It seems that everyone is interested in eating more plant-based meals these days, no matter what their eating style. That’s because eating a more plant-based diet can lower your carbon footprint, as well as reduce your risk of chronic disease. And the first step to moving towards a plant-based diet is to turn the plate from animal protein to plant proteins at more meals. That means swapping standard menu options like steak, baked chicken, and bacon and eggs to dishes like red beans and rice, curried lentils, and veggie burgers. But don’t worry, making those little swaps is so much easier (and delicious) than you think! There is a whole world of delicious, healthy, plant-based eating just waiting to be discovered.
Plant-Based Protein Hacks
1. Go With What You Know. The easiest way to kick into a plant-based lifestyle is to make easy, straightforward switches for your favorite foods. For example, do you love burgers? Then head to the supermarket and try out a few veggie, or “meatless” burgers until you find one that you really love. I enjoy flavorful veggie burgers made with whole ingredients, such as beans, lentils, grains and vegetables. Keep your eye on the nutrition facts label, looking for at least 7 grams of protein per serving.
2. Get Beany With It. I suggest basing at least one of your plant-based meals each day on this humble, protein-rich plant food: beans (also including lentils and dried peas). After all, this nutrient powerhouse is the cornerstone of traditional diets around the world, from chickpeas in the Middle East to black beans in Mexico. So, take the meat off your plate, and substitute it for beans, lentils, or dried peas more often. Try these classic bean hacks for starters:
- Pack a whole grain burrito with black beans and veggies
- Fill a sandwich with hummus and roasted vegetables
- Feast on home-made or canned vegetarian chili
- Toss pasta with white beans, garlic, olive oil, and spinach
- Simmer lentils with curry to serve with brown rice
- Make a hearty split pea soup
- Top your salad with kidney beans for lunch
3. Power Up with Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives. One easy swap you can make is to trade animal-based dairy products—milk, yogurt, cheese, cream cheese—with plant-based varieties. Great tasting, easy-to-use options await you in the supermarket. Find a plant-based milk alternative that offers a clean, bright taste, and high-quality nutritional value. I suggest you look for those that provide at least 6 grams of protein per serving, and about 30% of your daily vitamin D and calcium needs.
4. Go a Little Nuts. Another easy plant-protein hack is to turn to nuts and seeds for a punch of protein. One easy classic is the good old-fashioned PB and J—peanut butter is very rich in protein and can easily take the place of deli meat in your sandwich. But you can also think beyond peanut butter to a range of nuts and seeds and their butter, including pistachios, almonds, walnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds. One ounce (or about ¼ cup) of nuts and seeds or 2 tablespoons of nut or seed butter is the equivalent of an ounce of meat. Enjoy nuts and seeds on top of salads, stirred into pasta dishes or grain pilafs, or ground into homemade veggie burgers. Use nut or seed butters as a topping on toast, bread, flatbread, crackers, and fruit slices.
5. Get to Know Tofu. Once you’ve mastered a few of these steps, it’s time to turn to tofu as a wonderful plant-based superstar for your dinner plate. This simple, soy food can take the place of meat in just about anything, from lasagna to scrambled eggs to chef’s salad. Start experimenting with tofu by dicing it into a flavorful dish, such as stir-fry or curried vegetables. Then you can gradually try a few other swaps, such as grated tofu with turmeric in your morning scramble or chunks of tofu in your ratatouille recipe. Remember, tofu is a blank canvas, it absorbs the flavors of the foods it is served with, so make sure to serve it with dishes that are heavy on flavor, such as Asian, Italian, or Indian marinades or sauces.
For other plant-based protein-rich recipes, check out the following:
Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, is The Plant-Powered Dietitian, a registered dietitian nutritionist with more than 18 years of experience in the field of plant-based nutrition and sustainability. Sharon also holds a Master of Science in Sustainable Food Systems. She’s the author of 2 books, The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today and Plant-Powered for Life: Eat Your Way to Lasting Health with 52 Simple Steps & 125 Delicious Recipes.