Super-charge your protein plan

Plant protein sources are healthy, affordable and easy to prepare—all of which makes for a great alternative to pricey meats. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Tucked in at home in the thick of winter, it’s not hard to see the importance of having shelf-stable food options on hand.

And not just any options, but good, healthy ones.

Protein is one of the essential nutrients we need each day. Among its various functions, it helps strengthen and rebuild muscles and tissues and it supports a healthy immune system.

It’s found in all manner of plant, seafood and animal sources, although some items are better than others when it comes to content.

Meats, poultry and fish often make up a large part of the protein content in our meals, but these types of foods can also quickly gobble up a budget.

Fresh and thawed products need to be eaten soon after purchase to ensure they’re safely consumed, but you can always place them into a freezer to save for later. (Use a freezer-safe pen to write the date on the foil or wrapping.)

If you do any shopping for your household, you know the cost of at-home meals and snacks can add up, especially if you’re buying meat. Prices for seafood and animal meats have been rising steadily.

So how can you keep great-tasting, healthy options on hand—options that are easy to make, budget-conscious and protein-rich?

Look to plants.

They’re the perfect marriage of good-for-you and delicious.

They’re naturally cholesterol-free, which can help the heart, and they provide fiber, which is good for digestion. They help regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

They deliver a host of benefits at a fraction of the cost.

Bring on the beans

Dried beans and lentils can last for months in the cupboard. To prepare, you can soak them overnight in the fridge and then cook them as needed. They’re naturally low in sodium.

There’s truly no shortage of possibilities with beans and lentils, particularly those that are already cooked and packaged. They come in jars, cans and foil-pack containers, ready for a rinse and drain before joining your recipe.

Look for low sodium or no added salt on the labels.

Low sodium means less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving. Reduced sodium means 25% less than the regular product, which doesn’t always equate to low sodium.

Beans and lentils can provide 4 to 9 grams of protein per half cup when cooked. Some preparation ideas:

  • Black beans—Toss some canned, rinsed, drained beans onto a salad.
  • Kidney beans—These are delicious in red chili. Add more beans and less beef.
  • Navy beans—Blend cooked navy beans with garlic, olive oil and lemon for a twist on hummus.
  • Pinto beans—You can use these to make frijoles.
  • Garbanzo beans—Also called chickpeas, these are used in many ways, including to make hummus.
  • Red, green or French lentils—These are delicious in soups.
  • Split peas—Think, “Pea soup.”
  • Canned peas—Rinse, drain and use them as a side, or add them to cooked whole grain pasta with a sprinkle of feta.

Go nuts

For a quick protein snack, try unsalted dry-roasted nuts. Walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, peanuts, hazelnuts and pistachios are all healthy choices. Nuts and nut butters also contain good-for-you fats.

Look for nut butters—peanuts, almonds—that don’t contain hydrogenated oils or trans fats. This will keep it heart-healthy.

And don’t be afraid to try new nuts. Kick up a salad with a sprinkle of walnuts or macadamia.

Grow with seeds

Flax, chia and quinoa add protein and healthy fats to recipes.

Ever heard of a flax egg in place of eggs for flour-based baking? For each egg in a flour-based recipe—banana bread, for example—add 1 tablespoon of milled or ground flax seeds with 3 tablespoons of water, then let it set for five minutes. Use it in your recipe in place of an egg.

Add milled flax or chia seeds to smoothies. Use cooked quinoa as a substitute for white rice.

Remember to keep open containers of these items in the fridge or freezer to maintain freshness.

Get those grains

There’s a vast world of recipe ideas for protein-rich grain products. You can choose steel-cut and rolled oats, brown or wild rice, farro, millet.

Whole wheat grains last a long time if properly packaged and stored. They contain protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Try cooked oats for breakfast and toss in raisins or chopped apples and cinnamon. Your favorite chopped nuts will add healthy fats and more protein.

Take an ocean dive

Canned and foil-pack tuna and salmon are great shelf-stable protein sources that also provide omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA, both important for brain and heart health.

Look for sustainably caught fish packed in water. Opt for the low sodium options.

Don’t forget chicken

Canned chicken is big on protein, low in fat. Drain off the liquid before serving. Add it to a mixed green salad with an oil-based vinaigrette, or create a power bowl of chicken, peas and brown or wild rice.

As with canned or foil-pack fish, look for low sodium.

Two parting tips:

  • Follow your doctor’s orders on diet and avoid any known or suspected food allergens.
  • Read the ingredients and nutrition information on a product’s label. That’s far more important than any of the attractive designs on the front of the package.
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