Among the barriers often cited to eating more vegetarian meals is lack of knowledge about which plant-based proteins to choose and how to prepare them. For a newbie to the vegetarian meal planning scene, it can be hard to know where to start. There is a misconception that preparing vegetarian meals means more effort in the kitchen. The truth is that vegetarian meals can range for being complicated and time consuming to super fast and eating. Personally, I like those that are on the fast and easy side. I ain’t got no time for complicated, do you?
Below is a list of my top 5 plant-based proteins that are perfect for the "entry-level" vegetarian, or for those simply wanting to start having more veggie-based meals.
I love lentils. Not only do they provide a savoury flavour (and dare I say meat-like texture) but they are extremely easy to cook. Unlike other dried beans, lentils do not need to be soaked beforehand. This means that if you are trying to plan a last minute vegetarian meal, lentils are a good choice. And, yes, canned lentils are always available but from a dried bean perspective, lentils are the quickest option.
For those a little hesitant to hop aboard the vegetarian train, try mixing lentils ½ and ½ with ground beef in dishes like Shepherd's Pie or spaghetti sauce. It’s a great way to get started on making lentils a regular part of your diet.
For each ¾ cup serving of lentils, you get 13 grams, or just shy of 2 oz, of protein. Each serving of lentils is also a great source of fiber, potassium and folate. Other nutrients available in smaller quantities include calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin K and B vitamins. As you can see, lentils may be small but are little powerhouses of nutrition.
When cooking dried lentils, use a 3 cups of liquid (e.g. water, stock) for every one cup of lentils. In a saucepan, bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium-low to maintain a simmer until lentils are tender. This should take about 20-30 minutes.
I know, I know...tofu doesn’t seem that exciting. It’s often the punchline of jokes about bad tasting or bland vegetarian foods. To be completely honest, tofu is not that exciting on its own. However, with the right seasoning, tofu could become your new favourite meat alternative. One thing I like about tofu is that it's basically cooked and ready to go - it only needs a few minutes in a hot pan or oven to be done.
Tofu, like other soy products, is a great source of protein. One ¾ cup serving has 12 grams of protein. The best part is that unlike other plant-based proteins, soy proteins contain all the essential amino acids that our body needs (for more info on this check out Plant-Based Proteins: Just the Basics). Other than its stellar protein content, tofu is also a great source of calcium (as it is made with calcium sulfate), selenium and potassium.
When working with firm or extra firm tofu, you’ll want to dry off any excess moisture it has absorbed sitting in its packaging. By blotting off the excess moisture, this will help the tofu absorb as much of whatever marinate or flavour it is paired with. If you want a crispy texture to the tofu, dredge it in a bit of cornstarch or flour before frying or baking.
Soft tofu can be used similarly to firm tofu but it can also be used in dishes where you want less structured such as in certain soups, stews or even in tofu scrambles.
Silken tofu, which is even less structured than the soft version, is excellent in smoothies and in creamy desserts.
What I like about kidney beans for the newbie vegetarian (or for those new to vegetarian meals) is that they are a good entry level plant protein. Most people have been exposed to them already, in some form or another. Kidney beans are a mainstay in chili and soups, so it’s not such a big transition to making a dish with kidney beans being the dominant protein source.
One ¾ cup serving of kidney beans has 11.4 grams of protein. The same serving size also contains 8 grams of fiber. That’s 30% and 21% of the daily fiber recommendations for women and men, respectively. Kidney beans are also a great source of potassium and folate, as well as a source of iron and B vitamins.
No really. Don’t.
While many times I do like to cook my legumes from their dried state, kidney beans are ones that I always use the canned versions. Raw, or undercooked, kidney beans contain a substance which our digestive tracts don’t particularly like and which will result in you taking up residence in your bathroom for a bit of time. The solution? Just buy the canned ones. While it is possible to cook them thoroughly, for the purpose of this article, I say just buy the canned ones (and look for the low sodium versions!).
Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans as they are also known, are a great plant-based protein for those just starting out incorporating beans and legumes into their diet. Their pleasant texture and mild flavour make them a versatile ingredient to work with.
Each ¾ cup serving of chickpeas contains almost 11 grams of protein and 5.5 grams of fiber. They are also a great source of folate, potassium, and contain smaller amounts of iron, calcium, zinc and B-vitamins.
Canned: Open can, drain and rinse. Then use as desired. This is the easiest way.
From dried: Soak chickpeas overnight or in hot (i.e. boiled) water for 1 hour. Then cook in pot with water (use at least 2-3 cups of water for every 1 cup of dried chickpeas). Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer until chickpeas are soft. This may take about 45 minutes.
Edamame are young, immature soybeans and are another great ‘entry-level’ plant-protein. These tender, green soy beans are very easy (and quick) to prepare. My preference is to buy edamame in their shelled and frozen state for speedy meal prep.
Every ½ cup serving of edamame beans has almost 12 grams of protein. Like tofu, the protein quality of edamame is very good, rivaling that of animal proteins. Edamame are also a source of potassium, iron and B-vitamins.
Cooking frozen edamame is pretty quick and easy. Simply steam the frozen beans until tender and add to desired dish.