A big challenge when planning vegetarian meals is working non-meat sources of protein into your diet. You need a small amount of protein daily to have nutritionally complete meals. Use the USDA's MyPlate graphic to visually map out healthy, well-balanced vegetarian meals.
The legume family includes beans, peas and peanuts -- and all three can be a part of a healthy vegetarian meal plan. In the spring, make use of the wide variety of fresh beans that are available, from favas to string beans. Some fresh beans, unlike dried versions, don't require cooking. Canned beans are available year-round and figure heavily in vegetarian chili and salad recipes. Fresh beans and peas can round out salads nicely. Whether you enjoy spicy food or not, many Thai dishes make use of crushed roasted peanuts as a protein-packed garnish. Use this as inspiration for your own legume-enhanced creations.
Walnuts, pecans, almonds and hazelnuts are just some of the delicious nuts that can help balance your meals. Use them to make a bold statement in salads and stir-fries, or grind them in a food processor to covertly incorporate them into baked goods. Be sure people with nut allergies know about any foods you've made that contain or may have come into contact with nuts. Fruit and nut-packed whole-grain muffins make a nutritious start to your day. Whole-grain granola with nuts and fruit can make a nutritionally complete snack in between meals, as well.
Other Protein Sources
If you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian, or one who ingests dairy and egg products, dairy and eggs are good sources of protein. If you avoid dairy and eggs, protein-rich soy products come in a wide range -- from soy milk to soy ice cream and cheese. Don't limit the use of tofu to Asian dishes; incorporate it into your favorite lasagna recipe, for example. If you've found that tofu is too mushy for your taste, look for extra-firm tofu, sometimes called nigari tofu. Soy crumbles that are seasoned like meat and have a similar texture can be found with other vegetarian-friendly foods in the grocer's freezer section. Seitan, which comes from wheat protein, readily replicates the feel of meat. If anyone in your family craves meat, seitan is an excellent textural substitute that readily takes on any flavoring you choose.
Make It Easy
To successfully integrate vegetarianism into your family's meals, focus on incorporating protein-rich foods into a diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with a little dairy on the side. Cook vegetable-heavy dishes, such as stews and stir-fries, with your choice of protein. Serve them over whole-grain pasta or brown rice for a delicious, nutritious one-dish meal. Season with fresh or dried herbs, salt and pepper or your favorite salad dressing mix. Try convenient readymade vegetarian meal helpers, like veggie burgers and hot dogs. Find ways to repurpose them in your favorite dishes. Use soy crumbles in place of ground meats in your favorite meatloaf recipe, for example. If the flavor isn't perfect the first time you make it, adjust it until you love the result.
- "The Professional Chef," The Culinary Institute of America; 2006
- USDA MyPlate: How Much Food from the Protein Foods Group is Needed Daily?
- The Vegetarian Resource Group; Seitan: The Vegetarian Wheat Meat; Jill Nussinow
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