When we think of protein, we usually think of meat. Meat isn’t the only source of whole food protein, though! There are lots of wonderful protein options outside of the usual animal choices of beef, chicken, and pork. Alternative protein foods add variety to the diet, and also tend to keep our grocery budgets in check.
Just like any other type of food, when it comes to alternative proteins, some are better than others. Since protein is often thought of as the building blocks of our bodies, choosing healthy sources is really important!
Along with keeping our meals from becoming too boring, predictable, and expensive, high quality alternative protein choices can bring a greater variety of nutrients to our plates. Mixing up your protein sources instead of just relying on one or two can help ensure a healthy and balanced diet.
When planning our meals for the week, I like to choose a different protein source for each week night. This helps give me some guidance while planning and also ensures a varied, balanced diet for the family.
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The idea fish source would be freshly wild caught from unpolluted waters and eaten that day. I’m pretty mainland here in Ohio, though, so that’s not exactly a possibility for me.
Seafood tends to be expensive, but canned and frozen fish are often more budget-friendly options. I like buying tuna in olive oil to avoid questionable vegetable oils and other ingredients. Canned salmon is also a great economical fish choice and makes for yummy fish cakes! The red variety is more expensive, but higher in nutrients. I do tend to buy the pink, though.
Fish may also be farmed or wild caught. I prefer wild caught fish for a number of reasons, like their diet and living conditions. By closely reading the package label, you can see if seafood was farmed or caught wild.
The faithful, humble bean is a wonderfully frugal and nutritious option! I actually used to hate dried beans, but as I mentioned in this post, I taught myself to like them. Now I usually cook with them once a week!
On their own, beans, peas, and lentils don’t have much of their own taste. This makes them extremely versatile in recipes. With the right seasonings and some fat, they can be quite tasty, like in this recipe.
Beans are most easily digested when soaked in water overnight prior to cooking, and doing so makes the infamous poem less of an issue. (What poem? Ahem. Beans, beans, the magical fruit… Ah, yes; that one.) Soaking lentils isn’t as important, though.
I prefer using dried beans over the canned varieties for a few reasons. First, they are less expensive that way. I also know that they were prepared with soaking first in water. Finally, I like to cook beans in bone broth as much as possible, and canned beans are just cooked in water.
Eggs have been called nature’s most complete food and boast some serious nutritional credentials. All eggs are not created equal, though.
The best eggs will come from chickens who were pastured or free-ranged and allowed to forage for insects and plants while also eating healthy grains. These are generally hard, if not impossible, to find in stores, but keeping a backyard flock is gaining lots of popularity! Next to these, you can look for organic store eggs or those labeled as pastured or free-ranged.
Conventional eggs are still a decent whole food item and shouldn’t be completely frowned upon if that’s all you can find.
This will be covered more in an upcoming post, but dairy products, whether from cows, goats, or sheep, can be great protein sources, too. Milk, yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, and other hard and soft cheeses add protein and flavor to meals. When we eat a meal with beans or eggs, I often like to include some cheese, too.
Nuts and Seeds
Walnuts, peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pecans… shall I go on? Nuts are delicious sources of many nutrients, including protein! I like to buy raw nuts and seeds to steer clear of the questionable oils and refined salts used in most roasted and salted varieties.
Like beans, nuts are better digested when a soaking routine is followed. I like to soak raw nuts and seeds in salt water (using unrefined sea salt, like Real Salt) overnight and then dry them in my food dehydrator. These are often called crispy nuts because, surprise, they are crunchier. I also think they taste fantastic this way!
I used to make our peanut butter by soaking, dehydrating, and roasting raw peanuts, then grinding them into the butter. Making the actual peanut butter is extremely easy, but the process got old. I sold out and buy organic peanut butter now. Don’t judge! 😉 Other nut butters are tasty, too.
A Word on Soy
Finally, when it comes to alternative protein sources, soy is often touted as a superfood. However, it is a major food item that I try to completely avoid for many reasons. That means that tofu, soy milk, and soy “cheese” will not be a part of my meal planning.
Conventional soy is quite likely to be genetically modified, and it has a terrible effect on the thyroid. It can also lead to problematic hormonal issues. It sneaks into all sorts of processed and packaged foods, so if you want to avoid it, you absolutely must read labels.
Need to Trim Your Meat & Protein Budget?
Alternative proteins can be a great way to trim your grocery bill. If you’re looking for more tips, be sure to check out The Frugal Secrets of Real Foodies, an ebook I co-wrote with four other frugal foodie bloggers. We’ve shared great tips and recipes that are sure to help you feed your family better for less.
Order your copy during the launch week (July 8- July 15) and get two free printable packs and coupon codes to other great resources! Join the launch giveaway here, too!
Whew! Another big list all wrapped up! When you want to make a meal that uses little or no meat, what sorts of protein-rich foods do you use?