we eat them just knowing that it’s not very healthy (at least the brands we have access to living overseas). My question is… organic or not, grass fed to finish or not, free range or not, aren’t most deli meats (unless you make them yourself) usually highly-processed? Meaning, bologna as an example, isn’t it different meat parts packed together and processed into a neat “slice” (or a roll that you slice)? And, if so, does that define it as processed food (regardless if it has nitrites/nitrates/MSG/preservatives/gluten/etc or not)?
Help. I’m confused. 🙂
Kristen Michaelis says
In my book, there’s a difference between the kinds of processing you can do at home with traditional techniques and the kinds of processing that come with doing things on an industrial scale.
Examples of traditional processing I *could* do at home (even if I don’t):
~ maple syrup (boiling the sap)
~ sauerkraut (fermenting the cabbage)
~ braunsweiger, or any home-processed sausage (grinding the meat & spices & stuffing into tubes)
Examples of processing I *couldn’t* do at home:
~ making high-fructose corn syrup
~ mechanically-separated and re-constituted lunch meats
~ extruded cereal grains (to create shapes like cheerios)
See the difference? There’s a lot of food that has traditionally been processed at home, and I’m cool with paying for the convenience of having others do it for me so long as the way they do it (and the ingredients they use) align with tradition. It’s when they do things on such a large scale that traditional methods and ingredients are no longer options that I think processed foods go astray.
Jennifer DiMaggio says
Hi, thanks so much. I appreciate it. That is a good way of thinking about processed foods.
“Mechanically separated” is the phrase I was trying to remember when asking my original question. Not to beat a head horse, but isn’t all bologna mechanically separated? Is bologna something you could make at home?
Thanks again, do appreciate it. Love your explanations, info, & blog.
Just remember there are more options for sandwiches than just meat alone. You can make lots of great sandwich fillings. When I worked at a big box store deli, I figured out how to make their sandwich fillings, and made them at home, only much, much more healthy. Fillings such as homemade pimento cheese, ham salad, chicken salad, etc. I also used an old Good Housekeeping cookbook for ideas. And don’t forget you can lightly bread and saute fish fillets for sandwiches. Just check Seafood Watch for the best types.
I second North Star Bison, and also love Good Earth Farms –they have a sliced ham that is really good.
Dale Faulkner via Facebook says
What about applegate products?
Food Renegade via Facebook says
Most Applegate lunch meats contain carageenan. They don’t all come from pasture-raised animals just “organic” or “natural” (which means the turkey or chicken could have spent its entire life indoors). And most are also “cured” with celery salt and lactic acid, which produces a reaction that makes more nitrates than if they had just added sodium nitrate in the first place. Dale Faulkner
Dale Faulkner via Facebook says
What about Thousand Hills Cattle Co. in Cannon Falls MN? They seem to be highly respected here in Minnesota…. 100% grass-fed beef. One of their products is a great tasting summer sausage.
What about Dietz & Watson smoked turkey breast lunch meat? I think it is nitrate free.
Applegate Farm is what I have access to, so that’s what I buy, maybe two packets a month (a salami and something else – lasts me the whole month), and factor in carrageenan under the 80/20 philosophy. (Carrageenan and similar thickeners such as xanthan gum are used to stabilize the juices so they don’t all run out into the package and leave the meat dry.) Trader Joe’s prices for Applegate Farm aren’t quite as bad, and another local grocery chain puts it on a really good sale (3 packages for $10, and they freeze reasonably well) once in a great while. The nearest Whole Foods is a 3 hour round-trip drive that in gas and tolls alone costs >$25! (Ditto Costco.) I live alone and have only a small fridge-top freezer, and do not have anyone with whom to split larger purchases. I also only eat small amounts of meat, 2-4oz/day, because of a neurological disorder called gastroparesis.
Those who have larger families could purchase an electric meat slicer for under $100 – some models are under $50 – to give their home-cooked meats a more deli-like texture and evenness. The last time I cooked a roast beef (which, BTW, can be crazy expensive if you’re not one of those buy-half-a-cow folks, which isn’t doable for a lot of people… last Christmas Trader Joe’s had grass-fed, antibiotic-free rib roasts for $7.99/lb; being from NZ it violated the “thou shalt buy local” commandment in spades but also didn’t blow my budget to smithereens – freakin’ HAMBURGER from the locals costs as much as if not more than the TJ’s roasts did. As it was a seasonal item, I stocked up as much as my tiny freezer allowed) slicing it thin enough for a good sandwich was a total fail even with a freshly sharpened knife. So I use the roasts for other purposes and get the Applegate Farms’ roast beef to feed my occasional (averages out to about 1 a month, since I get 3 sandwiches from a packet) jones for a French Dip, or a special grilled cheese with sharp cheddar and horseradish. I do wish it were more thinly sliced though, so I could make a Northshore Massachusetts style roast beef sandwich, which is a thing of beauty (and admittedly cause for me to throw my traditional-food diet out the window about once a year, since the nearest place to get one is about an hour away).
Valerie, the celery juice in your Costco turkey is a source of naturally occurring nitrates and used as a substitute for sodium nitrite. Me, I don’t fret about celery juice and similar plant-sourced nitrates (there’s actually quite a long list of veggies that contain high levels of nitrates), but your chosen NWIH-I-won’t-eat-that point may be stricter than mine.
Lindsay Haczynski via Facebook says
Greg Haczynski, so much for our applegate pepperoni
David Darell Galbraith says
What about the seven virus spray the FDA approved for spraying on all lunch meats? Google it. This should add to the reasons you should question the quality of any FDA decisions. I could offer many more, but they would be off subject. Please email me and let me know what you found out. I really miss eating lunch meat.
David Darell Galbraith
Hey, I am new here but what about Aldi’s brand of organic meats? They have an organic lunch meat and bacon too. Their ingredient list is simple and contains no nitrates,nitrites or other weird preservatives.
Gayle Roberts Krupin via Facebook says
I often eat leftovers, or cheese/fruit, eggs. I do buy nitrate/nitrite free uncured organic ham just cuz I love ham
Michael Taylor: currently deputy commissioner for foods for FDA and formerly Monsanto’s attorney/vice president/chief lobbyist. Absolutely question FDA standards.
Nicole Lee via Facebook says
Prima Della? They’re good right?
Whole Foods lunch meat ingredients usually just say “turkey, salt, pepper” or “roast beef, salt, rosemary”. Does anyone have an opinion or information on Whole Foods lunch meat?
Hello! Love following your blog. Thanks for sharing wisdom with the community! My questions is about nitrates/nitrites. We try to buy similar to what you’ve described above, but when we occasionally get grocery store bacon or lunch meat, we’ve looked for uncured in the past. Would love your input on this article saying the “uncured” or “no nitrates added” products can actually be MORE harmful. http://culinaryarts.about.com/od/seasoningflavoring/a/nitrates.htm not sure what to think now?!
Gayle Trepanier via Facebook says
I usually make a whole turkey, roast or ham, slice it up, and use that for dinner and then leftovers for lunches/snacks. It’s cheaper and healthier than traditional cold cuts. While it’s a little more work, it’s worth it I think. It also freezes well, so if a lot of meat, I’ll freeze half and put half in the fridge.
Becky Deemter via Facebook says
So fortunate to have Creswick Farms local! Grassfed and pastured beef & pork, with lunch meats made on site, the right way!
Yeimy Garcia-Smith via Facebook says
What are your thoughts on Boarhead?
Sarah Imrie via Facebook says
I will look for these options. Right now, we have just switched to home cooked grilled organic chicken breast, cut as thinly as I can. I make about 6 breasts a week, either grilled or baked and slice them all at once. Kids adapted nicely with almost no fuss, which was very unexpected. I also do the same with grass fed tri tip as a treat.
Leslie Jackson via Facebook says
OMGosh, that looks AMAZING!
I couldn’t find answers to the 2 meats that were mentioned above that we, too, with 4 school age kids are hoping are good, convenient, healthy lunch sandwich options. So…anyone’s opinion on the Publix Boarhead meats that are on their Nitrate free list OR on the Dietz & Watson turkey breast at Costco??
Jessica DeMay says
Oh, I am so happy to find grass-fed liverwurst. I grew up eating that and I know how unhealthy the store bought stuff is. That would be delicious with some homemade ketchup. Thanks for the info!
Kathy Johnson says
Thank you for your energy and your willingness to share your knowledge and research. I would really love to eat correctly but find it very expensive. We are disabled and on a fixed income. Its really great to have someone like you for when I do try though.
You are the best. That is all. <3
Do you have any info on Kirkland Honey Roasted Turkey Breast from Costco and its nitrite levels ?? I’ve been having heart and other health issues since March (2020) … pounding heart beat, dizziness. My family and I had been eating this meat for deli meat almost exclusively. I stopped eating it and things are improving for me. I researched one of the ingredients “cultured celery juice powder” and discovered I may have found the culprit to my unexplained heart issues. Kirkland product claims to be preservative free but I learned that celery juice powder is a preservative and often has higher nitrites than the regulated chemical nitrite.
Nancy OHara says
My adult son has stage 3 colon cancer and cannot eat nitrates, nitrites, gluten or sugar. Does your baloney meet those requirements? How is it sold? Can I find it in stores or just online?