When you’re trying to boost your protein intake, it’s easy to get stuck in a never-ending cycle of eating chicken breast, eggs, chicken breast, eggs, chicken breast, eggs (okay, and maybe a salmon or beef filet every now and then). If you’re starting to feel burned out and uninspired by your daily meal choices, good news: Animal proteins aren’t your only option.
Plant-based proteins, which include everything from beans and nuts to whole grains and veggies—and are filled with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients—can help you mix up your menu and increase your overall nutrient intake. Even if you have no intention of switching to a vegetarian diet, there are still lots of reasons to consider adding more plant-based protein to your repertoire—and plenty of meals that make doing so delicious.
Yes, You Really Should Give Plant-Based Protein Sources A Shot
Not to knock on quality animal-based protein—but there are a lot of really good reasons to add more plant-based meals to your weekly schedule. “It’s beneficial from a health, financial, and even time standpoint,” points out Trista Best, R.D., dietitian at Balance One.
According to Best, regularly switching out animal-based proteins for plant-based ones has cumulative benefits for heart health, weight loss, and diabetes prevention; it’s also linked with a reduced risk of cancer. “These benefits are the direct results of two primary changes,” she says. “First, you’re removing saturated fat and hormones that you would be consuming from animal proteins. Second, you’re integrating more plants and therefore more plant compounds and healthy fats.”
And if that’s not enough motivation, consider your wallet. “With the rising cost of meat and other staples, a plant-based diet can be followed relatively easily…and is relatively affordable,” she says. While there are pricey meat alternatives out there, whole plant foods are generally easy on your wallet.
Not all plant-based protein sources are equal, though
While you know you’re getting in quality protein when you stir fry some chicken or scramble a few eggs, you may need to learn which plant foods are good options for maintaining a high level of protein consumption.
When going meat-free, be conscious of consuming a plant source that provides essential amino acids or complementary proteins that, when eaten together, deliver all of the essential amino acids. “Protein is made of amino acids and nine of them can’t be made by the body and must be consumed through food or supplements,” Best explains. “These amino acids are called essential amino acids.” While all animal proteins contain these nine essential aminos, most plant proteins only contain a few.
That said, there are a few plant foods that do, in fact, contain all nine essential amino acids—quinoa, soy (think tofu, edamame, and tempeh), and buckwheat. Of course, you can also opt to incorporate a plant-based protein powder; many are formulated to pack in those important amino acids.
3 plant-based recipes that pack As Much protein As Chicken
Don’t want to think too hard about your plant-based meal-prep? Look no further than these three certified sports nutritionist-backed recipes, each of which delivers at least as much protein as a four-ounce chicken breast (that’s 31 grams of protein!).
When you’re on-the-go: Peanut butter chocolate banana protein shake
Using a plant-based protein powder to help maximize your intake isn’t cheating, it’s just smart. This peanut butter chocolate banana shake is packed with protein (and flavor). It takes just a few minutes to make and is easily transportable, making it perfect for a quick breakfast or post-workout meal.
Protein content: 40 to 50 grams, depending on the type of protein powder you use (most vegan options have 20 to 30 grams per scoop).
- 2 Tbsp peanut butter
- 1 banana, frozen and sliced
- 1 cup milk of your choice
- ⅓ cup quick oats
- 1 scoop chocolate plant-based protein powder
- 1 Tbsp honey, if desired
Place all the ingredients in your blender and blend until smooth. Add ice if you want a colder shake.
When you want a hearty dinner: Cheesy three-bean chili
Want to cut down on the meat but can’t quite part with dairy? Consider this meal a go-to. The beans, two types of cheese, and a dollop of plain Greek yogurt offer a hefty dose of protein. This recipe makes four generous servings you’ll want to savor every spoonful of.
Protein content: 39 grams per serving
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 3 Tbsp chili seasoning
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup salsa (use your favorite — pick the heat level wisely)
- 1 28-ounce can tomato sauce
- 1 15-ounce can kidney beans, drained
- 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained
- 1 15-ounce can pinto beans (or ranch-style beans), drained
- 4 oz cheddar cheese, shredded
- 4 oz mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 4 oz plain Greek yogurt
Add olive oil to a large pot and heat over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic and saute for about five minutes, until the onion is soft. Then, add the salsa, tomato sauce, chili seasoning, and all three cans of beans. Heat to boiling, then reduce the heat and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add half the Greek yogurt and stir it in. When ready to eat, top chili with an ounce of each cheese (cheddar and mozzarella) and a dollop of Greek yogurt.
When you’re feeling A salad: Mexican quinoa salad
This salad starts with the complete protein quinoa and gets an additional protein punch from black beans. It’s intended to be eaten as a main course, so don’t be shy about filling your plate. The recipe makes two full-sized servings.
Protein content: 32 grams per serving
- 1 cup cilantro, divided
- 1 lime, juice and zest
- 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp cumin
- 3 cups cooked quinoa
- 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 cup corn (from a can is easiest)
- 1 large avocado or 2 small avocados, chopped
- 2 cups grape tomatoes, halved
- ¼ red onion, chopped
Pre-cook your quinoa according to the instructions on the package. Blend the cilantro, lime juice and zest, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt, and cumin in a food processor. Once smooth, set the mixture aside. Then, combine the cooked quinoa, black beans, corn, avocado, tomatoes, and chopped onion into a bowl. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well. If desired, top with more avocado, cilantro, and lime.