Even when you’re an endurance athlete, there’s no reason that you can’t enjoy all of your favorite comfort foods — but make sure they are the kind that will fuel your training and help you feel better (free from brain fog and sugar crashes, for example). While many of the most craving-worthy foods don’t have much nutritional value, easy plant-based meals provide delicious alternatives to slash your intake of saturated fat, carbs, and sugar in half. Plus, plant-based eating — in general — adds more fiber, antioxidants, and less cholesterol to your diet.
So don't assume that you can’t indulge in some plant-based pancakes, burgers, or macaroni and cheese whenever you want. Instead, try one of these dietitian-approved, easy, plant-based meals — versions of all of the most delicious foods, plus why they're a hearty, nutritious choice.
Easy Plant-Based Meals That Resemble Your Favorite Comfort Foods (but Healthy)
from Annie Markowitz, Ph.D., of VegAnnie
Eating regular pancakes made with white flour and topped with pancake syrup can easily make you feel sluggish (and wouldn't be an ideal breakfast before or after the gym). Plus, a small, one-serving plastic container of imitation maple syrup — like one that you might get in a diner — may have more than 20 grams of sugar. However, using a plant-based flour for the batter and pure maple syrup to dip your pancakes can be a total game-changer.
“Using alternative flours like coconut or almond flour instead of regular flour in pancakes will transform your breakfast into a nutritional powerhouse," Markowitz says. "These flours add protein, fiber, and healthy fats, which will help keep you full all morning.”
from Brigid Titgemeier, RDN, LD, of Being Brigid
No one can refuse a classic Bolognese sauce, but the ground beef in that recipe is high in saturated fat, and the regular white pasta can cause you to crash in the middle of the day. Going lighter with a plant-based pasta dish — both the pasta and the toppings are vegan — gives you a more versatile and fiber-filled meal.
“This lentil pasta salad is the perfect substitute for pasta and meat sauce," Titgemeier says. "The beauty of making pasta with a lentil pasta is that it provides a lot of protein and fiber that will help keep your blood sugar levels more stable and keep you feeling full for longer.
“It allows you to ditch the refined white pastas that mess up your metabolism and skyrocket your blood sugar levels, and provides enough protein that you don't need to rely on as much meat."
from Natalie Rizzo, MS, R.D., of Greenletes
It seems like there’s a cookout every weekend in the summer, and while it isn’t detrimental to eat red meat once in a while, eating animal products frequently can spike your cholesterol, due to the elevated saturated fat content. Turning to plant-based proteins like tempeh — which often offer just as much protein, but less fat — is a great option.
“If you’ve never tried tempeh before, you’re missing out on one of the easiest and most nutritious vegan proteins," Rizzo says. "This fermented soybean has 16 grams of protein in just 3 ounces, and it’s the perfect base for this simple veggie burger."
Plus, you’ll feel much better while digesting a tempeh burger than a regular beef burger. Because tempeh is fermented, it’s full of probiotics, which are crucial to healthy digestion.
from Sharon Palmer, MS, RDN, of The Plant-Powered Dietitian
Pizza is one of the most popular comfort foods of all time, but your regular meaty, cheesy takeout pie just doesn’t fit into your training regimen nutritionally (and is almost completely void of antioxidants).
“You can make a pizza healthier by using a whole grain crust, and by skipping the high saturated fat and sodium of the cheese and meats and loading up on veggies instead. This pizza is like eating a salad, filled with arugula, tomatoes, and avocado slices for fiber and healthy fats, with a topping of plant-based cheese to make it vegan and dairy-free,” says Palmer. In addition, the crust uses all whole grains instead of a traditional white flour: It’s made with cornmeal and whole wheat flour. “Whole grains provide a much better source of plant-based nutrition because the nutrients are preserved in the grain and they are not stripped away,” Palmer says.
from Karla Moreno-Bryce, MDA, R.D., LD, of Vegan Kids Nutrition
Just because you choose to make plant-based, fiber-packed tacos, doesn’t mean that they have to lack flavor. Jackfruit, which looks just like the high-fat, high-sodium shredded pork you would have stuffed your tacos with, is much lower in calories and fat. Seasoned with chili powder and cumin, and topped with cilantro-spiced cabbage slaw, these meat substitute tacos are anything but boring and tasteless.
“Jackfruit is a great plant-based meat substitute, due to its texture and appearance," Moreno-Bryce says. "It's a great source of potassium and Vitamin C, but lacks protein, so I usually pair it with beans to boost the protein amount in the meal."
from Pamela Fergusson, Ph.D., R.D.
Most of us could eat a whole box of mac and cheese, but what would that offer us nutritionally? Regular pasta can spike blood sugar, and a creamy, cheesy sauce is typically high in calories and saturated fat (and doesn’t contain many essential nutrients).
“A plant-based mac and cheese is a nutrient-rich dish that tastes just like the creamy comfort food, but is packed full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals,” Fergusson says.
This mac and cheese has some veggies stashed in the sauce: sweet potatoes and carrots (both of which are high in beta-carotene, which we convert to Vitamin A in the body). Another secret weapon in the cheese sauce is sunflower seeds, a good source of healthy fats, which you’d never get in regular mac and cheese. There’s a reason they were chosen over cashews to complete the cheesy dish.
“Sunflower seeds use less water than cashews, can be grown domestically in North America, and are also higher in protein than cashews,” Fergusson says. "To kick up dish's protein a notch, whip it up with a chickpea or lentil pasta."
from Jessica Meyers Altman, certified plant-based chef, of Garden Fresh Foodie
Waffles are another diner classic that can easily put you over the edge in terms of carbs and sugar consumption for the whole morning. But if you make them plant-based, using flour made from ground oats, you’ve got a heart-healthy, cholesterol-free meal that’ll actually keep you full and fueled throughout the first part of your day. Basically, you’re satisfying a breakfast craving, but eating the nutritional equivalent to a bowl of oatmeal.
“This recipe has many health benefits: It’s gluten-free and plant-based, which helps to fight inflammation, is high in fiber, has no cholesterol or added fats, and is made from whole foods and no refined sugars,” Meyers Altman says.