Athletes usually understand that you need more protein than the average person to build and repair muscle tissue after training and competing. And as a responsible adult, you also know you should eat more vegetables. But here’s what a lot of people don’t realize: Those two dietary goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In other words, it’s completely possible to get plenty of protein from a veggie-packed, plant-based meal when it’s made with the right ingredients.
Start by figuring out just how much protein you need each day. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 0.5 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight for athletes (compared to 0.4 grams for sedentary people). Then, work a few of these delicious, high-protein, plant-based meals from nutrition experts into your dinner rotation to help hit your goals.
Insanely-Delish High-Protein Vegetarian Meals
If you read the words “vegetarian” and "plant-based" as code for “bland,” this dish from Ashley Jennings, integrative health coach of Cook Nourish Bliss, will set you straight. Red curry paste and coconut milk deliver a blend of savory and sweet flavors that enhance the flavor of any protein source, whether it’s chicken or (in this case) chickpeas and peanut butter.
As is, this recipe delivers 14 grams of protein per serving, but Jennings suggests customizing the dish to pump up the protein count even more, or to suit your own tastes.
“I love to serve it with brown rice and cashews for extra protein, but you can get creative and go with a different grain or nut, or even cauliflower rice,” Jennings says.
Ladle it over a cup of cooked brown rice to add 5 grams of protein, and then sprinkle on an ounce of chopped cashews for another 5 grams.
The namesake of this meal, sweet potatoes don’t deliver much protein (about 2 grams per cup), but “they provide plenty of fiber-rich carbohydrates to fuel training,” recipe developer Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, owner of Rachael Hartley Nutrition, says. In particular, sweet potatoes are high in pectin, a type of soluble fiber that’s also linked with feelings of satiation and curbing blood sugar spikes that can come after a meal.
As for protein, that’s where tofu comes in, bringing the count up to about 25 grams per serving in this recipe, Hartley says. Tofu is a complete protein, meaning it delivers all of the essential acids your body needs. Most plant sources of protein — including beans, nuts, and seeds — are incomplete.
If you’ve never cooked with tofu, it’s easier than you think, and it assumes the flavors of the ingredients it’s cooked with. So, if you like the taste of sautéed onions, cheese, and mole sauce (a.k.a., enchiladas), this dinner is for you.
Salads get a bad rap for being unsatisfying — it’s hard to imagine lettuce filling the void after a high-intensity training session. But if ever there was a salad that feels like a massive meal, this one from Stephanie Clarke, MS, RDN, of C&J Nutrition, is it.
"A hefty dose of protein from tofu will fuel your muscles and keep you satisfied longer,” Clarke says.
Even without the classic tuna, you’ll get 18 grams of protein from this salad. If you don’t like tofu, swap in any kind of beans, such as white beans (6 grams of protein per cup) or chickpeas (15 grams per cup) — just know that it will bring down the protein count (1 cup of tofu has 20 grams of protein).
Also contributing to the satiating factor: Healthy fats from the olives and dressing, which help your body absorb all of the nutrients from the vegetables.
“The recipe is just so flavorful," Clarke says. "Between the slightly tangy dressing and salty capers and olives, there's a lot to keep you interested.”
Ramen-like soba noodles are a favorite in Japanese cuisine. Made from ground buckwheat — which is actually a fruit, not a grain or a grass — soba noodles are surprisingly high in protein. They contain 10 grams per cooked bundle (packages are usually divided into three dry bundles), according to Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD, of It’s a Veg World After All.
Streit developed this recipe — which boasts 16 grams of protein per serving — for peanut-buttery soba noodles with a “cold salad” feel in mind, but soba noodles can be enjoyed hot or chilled.
“This dish is easy to prep in advance to enjoy for dinner after a workout,” Streit says. “The protein from creamy peanut butter, as well as the healthy fats, keep me super satisfied.”
Bowls are trendy among the health and fitness set for good reason: They’re a convenient way to pack a lot of nutrition and heartiness into an evening meal without a bunch of “filler” calories like bread and white pasta. Legumes are still welcome, however — especially the green lentils used in this recipe from Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, author of Eat Right When Time is Tight.
“Lentils are one of my favorite plant-based proteins, since they are just as high in fiber as they are protein,” Bannan says.
Half a cup of lentils provides about 9 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber; this bowl delivers 17 grams of protein in total. Besides, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer vibrancy of this dish.
“One of the main things I love about this bowl is the color!” Bannan says. “All of those purple veggies — purple cauliflower, fingerling potatoes, and kale — are not only gorgeous, but also provide health-boosting antioxidants.”
No vegetarian menu is complete without a veggie burger option, and this one from Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, of Kara Lydon Nutrition, goes beyond the typical black-bean patty or portobello mushroom offering. Made with a blend of chickpeas and quinoa, this burger “packs in tons of plant-based protein — 17 grams in total — to help with muscle recovery and building,” according to Lydon.
Quinoa, in particular, brings a lot to the table. It’s another rare complete protein in the plant-food world, plus it contains almost twice as much fiber as other grains.
“The complex carbs in quinoa deliver long-lasting energy to fuel your workouts,” Lydon says. "Factor in the Buffalo-style flavors of hot sauce and creamy cashew-based 'blue cheese' vegan dressing, and you might just forget your dinner is full-on vegan."