The obstacles to going vegan or vegetarian are commonly twofold: texture and protein. But the good news is that neither are as hard as you might think. The better news is that you don’t even need to incorporate the myriad brands of fake meat products into your shopping list either. There are much healthier ways.
Of course, all it takes is a little learning. Most foods contain some amount of protein, but not all proteins are equal, so it’s good to know which ingredients can be combined to form complete proteins (of which meat is one of the easiest sources, albeit commonly misunderstood to be the only one).
If you like meaty textures in your food, then that too can be replicated with a little knowledge and the right ingredients.
So here are the best vegan and vegetarian meat alternatives.
There was a time when a plate of lentils at a rare vegetarian restaurant might’ve been enough to put anyone off vegetarianism for life. Fortunately, meat-free cooking has come a long way since then, but there’s still room for lentils when done well.
Lentil skeptics should do themselves a flavour and try a Punjabi dal makhni made with black lentils. Unsurprisingly, it’s those on the Asian subcontinent who know how to cook lentils best – after all, they’re been using them for centuries. If you’re new to this underrated and often misunderstood legume, try your hand at this simple Indian dal recipe and work up from there.
Beans are a great (and delicious) source of protein, especially when you mix a few varieties together. This Mexican corn and bean salad, for instance, is a nutrition bomb and only takes a few minutes to make.
It’s advisable to always have a few tins of beans in the cupboard ready for quick meals, but using dried beans will maximise the low-fat, high-protein health benefits. They taste better too, giving you more control over the texture if, for example, you’d like a little more bite than the soft and gloopy tinned ones can provide. It’s not as difficult as you might think either. Click here to learn how.
It would be a mistake to think of chickpeas as just another bean. They’re incredibly versatile, whether you’re turning them into hummus, burgers, or even roasting them as a snack. You can even grind them down into flour. If chickpeas aren’t already a staple ingredient in your pantry, it’s time to change that, as proven in this article here.
Chickpeas are really high in protein, of course, but can also form a complete protein when combined with lentils (didn’t we tell you lentils were great?).
Seitan is Japanese for 'made of proteins', which tells you almost all you need to know about why you might want to introduce it into your diet. Its other benefit is the irresistible meaty chew, making it the most like-for-like meat texture substitute on this list. Try it in these vegan seitan rolls, for example.
The problem with seitan is that it’s a heavily processed food, meaning that, while it’s high in protein, it’s not exactly a healthy option for incorporating into your daily diet. You can mitigate the downsides somewhat, however, by making your own seitan at home, rather than buying the industrially produced variants at your supermarket.
Tofu is the classic vegan meat alternative and you probably know a lot about it already. (Although you can click here for some fun tofu facts you probably don’t know.) If you are new to tofu, though, a good tip is to keep it simple, as with this tofu stir fry recipe or this scrambled tofu recipe. A surefire way to put people off tofu for life is to overwork it with marinades in an attempt to make it taste like meat. Just enjoy its subtle flavour and fluffy texture for what it is.
Tofu is made from soybeans, which are a rare plant-based source of complete proteins. However, like seitan, it’s a processed food, so best eaten sparingly. But if you do want to eat it frequently, it’s also worth learning to make it yourself from scratch.
Tempeh is another soybean product often placed in the same category as tofu, yet it’s very different. Essentially fermented cooked soybeans shaped in a rubbery bar, it has a distinctive flavour that isn’t for everybody, but in the right hands, its texture has the power to complete a dish – as with this chunky pea soup recipe.
As processed protein products go, tempeh is also quite healthy too. Click here to learn more about it.
Jackfruit briefly rode the wave of the trend for pulled pork, as its uniquely flaky and meaty texture made it a perfect vegan proxy for melt-off-the-bone meat. An obscure Asian fruit suddenly became a household name almost overnight.
One of the advantages of pulled jackfruit is that it doesn’t take all day to cook. However, preparing it is a pain in the posterior in its own way, so it helps to learn a few tips and tricks before spending your money on this beast of fruit. It’s also considered a superfruit, so click here to learn more about its nutritional benefits.
Mushrooms aren’t just a good low-fat source of protein, they’re also an incredibly diverse food, with different types offering their own unique textures. Some, like oyster mushrooms, even make a brilliant substitute for white meat.
This mushroom-stuffed tofurkey roll makes a great vegan centrepiece for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. And you can learn pretty much everything you need to know about mushrooms by clicking here.
This is a bit of a departure from the plant-based ingredients above, but if you really need a source of complete protein that’s as quick and easy as meat is, cheese is an obvious choice (so long as you’re not vegan, of course).
Giving up meat is a great opportunity to get more into the wide and diverse world of cheese. Check out your local farmer’s market for interesting artisanal cheeses you won’t find on supermarket shelves and start making cheese the centrepiece of your meals, like with this delectable cheese and spinach soufflé.
Of course, we can’t mention cheese without a shout out to eggs. Especially now that we know the old advice to only eat a couple a week was misguided. For our money, there are few better breakfasts than poached eggs on toast, so it’s nice to know we can now enjoy it whenever we want, guilt-free.
Eggs are incredibly nutritious, jam-packed with protein, healthy fats, and the good kind of cholesterol. Click here to discover even more about eggs.