If you’re wondering how to start a plant-based diet, you’re probably not alone. According to a 2020 Gallup Poll, 25% of people have cut back on eating meat. One thing to note is that plant-based eating is its own approach, separate from being vegan or vegetarian. Plant-based eaters still include animal foods to varying degrees. So if you’re a plant-based diet beginner, or if you’re just looking to add some variety to your eating routine, here are some of my favorite high-protein plant-based meals.
Types of plant-based proteins
There are numerous plant-based proteins to try. Whole food forms of plant-based proteins include
Beans (about 15 grams per cup)
Peas (8 grams per cup)
Tofu (9 grams per 3 ounces)
Edamame (19 g per cup)
Seeds (about 6 to 9 grams per 3-tablespoon serving)
Nuts (about 6 grams per ounce)
Quinoa (about 8 grams per cup)
Other plant foods, and particularly other whole grains besides quinoa, also supply some protein, but usually to a lesser extent than those listed above. And of course, there are also faux meat products, like crumbles and veggie burgers, and plant-based protein powders. (Here’s my guide to choosing the best protein powder.)
Don't worry about combining plant-based proteins, like beans and rice, as you may have heard to do. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says it’s more important to get various plant-based protein sources throughout the day. That's because your body is capable of storing some of the essential amino acids for later use. (Here are other nutrition myths to stop believing.)
Can you get enough protein from a plant-based diet?
Absolutely! You may need to be more diligent with meal planning to ensure that you’re meeting optimal protein needs, but it’s very doable! Even athletes with very high protein needs can make it work!
Generally speaking, I think most adults should get about 20 grams of protein at each of their three meals. This is, of course, general and not intended as medical advice! Some people are okay with less, and some people need more. However, if you’re getting started on a plant-based diet, it’s something to think about and a good rule of thumb. All of my the high-protein plant-based meals listed below have at least 15 grams of protein. As you can see, combining various sources of plant-based proteins, say, by adding some nuts or seeds, or a serving of whole grains, can boost the overall plant-based protein count. (Here’s where you can learn about plant-based protein and weight loss.)
When you swap some of your animal protein for plant-based ones, it may result in a more nutritious diet, with higher levels of fiber and healthier fat content, according to a 2020 study published in the journal, Nutrients. These types of dietary changes are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
High Protein Oatmeal
Oatmeal has five grams of protein per half-cup serving of oats, and since we're looking for a high-protein, plant-based meal, I like to add a couple of tablespoons of Barney Butter Powdered Almond Butter, which adds an extra six grams of protein per serving. It’s tasteless and is a great way to pump up the protein in oats, smoothies, and baked goods. To take the protein up even further, add seeds and nuts. A half-cup of old-fashioned oats mixed with two tablespoons of the powdered almond butter, a teaspoon of chia seeds, and a tablespoon of sunflower seeds has 18 grams of protein. (Here are more high protein breakfast foods.)
If you’re just starting a plant-based diet, an easy swap is to trade chickpeas for chicken, egg, or tuna in a traditional salad recipe. Once you drain and rinse chickpeas, just add your classic salad seasonings. Then, use the mixture as you would normally eat it. I scoop mine over salad greens and serve it with whole grain crackers, but if you prefer, have it as a sandwich served in your favorite whole grain bread. A cup of chickpeas has 15 grams of protein, and serving the chickpea salad with veggies and whole grains will take the protein levels up a notch.
Red lentil pasta
One of the downsides of traditional pasta is that it’s low in protein, so to balance it out, you need to serve it alongside protein and veggies. Tolerant Red Lentil Pasta has 21 grams of protein per three-ounce serving, so you get to cook one less thing! Barilla also makes a great version. Serve it any way you like your pasta, and of course, eat some veggies with it!
Veggie burger with all the fixings
Veggie burgers are an easy way to test drive the plant-based eating trend. But some store-bought varieties are made of mostly grains, so you won't get much protein from them. That's why I like Dr. Praeger’s All American Veggie Burger, which has 22 grams of protein from a pea-based protein source. The ingredient list is very simple and includes nutritious foods, like butternut squash and carrot puree. I tend to eat mine with mustard and Sir Kensington Classic Ketchup (which is a little lower in added sugars than ordinary ketchup) over a big salad. If you want to serve yours in a bun, don’t forget the veggies on the side! (A plant-based diet for beginners and long-timers includes lots of veggies!)
If you’re skeptical of tofu, trust me on this! Tofu soaks up the seasonings of foods you cook it in, so it’s important to season it well. Another secret to making great tofu is pressing it before you cook it, which removes any excess liquids. To do this, start with extra firm tofu and drain any liquids it’s packaged in. Then, slice the block in half lengthwise and stack each piece on top of paper towels. Top with more paper towels and place a heavy skillet on top. You need to let it sit for at least 15 minutes, but you can do other things while it’s pressing. Also, I recommend changing the paper towels once mid-way through. You'll be surprised by how soaked they are!
After it’s pressed, cut the tofu into cubes and toss with a lower sugar barbecue sauce, like Stubb’s Original BBQ Sauce. I like to cook mine in the air fryer, which gets the outside somewhat crispy. Use a non-propellant cooking spray, like Chosen Avocado Oil Spray, to coat the bottom of the fryer and then line it with the tofu cubes. Set the fryer at 375 degrees and cook for ten to 15 minutes, stirring once midway through. At that point, and again once it’s finished cooking, use a silicone basting brush, like this Le Crueset one, to give the tofu another coat of sauce. If you don’t have an air fryer, you could also make this in the oven.
I love this meal over salad or with roasted veggies and quinoa or brown rice. If you serve it like this, with four ounces of tofu and a half cup of cooked brown rice, you’ll get 18 grams of plant protein.
The Bottom Line
You don’t need to give up meat entirely to try plant-based eating. You can start a plant-based diet using some of these swaps. A plant-based diet is indeed healthy, and swapping some of the animal proteins in your meals for plant-based ones can provide a spectrum of health-protecting nutrients.