When it comes to lean protein, we immediately think of chicken breast. But luckily for your taste buds, protein is found in tons of other foods, too.
We know you know protein is important—but just in case you need a quick refresher, here’s why: “Protein is required for most of our bodily functions, including metabolizing food, building muscle, exercising, producing essential hormones like insulin, ensuring healthy skin, and transporting oxygen,” says Angel Planells, M.S., R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
You may need anywhere from 0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight depending on your age and activity level, says Planells. (Find out your exact protein needs here.)
Try one of these surprising protein sources to pump up the amount of protein you get out of your next meal.
With about nine grams of protein in a quarter-cup, this grab-and-go snack is a delicious way to bump up your protein intake. Laura Baum, R.D., M.Sc.F.N., loves to sprinkle pumpkin seeds over a bowl of Greek yogurt, mix them into a trail mix with other plain roasted nuts, or add them to rice dishes. They make a great crunchy addition to any dish, but we’d eat them straight out of the bag, too.
This seed (yes, it’s a seed!) contains all nine essential amino acids, earning it the title of ‘complete protein,’ which we usually associate with animal proteins, says Planells.
Quick refresher: We break the protein we eat down into amino acids, explains Rachel Begun, M.S., R.D.N. Our bodies produce some aminos, but we can only get the nine essential aminos from food. It’s important to get all nine so that our body can build the proteins that form our muscles, hair, skin, and more.
One cooked cup of this fluffy, grain-like stuff packs eight grams of protein. Quinoa will absorb just about any flavor you cook it in, so it’s a great substitute for rice in stir-fries. Baum also likes to mix it into Greek salads or with steamed veggies for a side dish.
Are you giving this animal protein the love it deserves? With less fat than many other animal proteins and a dose of omega-3 fatty acids (which support heart health—specifically our blood pressure and arteries), tuna packs 20 grams of protein per three-ounce serving. Planells recommends incorporating seafood into your daily grub two-to-three times per week. One of his favorite protein-packed snacks: a serving of tuna spread on whole-grain crackers.
Yeah, you already know Greek yogurt is chock-full of protein, but it’s not the only dairy food that should be on your radar. Half a cup of cottage cheese offers 12 grams of protein and is the perfect canvas for both sweet and savory snacks. Go for a sweet version by adding fruit, a drizzle of maple syrup, and a spoonful of flaxseed—or try a savory variety by adding chopped veggies, salt, and pepper, recommends Planells. If you’re feeling really creative, you can even mix cottage cheese into your favorite pancake mix, says Baum.
When you mix and match spinach with other veggies, the protein can really add up, says Begun. A medium white potato, a cup of broccoli, and a cup of Brussels sprouts all contain four grams of your muscles’ favorite macronutrient.
We all loved a good PB&J as kids, and we haven’t grown out of our nut butter obsession! Two tablespoons of peanut butter contain seven grains of protein, and pair perfectly with other protein sources, like Greek yogurt, whole-grain bread, or oatmeal, says Begun.
Featured Nut Butters
Soy is the sweetheart protein source of vegetarians and vegans everywhere for good reason: It’s another rare plant-based ‘complete protein,’ containing all nine essential amino acids.
Tofu packs about 10 grams of protein per cup, but it’s not your only option. Tempeh, which is made from fermented tofu, offers about 20 grams of protein per cup, says Planells.
You can always go for soybeans in their original form, known as ‘edamame,’ too. One cup of cooked edamame provides 18 grams of protein and makes a great addition to a stir fry or salad, says Begun. They also happen to pack nine grams of fiber.
Related: 7 Protein Sources For Vegetarians
Half a cup of cooked lentils offers nine grams of protein—more than a cup of milk, a serving of cheddar cheese, or an egg, says Planells. He likes to mix one cup of lentils with an egg and a sprinkle of cheddar cheese for a breakfast that packs 17 grams of protein.
For a fun and protein-rich meal, Baum recommends making stuffed peppers or eggplant with a mixture of rice and lentils. (If you’re not into lentils, Baum recommends going for other beans, like kidney beans, which pack eight grams of protein per cup.)
Pin this handy infographic to pack your diet with a variety of protein sources: