How to Make Plant-Based Protein the Center of Your Plate
Used to Add Media planning your dinner around red meat, chicken, fish, or other animal sources? If when a family member asks "What's for dinner?" you routinely answer one of those, then it may be time to rethink your plate. A protein-packed meal does not have to include animal products. In fact, to recalibrate your meals — whether it's how you think about breakfast, lunch, or dinner — to be centered around plant-based protein sources, all it takes is a little advanced planning. Soon plant-based eating, which is better for your health and the environment, will become second nature.
“Rather than thinking first about what animal protein will be the focus of your meal, decide what whole grain or legume will be the center of your plate,” says Sarah G. Corwin, Ph.D., a senior principal food scientist for plant-based items, adding that plant-based eating can be convenient, and less expensive than other dietary patterns.
“It’s much easier to meet your recommended protein intake with plant-based protein than people realize,” says Stephanie Coburn, Ph.D., RD. “Many of my clients have this idea, usually from people who are not nutrition professionals, that they need upwards of 50 to 100 percent more protein than they actually do. With some simple swaps of animal-based protein for foods like beans, grains, nuts, and seeds you can easily meet your daily protein needs.”
How to Incorporate Plant-Based Protein into Every Meal
Instead of steak and eggs, yogurt, or cream cheese or a bagel with cream cheese or toast with butter, consider these tips from Coburn. “If you have more time in the morning or simply enjoy making your meals from scratch, then I recommend making a tofu scramble, which can include onion, bell peppers, and spices. Have that on toast or make a breakfast burrito with dairy-free cheese and salsa,” she says, adding if you enjoy eggs you may enjoy JUST Egg.
Another great vegan breakfast choice is oatmeal or steel-cut oats, suggests Coburn. “Include your favorite plant-based milk. Soy milk or flax protein will offer higher protein content,” she says. “You can add walnuts, nut butter, or ground flax for healthy fat sources, which help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins.” Coburn likes to add a piece of fruit such as a banana, or blueberries. Instead of sugar add raisins for natural sweetness and cinnamon for flavor. “Plant-based protein powders mix well into oatmeal, cream of wheat, and oat bran,” adds Corwin.
Just because you’re saying goodbye to turkey sandwiches, doesn’t mean you have to give up on the deli meat-like experience when you decide to shift to plant-based eating.
If you usually have a sandwich for lunch, Tofurky makes great deli slices. On your preferred bread, include a serving of the deli slices, dairy-free cheese, lettuce, tomato, lettuce, and condiments of choice,” says Coburn. Pair that with a” glass of plant-based milk or yogurt (again, soy will be higher in protein) or a small protein shake.
Check out The Beet's guide to selecting the best vegan protein powder here. Coburn also says to include a serving of greens (kale or spinach) with one-to-two servings of fruit like a banana or berries to round out your meal.
To get ample plant-based protein at lunch, Corwin advises that you aim to combine two of the three following groups together:
- Whole grains such as quinoa
- Legumes including beans, soy, peanuts, lentils, or peas
- Seeds and nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, chia, or pumpkin seeds
“I like to combine chopped vegetables, salad greens, a handful of beans, cooked grains like wheat berries, and toasted pecans or sunflower seeds,” she says. “Soups and stews are also great lunch options, especially for those that like to meal-prep.”
Excellent building blocks for dinner, says Corwin are plant-based proteins such as:
- Whole grains
- Soy or Edamame
- Plant-based meats
- Jack Fruit
“Planning a meal by thinking first about the plant-based protein is a great way to ensure you achieve the desired amount of protein,” she adds, noting that non-starchy and dark, leafy vegetables are also great to include in dinner if you struggle to eat them throughout the rest of the day.
To boost the flavor of your whole grains and beans, Corwin suggests cooking them in broth or with spices and herbs to infuse extra flavor into them. Bonus: “Cooked rice and other whole grains, and even beans and lentils hold up well when frozen after cooking.”
For plant-based eaters looking to get enough protein at supper, Coburn is also a big fan of stir-fry. “Sauté some tofu with bell pepper, snap peas, carrots, mushrooms, broccoli, and baby corn,” and serve over rice, she says.
4 Tips to Plan Your Meals Around Plant-Based Proteins
1. Branch out into new plant-based protein sources
“Try new types of beans and whole grains, like kasha, farro, freekeh, Kamut, or crunchy lupini beans, colorful cranberry beans, or creamy Gigantes,” offers Corwin. “Teff and amaranth are very small grain-like seeds high in protein, that cook up similarly to quinoa, and can provide visual interest to a pilaf, or plate when cooked alone.”
2. Seek out whole food protein sources as much as possible
“There are more and more plant-based alternatives available today than there were 10 and 20 years ago. Ultimately, it is ideal to choose whole foods (ex, beans, rice, nuts, and seeds),” says Coburn. In general, a homemade chili made with beans and veggies and tempeh is going to be healthier than a frozen food version of that you buy at the supermarket that may have lots of additives and protein isolates on the ingredient list.
3. Mimicking old favorites with plant-based swaps is okay occasionally
These processed plant-based products can be game-changers when you’re new to plant-based eating, “Something that can be helpful with swapping your favorite protein sources is to try to mimic them as much as possible to make the transition more appealing,” says Coburn. “This could mean opting for some processed plant-based proteins to start, for example, like many of the soy, tempeh, pea-protein, and seitan products available at your grocery store.”
4. Scan labels for sodium and fat
Yes, the advice above can be helpful when you’re making the shift to plant-based eating but bear in mind that not all plant-based swaps are created equal on the nutrition front. “Just like most processed foods, processed plant-based options can be high in sodium. It’s a good practice to monitor sodium intake regardless of whether you have high blood pressure or not or whether it’s been recommended by your doctor,” says Coburn.
Most people need between 50 and 75 grams of protein a day, depending on their size, activity level, gender, and age (since doctors recommend you get more as you age, to prevent muscle loss). An adult who is not extremely active should consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. That means that the average sedentary man should eat about 56 grams of protein, and women should eat about 46 grams, according to the Dietary Reference Intake report for macronutrients. But if you're active or over 50 you probably need more.
Your daily protein needs are individual and working with a nutrition professional like a registered dietitian can help you determine your protein needs based on your gender, age, and physical activity level. “When seeking out more processed options, keep an eye out for sodium and fat content and consider how these foods fit into a balanced diet,” echoes Corwin.
Bottom Line: Instead of planning meals around animal protein, try plant protein
Plan your dinner around plant-based protein like stir-fries or grain bowls, or other dishes full of tofu, quinoa, and beans, to get all the protein you need on a plant-based diet.
For more great expert advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles.