Replacing meat with plant-based protein as a star of weeknight dinners and make-ahead lunches is a healthy and delicious way to try your hand at a new diet. The healthiest meat alternatives can be hearty vegetables or legumes themselves, but they can be soy products, wheat gluten, nuts, vegetables, legumes, or a combination. of all.
If you’re new to trying fake meats or packaged meat alternatives, you’ll need to keep in mind that everything varies in how closely they resemble meat in flavors, textures and certainly in appearance. Just because a meat substitute can be shaped into burgers, nuggets, or sausages to mimic the meat products we know and love, doesn’t mean their flavor profile will stand up to their meat counterparts. Also, not all meat substitutes are automatically vegan. some will have traces of eggs or other dairy products, so be sure to always check the nutrition labels before you start cooking.
And of course, you have to remember that just because something is meatless doesn’t automatically mean it’s good for you. “I’m definitely a fan of plant-based options, and it’s fine to reduce your intake of red meat, but watch what you replace it with. Some of these meat alternatives are over-processed, loaded with saturated fat. and contain excessive amounts of sodium,” says Stefani Sassos, Registered Dietitian with the Good Housekeeping Institute, MS, RDN.
With that in mind, get out of your comfort zone and try adding one of these best meat substitutes to your rotation.
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As the name suggests, this fruit is a close relative of figs, but has a consistency very similar to shredded meat. While you can buy the whole fruit, it’s much easier to buy it canned or in a refrigerated bag. Because its flavor is quite subtle, it goes well with whatever ingredients or sauces you cook it with. From chili-chili pulled pork sandwiches to a hearty platter of nachos, there are plenty of creative ways to jazz up the jackfruit.
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Perhaps one of the most common meat substitutes, tofu is a soy curd product and it comes in extra firm, firm, and soft. It has a neutral flavor, so it can be paired with endless sauces, grains and vegetables, and it can be baked, grilled or fried. Whether you’re craving pad Thai or tacos, it’s easy to make tofu the star of your dish. Due to its high water content, it is common to “press” tofu before cooking. This removes a lot of moisture and makes the tofu extra crispy.
RELATED: 38 Easy Tofu Recipes Meat Lovers Can Follow
Like tofu, tempeh is a soy product; however, the soybeans in tempeh are fermented and various grains and beans are also incorporated for a heartier texture and flavor. You can prepare it in multiple ways, including grilling it the same way as meat, frying it, baking it, or sautéing it.
The flavor is much more divisive than that of tofu – it has a subtle spiciness (from fermentation), a harder texture, and a nutty aftertaste. It’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you, try it in lettuce wraps or cereal bowls.
Lentils are a staple of vegetarian diets due to their versatility. they come in many different colors, including green, black, red, yellow, and brown. You can usually find them in the dry goods section, but if your grocery store has a bulk aisle, they might be there as well. For Sassos, lentils are a weekly staple: “We love making a meatless Bolognese with diced lentils and sautéed mushrooms – they lend a similar meaty consistency and a nice deep flavor to the dish.” Lentils should be rinsed and simmered until soft but not tender. From there, you can toss them into curries, stews, stir-fries, salads, and meatless patties.
RELATED: 25 Tasty Lentil Recipes for Healthy and Easy Weeknight Meals
Commonly known as “wheat meat,” seitan is a wheat gluten product that closely mimics the texture of meat protein. You can buy it in strips or in ground form, and it’s best made in stir-fries, salads, and curries. It also works great on the grill – throw it on a kebab skewer and dinner is on the table in no time. Its earthy flavor is very similar to that of mushrooms, but when properly seasoned it can work as a perfect 1:1 chicken swap. Keep in mind that it’s not a great meat substitute if you have a gluten sensitivity or allergy.
Whether you make them from scratch or buy them pre-prepared, veggie burgers are a great meatless option for a simple dinner. A quick formula for homemade burgers: mix your favorite vegetables, beans and grains with an egg (or egg substitute for vegan varieties) and flour or breadcrumbs for patties you can grill or sear pan. Add smoked paprika or liquid smoke to mimic the flavor of meat.
Sassos regularly picks up Hilary’s veggie burgers in the frozen aisle, which are free of gluten, soy and nuts. If you’re considering a new type of veggie burger, “Try looking for whole foods on the ingredient list and make sure the first ingredient is some type of vegetable, bean, or whole grain. Try to avoid substitutes for meat with ‘soy protein concentrate’ or ‘soy protein isolate’ on the ingredient list,” she advises.
Chickpeas or garbanzo beans
What can’t a chickpea do? Also known as chickpeas, chickpeas can be purchased dried or canned – both are great, but the canned option will definitely save you cooking time. From falafel and hummus to creamy soups and crispy snacks, this humble bean is a great meatless option that will add a kick of flavor and protein to any dish.
This store-bought product is usually made with a combination of beans, grains, vegetables, and spices, making it a great dinner option when you’re pressed for time. Serve them on a bed of your favorite grain, in soups, or wrapped in a bun and topped with sauerkraut. Beyond Sausage will have you wondering why you ever needed to eat real sausage in the first place; it’s made with pea protein and has less sodium per serving than other leading brands. Be sure to scan the labels of pre-made products like sausages for hidden nutritional bombs, like saturated fat counts and added sodium.
Who doesn’t love a good nugget once in a while? Vegan and vegetarian Chik’n has proliferated in supermarket frozen food aisles (and has even launched online!), but we’re lenient with The Alpha Nugget for its reduced fat and sodium content. Look for chicken substitutes with healthy ingredients like wheat protein, corn flour, soybean oil, and all kinds of spices. You can use this faux chicken in things like salads, wraps, or even whole patties in sandwiches throughout the workweek.
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