Get Your Protein from Plants
Here’s a generalization I won’t defend: Americans are not given to humility.
Despite every faith tradition’s encouragement toward acts of humility, as a society we trend to the opposite side of the spectrum—pride.
Spring is when the three Abrahamic religions observe core practices that are about restraint and simplicity. This year, all three faiths converge at the end of March, making it a strong trifecta for reserve, reset, and rediscovery.
Many Christians celebrate Lent—the word is derived from the Angle-Saxon term meaning Spring—the six-week period before Easter. Traditionally, followers were asked to restrict certain foods during Lent. Most likely to be avoided were meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and wine. Today, many Christians abstain from a single pleasure-giving food to help stay aware of the reasons behind the practice.
In Judaism, Passover observance emphasizes avoiding food that has leavening, and rises or expands when cooked. Contemporary theory sees the practice as a way of mastering our arrogance, our “puffed-upness.” We eat Matzo at the ritual Seders, and replace bread and other yeasty things for the eight days of the holiday.
Muslims who celebrate Ramadan for a month refrain from eating between sunrise and sundown.
Whether or not you observe any of these holidays, Spring is the season to rethink what you eat and commit to adding more plant-based food to your diets. If the idea of cleansing, purification, and self-control speak to you, excluding animal proteins and exploring plant-based alternatives can give you a moral and ethical boost you can feel proud about!
The options for discovering plant-based alternatives to our protein choices keep burgeoning. A recent AARP study on the protein needs for older people indicates that older adults need much more protein than was previously thought necessary. We are encouraged to consume at least 25 grams of protein per meal. That means we should be eating 75 grams of protein each day. Our brain needs it, our body needs it, our longevity might well depend on it.
Not very long ago, the few products with high protein and other nutrients were aimed at bodybuilders and health care facilities. Now choices abound. You can find enhanced protein and nutrition-boosted drinks at most full-service grocery stores. It’s easy to add 25 grams of protein as an afternoon snack. Popular diets like Keto and AARP’s new guidelines emphasize protein and have suggestions that make it easy to increase your intake.
Consider these plant-based proteins for each meal of the day:
Mix up a bowl of Chia pudding to feast on throughout the week. It’s super simple and packed with nutrients and protein. Mix ¼ c. chia seeds with 1 cup of your favorite non-dairy drink and refrigerate overnight. It will remind you of tapioca pudding, but far healthier. A few tablespoons over a bowl of fresh fruit, a bit of honey or maple syrup, and you have started your day with a good hit of protein.
White, red, or mixed makes an excellent base for fruit, seeds, and nuts. Remember to rinse it well before cooking.
Choose from the many nut and seed butters available. Although high in fat, nut butters satisfy and inspire. Check out recipes for cookies that use nut butters for a high protein treat during the day.
Think of lunch as legume time! While it is easy to cook legumes, it is even easier to open a can to puree into variations of hummus or to add to a favorite boxed soup.
White Bean Spread
1 can small white cannellini or white navy beans, drained
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed into food processor
1 tbsp fresh or dried rosemary, minced or Herbes de Provence
2 tbsp capers
3 tbsp kalamata olives
2 tbsp Olive oil
Juice (and zest if you choose) of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
- tbsp Dijon mustard*
2 tbsp plain yogurt*
*I use mustard and yogurt so I can reduce the olive oil. Most recipes call just for olive oil.
- Place garlic, rosemary, parsley, mustard, olive oil or yogurt, lemon juice, and lemon zest in processor. Pulse to mince and combine.
- Add drained cannellini beans. Pulse to mix then continue to process until a fine puree.
- Add oil bit by bit until texture feels right.
- Taste for right balance of garlic, herbs and lemon.
Serve with pita or crackers. Can be refrigerated for up to three days.
Lentil Salad with cilantro-yogurt dressing
1 lb packed pre-cooked lentils (available at Trader Joe’s and most grocery stores)
1 bunch green onions
½ bunch cilantro
1 tsp fresh oregano or 2 tsp dry
1 cup plain yogurt
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Juice of ½ lemon
- In processer, chop onion and cilantro coarsely and add the rest of the ingredients. Taste for seasoning.
- Chill and serve.
Serves four as main dish salad.
If you are still reluctant to try using tofu—too many memories of the early days of tasteless tofu dishes—it’s time to reevaluate. Not only is tofu one of the best plant-based proteins, it holds its own as the perfect protein for stir-fries, scrambles, and sheet-pan exploration.
Baked Tofu (NY Times)
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
1 (14- to 16-ounce) package extra-firm or firm tofu, cut crosswise into 1-inch-thick slices
1½ tsp kosher salt (Diamond Crystal), plus more as needed
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp garlic powder (optional)
1 tsp dried oregano
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved if large, kept whole if small
1 large red onion, cut into ¼-inch wedges (about 2 cups)
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1½ tsp balsamic vinegar, plus more for finishing
½ cup fresh cilantro or parsley leaves and tender stems, roughly chopped
- Heat oven to 400 degrees and line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
- Arrange tofu slices on a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. Cover with another kitchen towel (or paper towels) and place a flat cutting board or baking pan on top. If your cutting board or pan is lightweight, stack a few cans or a skillet on top to weigh it down. Let tofu drain for at least 15 minutes (or up to 45 minutes.)
- Transfer tofu to a cutting board and cut slabs into 1-inch cubes. Pat them dry with paper towels, and season both sides of the tofu with ¾ tsp of the salt and ¼ tsp black pepper.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together 1 tbsp oil, cornstarch, garlic powder (if using) and ½ tsp of oregano. Add tofu to cornstarch mixture and gently toss until tofu is evenly coated. Move tofu onto one side of the prepared sheet pan.
- In a large bowl, toss together tomatoes, onion, garlic, balsamic vinegar, remaining ½ tsp oregano, ¾ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper. Drizzle in the remaining 2 tbsp of the oil, tossing to combine.
- Arrange vegetables on other side of the prepared sheet pan. Bake until tofu is crisp and golden brown, and tomatoes are condensed, 25 to 35 minutes. Halfway through baking, flip tofu and toss vegetables while keeping the tofu and veggies separate.
To serve, sprinkle cilantro or other chopped herbs on top, and drizzle with balsamic and oil, if you’d like.
Rebecca Crichton is executive director of Northwest Center for Creative Aging and presents programs on that topic in the Seattle area. She worked at Boeing for 21 years as a writer, curriculum designer, and leadership development coach. She has master’s degrees in child development and organizational development, and is a certified coach.