There’s been lots of news coverage over the last while that hasn’t been exactly favourable to the meat industry. Processed meats were classified as a group 1 carcinogen, and red meat was tagged with the ‘probable’ label in terms of cancer-causing ability. Papers have come out talking about the environmental toll animal agriculture takes on this planet. I’ve talked about the differences in how animal proteins react in the body versus plant proteins. Even Canada’s new food guide emphasizes choosing plant-based proteins. All of this may have you looking for a little something else to fill your plate. So, I’m here to help with some suggestions for great meat substitutes. Let’s take a look at what you can eat instead of meat.
Mushrooms make a great substitute for meat. They are low in fat, calories and cholesterol free, making them a much healthier option. Mushrooms are a really versatile food with a pretty neutral flavour. This makes it easy to marinate and spice them as you wish. They sub in nicely in dishes like shepherd’s pie, pasta dishes and more. Varieties like king oyster mushrooms work really well in any meal where you’d typically use shredded meat. Portobello mushrooms are also a popular choice. They work well sliced into a stir fry, or fajitas, or marinated and grilled up as a portobello burger or portobello steak.
Tofu is another great versatile food. It’s a great source of protein, iron and calcium. It comes in many forms, which allows it to be used in multiple ways. Soft or silken tofu is great for dips and adding to smoothies. Anything where a smooth consistency would work well. Firm or extra firm is great for crumbling into tofu scramble or tofu crumbles. They also work well for tofu steaks or cubes. Tofu also has a very neutral flavour. This allows you to use it in both sweet and savoury preparations.
Tempeh is another good substitute that is high in protein as well as minerals like iron, calcium and magnesium. It’s made from fermented soybeans that have been pressed into a block. The result is a texture that is firmer and meatier than tofu. That meaty texture makes it a popular choice as a meat substitute. It can be sliced into tempeh steaks or strips or even chunks that resemble ribs. It can also be flavoured any way you like, which is why tempeh bacon is totally a thing. Strips work great on sandwiches, wraps, salads and even pizza.
Beans, beans, the magical fruit… Laugh all you want, but these beauties are full of powerful nutrition. They are packed with protein, fibre and all kinds of vitamins and minerals. In case you’ve forgotten, fibre does all kinds of great things for your body, and most people don’t get even close to their recommended daily intake. They help to feed the good bacteria in your gut and can blunt the effect of sugars, even in the meal consumed after them! That’s a pretty awesome superpower.
Beans are an easy sub in a lot of dishes. They work really well in burritos, soups and stews, rice dishes or even just tossed on top of a salad or bowl. You can also slip beans into baked goods like brownies, and make hummus from them. Versatile and full of goodness. What’s not to love?
Lentils come with all the same health benefits of beans, in a smaller package. They make a great starting point for those who have a hard time with beans, as they are smaller. Certain varieties, like red lentils or split peas, are, as the name suggests, split. This allows them to break down nicely in a soup or stew, adding some nice creamy texture as well as some filling bulk to the dish. They sub well in dishes like shepherd’s pie or pasta sauce. You can even form them to make things like lentil loaf or lentil meatballs. They also work great added to salads or bowls.
Not exactly a whole food, seitan is made from vital wheat gluten. While it is not suitable for those with gluten intolerance, it is a popular choice among those who can tolerate gluten. This is due to the fact that once properly prepared, seitan’s texture most closely resembles meat. It’s also neutrally flavoured, so you can spice it up any way you like. Seitan can be used in a number of ways. I’ve even seen it pass convincingly as ‘steak’ or ‘chicken wings’. It’s high in protein and iron, but not something I’d suggest to eat every day. More of a once-in-awhile novelty.
Eggplants, also known as aubergines, are low in fat, cholesterol free and rich in fibre and antioxidants. With its meaty texture and umami flavour, it makes a great substitute for meat. You’ve probably seen it used in many Italian dishes, like eggplant parmesan. It can also be sliced and grilled for sandwiches and wraps, or even stuffed and baked.
If you’ve never tried jackfruit as a meat substitute, then you are missing out. It comes in a giant fruit that requires a little work to break down. Once cooked through, jackfruit is typically shredded and has a texture remarkably similar to pulled pork. It can be cooked in whatever marinade you like and generally works best as a shredded meat substitute.
Oh, cauliflower. One of my favourites. This cruciferous vegetable is very low in fat and calories, but just brimming with nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin K and folate. It also contains some pretty amazing antioxidants with cancer-fighting abilities. As such, you should definitely try adding cauliflower to your daily cruciferous veggie intake.
You can season and roast a whole head of cauliflower like a roast, or slice it and grill like a steak. Cauliflower florets are also delicious roasted in the oven to add to salads and bowls. My favourite preparation is probably the cauliflower hot wing. Yes, I said hot wings. Coat those lovely little florets and bake them in the oven. They are seriously delicious.
Potatoes are one of the most satiating foods out there. You’ve seen them prepared in lots of different ways. Typically, as a side, such as scalloped potatoes, mashed potatoes roasted potatoes or oven fries. Or even twice baked, like these delicious gems.
Who said potatoes need to be relegated to the ‘sides’ section of the menu? I mean, they do work well as an all-purpose side, but they can be used for so much more than that. If you think a potato can’t be considered a main dish then you’ve never loaded up a baked potato or sweet potato. I love to top these with greens, beans, and all kinds of sautéed vegetables. Add a little drizzle of your favourite sauce and you’re good to go with a hearty and satisfying meal.
Quinoa, technically a pseudo-grain, makes a great substitute for meat in many dishes. It’s naturally gluten-free and full of protein, fibre and lots of important minerals. It can be added to soups and stews to add some bulk, tossed onto a salad or bowl, or even formed into balls to make quinoa bites.
I personally love adding some beans, spices and sautéed veggies and using that mixture in place of taco meat.
Nuts and nut butters are high in protein, which makes them a great substitute for meat in your diet. They also contain other important minerals, in differing amounts, depending on the nut. Minced up, nuts like walnuts can work really well to add some texture to a sauce you’d typically add meat to. Just a word of warning, that while full of healthy fats, nuts are pretty high in fat and calories. So perhaps not a sub you want to be using every day if you’re trying to release some weight.
Soy curls are basically dehydrated strips of soy, made completely from soybeans, with no added fats or flours. They are high in fibre and protein, which makes them a great meat substitute. I would file these under that category ‘minimally processed’, which means these are a-okay on a whole food, plant-based diet. Nothing harmful added, and nothing healthy taken away.
They come dehydrated, and after rehydrating, can be added to a number of different dishes. Their flavour is rather neutral, so you can season in any style you prefer. They have a meaty texture, similar to chicken, so these would be well accepted by any non-vegans you may have to feed.
Right about now you’re thinking I’ve lost my mind, but I promise you I haven’t. Carrots made the list for one main reason, carrot dogs! Now, I know this sounds like some crazy hippie shit, but seriously, give it a try. Once marinated and cooked through, the taste and texture are remarkably similar to a hotdog, without the saturated fat, nitrates and, oh yeah, carcinogens, you get with the old version.
If you’re feeling fancy, you can also try carrot lox. Carrots sub really well for salmon in this classic, brunch-style dish.
The Bottom Line
There you have it, lots of alternatives to meat that you can use in your next meal. There are other meat substitutes on the market, but I’ve tried to list the least processed alternatives here. Many packaged alternatives are either highly processed or contain oils. They also tend to be more expensive than simple plant foods.
Whether you’re new to plant-based eating or just trying to reduce the amount of meat in your diet, these ideas should help spark some creativity in your kitchen. Don’t be afraid to open your mind a little and change your outlook on what needs to be on your plate. It can take some getting used to, as many of us grew up with meat as the main part of our meals. But just because it’s always been, doesn’t mean it always must be. Experiment and get creative, before long you’ll be rocking the meat-free dishes.
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Feature image: Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash