A common gripe about going vegetarian is that it feels like something's missing from your meal - especially for many people who grew up with the trifecta of "meat, starch, veg" as what makes up a balanced meal.
But there are lots of alternatives that can replace meat in your meals, that give you the same nutritional value and provide the "meaty" flavor you might be missing.
Tofu has been used in Chinese cuisine for over 2000 years. It contains protein, all nine essential amino acids, and is high in iron and calcium. It’s also said to lower cholesterol because it absorbs oil as part of the digestion process. Speaking of sponges that soak things up, it does kind of have a bad rep in the taste department - but that’s changing. The plus side of tofu’s neutral taste is that it's a canvas for other flavors. Put it in stir-fries, curries, salads, under the grill with the usual spices, herbs or sauces you would use with meat.
Tempeh is made out of soybeans, very similarly to tofu. But the soy is cooked and fermented first, often combined with other grains like quinoa and flax seeds. The fermentation gives it the added benefit of being good for gut health and increases antioxidant benefits. It can be used in meals exactly like tofu.
The jackfruit is definitely the meat alternative du jour. It’s the world’s largest tree-borne fruit (no, really. They are massive), and luckily it’s available at most grocery stores in the US. It usually comes in a prepackaged form and there are many ready to “heat and eat” meal options when you’re just starting out. If you are interested in buying the fruit whole and preparing it yourself, it can be purchased at organic grocery stores such as Sprouts, Whole Foods, Erewhon, or Natural Grocers. The unripe fruit is the key, as it’s not sweetened yet. It’s recently made its way onto many a trendy menu as a meat alternative because of how it can marinade flavors and "shred" like smoked pork or beef!
Not only is it dinner-party-conversation-worthy, but it’s also very good for you - high in fiber and potassium and low in sugar and carbs.
Beans and lentils
The OGs. We couldn’t not put them on this list. The ability of beans and lentils to go into just about anything should win a prize. Not only are they protein-packed and filling, they can also substitute meat in a very literal way. They work well in traditionally meat-centric dishes like tacos, lasagna, meatballs and burgers while complementing other ingredients perfectly.
Eggplants and mushrooms
Eggplants and mushrooms are great for adding that earthy, hearty substance to a meal. Both are delicious in pasta as a mince alternative and can be roasted to within an inch of their lives for extra "meaty" charred flavor. They don’t have complete protein though, so combine with chickpeas, lentils or beans.
Although not a meat substitute, nuts can add an amazingly rich flavor to vegetarian and vegan food. Combine it with mushrooms and lentils in a burger patty or add to salads and roasts for that extra umami flavor.