Going Plant-Based? These Meat Substitutes Are the Next Best Thing

Whether you’re cutting back on meat or looking for ways to include more veggies in your meals, these delicious meat alternatives offer plenty of protein.

Oftentimes vegetables tend to assume the role of a side dish rather than the main course. But as of last year, nearly one in four Americans is decreasing their meat consumption. Some of this was due to the coronavirus pandemic when companies had to halt or slow production for safety concerns. But as we all stayed home and cooked more of our own meals from scratch, plant-based meat substitute sales skyrocketed. For whatever reason you decided to cut back on meat (i.e. budget, health concerns, lack of options at the store), you probably want to know if you'll get enough protein from eating plants alone. Luckily a lot of these meat substitutes have a great amount of plant-based protein. Here are some of the best veggie meat alternatives to start adding to your weekly meal plan.

Lentil & Black Bean Tacos
Jacob Fox

Beans and Legumes

Plant-based burgers (think Beyond Meat and Impossible) are trendy, but you don't have to go that route to get the same amount of protein in your next meatless meal. Cooked legumes such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils can be swapped for a lot of ground beef recipes. Buying canned or dried beans instead of meat can also save you money. In addition to protein, beans and legumes are packed with health beneficial fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Skip the beef and put a black bean burger on your bun. Or enjoy beef-free vegetarian chili or lentil-stuffed peppers for dinner.

Buffalo Cauliflower Salad
Blaine Moats

Cauliflower

With its naturally-high vitamin, mineral, and fiber count, cauliflower is on the healthy menu for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. The versatile cruciferous veggie can turn into a meat substitute for a main dish such as steak or game day favorites like buffalo wings. It's also the perfect low-carb rice swap and healthier base for pizza crust. Bonus: cauliflower even makes the list of top anti-inflammatory foods.

Penne with Tomato-Eggplant Sauce
Blaine Moats

Eggplant

This purple-hued vegetable is a low-carb, low-calorie meat substitute that packs in some serious health benefits. The pigments (anthocyanins) that give eggplants their purple tint are known to have antioxidant properties. Eggplant Parmesan is a cozy meat-free dish, but you can also grill eggplant, top your homemade pizza with it, or toss it in a salad.

Jackfruit Sliders with slaw
Blaine Moats

Jackfruit

While jackfruit is still young (and not yet sweet), the meaty flesh of the fruit native to Southeast Asian countries can be shredded and cooked just like pulled pork. It also contains a healthy amount of vitamins A, C, and a few B vitamins. Don't worry, you don't have to learn how to cut the gigantic fruit for your barbecue sandwiches. Due to its rise in popularity, you'll likely be able to find canned jackfruit (in water or brine) in the Asian section of your supermarket or specialty grocers. The produce sections of many grocery stores also offer ready-to-cook packages of jackfruit that are already marinated.

Mushroom-Kidney Bean Burgers
Aubrie Pick

Mushrooms

Mushrooms are one of the most popular vegetables to replace meat due to their savory umami flavor and meaty texture. Portobello mushrooms are large enough to eat just like a burger and sturdy enough to be able to throw on the grill without falling apart. They also make a great beef-like substitute in pasta like the goulash pictured above.

Walnut-Stuffed Zucchini Boats
Adam Albright

Nuts

They might be the base of the nondairy milk movement, but nutrient- and protein-rich nuts such as walnuts and pecans can turn into a delicious meat substitute. Tabitha Brown uses ground pecans as the plant-based meat substitute for her vegan chili eaten on a carrot like a hot dog. Our Test Kitchen dreamed up delicious dishes using nuts as a meat alternative in tacos and zucchini boats (pictured above).

dutch oven with Veggie Chili Verde with Seitan Crumbles and Lager and toppings on side
Blaine Moats

Seitan

One of the lesser-known plant-based meat alternatives to non-vegetarians is seitan (pronounced like say-tahn). Derived from the protein portion of wheat, seitan is also known as wheat gluten. The hydrated wheat takes on a strikingly similar texture to real meat and can take on the flavor of whatever sauce or seasonings you want.

bowl of Spicy Tempeh Bulgogi with side of kimchi and green onions on cutting board
Adam Albright

Tempeh

Unlike tofu (more on that next), tempeh is a soy-based meat substitute made from soybeans that are cooked, fermented, and molded into a block. Not only does it take on a beef-like texture, but it also boasts a similarly impressive protein count (about 18 grams per serving vs. 21 grams). When you buy tempeh ($4, Target) the mixture is also usually mixed with beans or a whole grain such as brown rice which will also boost your fiber intake.

Grilled Tofu Teriyaki with Spicy Spinach Udon
Blaine Moats

Tofu

When you think of tofu, you might be thinking of flavorless white soy sponges, but if you cook it right, that's not the case. Tofu tastes great when given the right seasonings. Just like chicken, tofu is surprisingly versatile and will absorb pretty much any flavor or marinade you add to it. Made from soy, this meat substitute comes in different textures, so you can grill with teriyaki flavors, eat in a sandwich, or give it a crunchy coating as you would chicken.

For the regular meat-eating family, these plant-based meat substitutes may not seem like they'll compare to your favorite burger. But you might just surprise yourself with how delicious (and filling) a burger made from lentils can be. Try adding a new vegetarian recipe to your meal plan and grab the ingredients the next time you have to make a trip to the store for a high-protein meal without meat.

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