10 Meat Alternatives Nutritionists Swear By
Hack your way to hearty, meat-free meals.
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Whether you’re trying to go vegetarian or just looking to incorporate more plant-based foods into your omnivorous diet, finding "meaty" alternatives may require a little thinking outside the box. We asked 10 registered dietitians what they use to substitute for part (or all) of the meat in their meals and here's what they said.
"I adore eggplant for its versatility and heartiness that satisfies when taking a pass on meat," says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. "One of its standout nutrients is nasunin, a health-promoting anthocyanin. Eating the peel is key!" One of Newgent’s favorite ways to use the veggie is in vegan eggplant 'bacon' BLT sliders. To make the 'bacon' she thinly slices eggplant into rounds, brushes them with extra-virgin olive oil, seasons with coconut sugar, sea salt, smoked paprika, and chili and garlic powders, then bakes 'low and slow' until crisp.
As eggplant isn’t a complete protein, Newgent provides one caveat, "just make sure you’re getting protein elsewhere in the meal, like a hummus appetizer or a bean salad."
"Half a cup of extra-firm tofu provides 22 grams of protein, making it an excellent source of filling protein!" says Amy Gorin MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition. Her favorite ways to prepare tofu are grilled, in stir-fries and tossed into a homemade vegetable soup. "I find that extra-firm tofu performs the best for these types of preparations, but if you want to blend tofu into a smoothie, use the soft variety."
"As a vegetarian, I like to recreate meat-centric dishes, like meatballs or tacos, in a meatless way," says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, author of The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner. "Green lentils are my go-to meatless alternative because they have a nice bite and serve up a ton of protein — a 1/4 cup dry (about 1/2 cup cooked) has 13 grams of protein." One of Rizzo's favorite lentil recipes is her Lentil "Meatballs." She mixes cooked green lentils with breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, spices and an egg before baking them in the oven.
Jackfruit is a great plant-based alternative which provides 6 grams of fiber and almost 6 grams of protein per serving. Plus, it's loaded with vitamins A and C, potassium, and magnesium. That's just part of why it's a favorite of Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT, creator of the couples nutrition blog and podcast Nutrition Nuptials. "The texture of jackfruit is very similar to that of stewed meat, and will take on the flavor of whatever you cook it in," explains Enright. Some ways she likes to use jackfruit include BBQ "pulled pork" sandwiches, tacos, chilis, stews and Asian-inspired dishes like curries and teriyaki rice bowls.
Button or Cremini Mushrooms
Mushrooms are a favorite meat alternative for many nutritionists, but button and cremini are a specific favorite of Sarah Pflugradt, MS, RD of Salubrious RD — especially as a substitute for ground beef in tacos. "I use the same seasonings, such as chili powder, cumin, garlic powder and paprika with chopped and sautéed mushrooms," says Pflugradt. "They have the same meatiness as beef and it's the seasoning that makes it delicious." Mushroom tacos have become a family favorite in Pflugradt's house. "My kids love mushrooms and pile the veggies on their tacos, so tacos become a super healthy, veggie-filled dish in our house. Plus, mushrooms are often half the price of ground sirloin, so it's also a great way to stretch the dollar."
"Tempeh is a great, nutrient-dense alternative to tofu if texture is an issue for you," says Ginger Hultin, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, owner of ChampagneNutrition. Tempeh is a soy-based food which is fermented, and it provides gut-health benefits. "Because of the way tempeh is made through soaking then cooking, fermenting and forming soy beans into a block, it's almost 'meaty' in texture and can be sliced up to cook in a variety of ways," explains Hultin who enjoys tempeh crumbled into a hash, as taco "meat" or sliced up and marinated for a sandwich or wrap filling. Tempeh contains no saturated fat or cholesterol, but is rich in protein and nutrients like iron, calcium and B-vitamins.
"It's a complete protein!" exclaims Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD author and spokesperson. "One thing that can be a huge obstacle for herbivores is finding a plant source with all of the essential amino acids that is not a bean and quinoa is the only seed that meets this criteria." Just one cup contains 8 grams of protein and is a whole grain. It's also gluten-free. It's a blank culinary canvas in many dishes, making it easier for vegetarians to get in a nutritious source of protein in a variety of ways. Villacorta likes to toss quinoa in with salads, mix it with roasted vegetables, make it into a porridge or even making pizza crusts.
These mushrooms are a favorite of Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD of Street Smart Nutrition for dishes like burgers and fajitas. "They have a sturdy, hearty texture that can absorb the flavors from the grill, much like a juicy burger would. And unlike burger patties, there is no assembly required, which speeds up the cooking process." If you're not interested in a 100% vegetarian option, Harbstreet says to you can the "blend" mushrooms into burger or other recipes. "Try mixing 50% chopped or minced mushrooms along with 50% ground beef or turkey the next time you make homemade burger patties."
Kristen Smith, MS, RDN, creator of 360 Family Nutrition and spokesperson for Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends walnuts that are soaked and then ground. "When you soak walnuts for an hour in water and then grind them, the outcome is a texture similar to cooked ground meat," explains Smith. "Flavor the ground walnuts with taco seasoning and olive oil to include as a taco filling. To complete the meal top with an avocado cilantro cream sauce."
Texturized Vegetable Protein (TVP)
"This textured soy protein has a texture and look similar to ground meat so it doesn't drastically alter dishes that traditionally use ground meat, says Samantha Harmon, MS, RDN, LDN of Nutritioning Life. Harmon uses TVP in meat sauce, lasagna, sloppy Joe's and chili.