If you’re like most of us, when you think of protein sources, your mind turns to meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Those are all good choices, but let’s shake it up! Now that summer is here, why not add more plant-based protein to your salads and meals for a welcome change? While tofu is a common option, it certainly isn’t the only one.
Plant-based proteins are often lighter in taste, calories, and price than animal sources—and they take a smaller toll on the environment, too. Best of all, some plant proteins pack a real punch in terms of nutrition, flavor, and variety.
But why all the focus on protein, anyway? Proteins are made of amino acids, which are essential for life. It’s vitally important that we give every cell in our bodies the protein needed for everyday function as well as the building and repairing of body tissue. What’s more, including protein in your meals will better satisfy your hunger and help to balance blood sugar. Hormones, energy production, the immune system, and enzymes all require sufficient protein intake. Along with fats and carbohydrates, protein is unquestionably one of the “big three” components of a good diet.
Experts advise a daily intake of 46 grams of protein for women and 52 grams for men. That may sound like a lot, but if you know where to look, reaching that goal isn’t hard—no protein powders or hot ovens required! Readily available, these delicious ingredients can be used in addition to your regular meals or as substitutions in salads and side dishes.
- Chia Seeds
These seeds pack a ton of protein with ALA, a type of plant-based omega-3 fatty acid. Sprinkle chia seeds on your meals or snacks, or add liquid and let them sit to form a delicious pudding. Yum!
- Green Peas
Who knew? Well, after all, they are a big ingredient in those nutritious protein powders! Ordinary frozen, fresh, or canned green peas (not snow peas or snap peas) are a great source of protein. I’m seeing a lot of pea dips and spreads lately, are you?
Quinoa’s a seed, not a grain—so no gluten worries here! And quinoa stands out as a complete protein, meaning it provides all 9 essential amino acids, with 8 grams of protein per cup. It cooks in under 15 minutes and looks a lot like couscous, but it’s way more nutritious. Full of fiber, iron, magnesium, and manganese, quinoa is a terrific substitute for rice and it’s versatile enough to use in making muffins, fritters, cookies, and breakfast casseroles. Easy tip: Cook in vegetable broth rather than water for more flavor.
- Pumpkin Seeds
You might also see these labeled as “pepitas”—but it’s the same nutritious, delicious food! Pepitas offer 7 grams of protein per serving and heart-healthy fats. Add to salads, oatmeal, or most any other food for crunch, or toast in the oven for a healthful snack.
- Hemp Seeds
Want to add creaminess to your pesto, oatmeal, and smoothies? Just add 3 tablespoons of hemp seeds to get that lovely texture as well as 10 grams of plant protein. Who knew?
- Leafy Greens
For protein? For sure! When cooked, such greens as spinach and collards offer 5 surprising grams of protein in addition to vitamins and minerals in every serving. Add to smoothies, omelets, and soup for a boost of—everything!
- Wild Rice
If you guessed that this food is really a seed, not a true grain rice, you are correct! Cook like pasta until tender and then eat as a side dish. Or, for a new twist on breakfast, substitute wild rice for oatmeal and add nuts, etc. You’ll enjoy 6 grams of protein along with a nutty flavor and chewy texture.
- Oat Bran
To boost both fiber and protein (6 grams!) in baked goods like muffins, just substitute oat bran for a quarter of the flour. Or, stir into yogurt, stews, pasta dishes, or casseroles for extra texture and flavor. I’m headed off to buy some right now!
Don’t let the name fool you. Buckwheat is not wheat at all, but a relative of rhubarb. Go figure! Ever had Japanese soba noodles? Buckwheat’s the main ingredient. In other cooking, use it in place of flour (gluten-free pancakes!) or oatmeal. Buckwheat is crazy healthy. It packs lots of protein—and some studies have shown that it may improve circulation, lower blood cholesterol, and control blood glucose levels.
- Beans and Nuts
You already know that they’re rich in fiber, but nuts and legumes are protein and mineral powerhouses, too. Get creative to eat more of them: Lentils can be used to make burgers and dips. Blend chickpeas into hummus, then spread that on instead of mayo. Chopped nuts make a topping with CRUNCH that offers magnesium and omegas, too.
Recipes using plant-sourced proteins abound. Think “out of the box,” and the possibilities are endless! I hope these ideas help spark your menus and taste buds. You can get those must-have proteins and valuable nutrients without sacrificing pleasing textures and flavors. Here’s to staying cool this summer easily and healthfully—dig in!