Several years ago, my family resolved to eat less meat. Though we didn’t want to become vegetarians, we were interested in cutting back on meat for both health and environmental reasons. At first I was nervous about how to feed my family protein-rich meals without it, but doing so was easier than I expected. It turns out that there are some great kid-friendly, non-meat sources of protein that, with a little know-how, are not scary to cook with—or to eat.
Yes, even tofu.
Whether you want to go full-on vegetarian or just cut back on meat, here’s the down low on 6 of my favorite non-meat protein sources that my kids actually eat, along with recipes you can easily incorporate into your breakfast, lunch, dinner and even those after school snacks for kids. Because anything has to be better than chips, right?
Non-Meat Proteins: Eggs
Breakfast Tostadas | FoodieCrush
Okay, it’s not like you don’t know about eggs if you’re a parent. But it’s good to remember that every medium egg has around 6 grams protein, making them a great non-meat protein source way beyond breakfast. Plus, did you know that eggs are a complete food with all 20 amino acids in arguably the most digestible form? Yep, this is a nutritional powerhouse that are easy to add to your family’s diet in kid-friendly ways.
The easiest way to take advantage of all that eggs have to offer is to keep a big batch of cooked eggs in the refrigerator at all times. Our tutorial on how to hard boil eggs can help you do just that. They make a great on-the-go breakfast and work well packing into school lunch.
If you’re also looking to make eggs for dinner, why not try one of our breakfast taco recipes? Honestly, the Breakfast Tostadas that we found at Foodie Crush (above) seem like dinner material to me, especially topped with avocado. And if you have picky kids, experiment with losing the greens and getting it to where they’ll actually eat it.
These Vegetable-stuffed Baked Egg Boats at Cotter Crunch are another fun eggs-for-dinner recipe that the kids will love. In addition to protein, these boats are filled with veggies and are gluten free, too.
Not-Meat Proteins: Beans
One Pot Vegetarian Chili Mac | Kristine’s Kitchen
Beans are many people’s go-to for non-meat protein, and with good reason. In fact, they are such good sources of protein that the USDA includes them in both the vegetable and protein food groups. The exact amount of protein you’ll get from beans depends on the variety. Soy beans, including edamame, are the best source of protein (and fortunately, lots of kids love the fun of eating edamame!), but pinto, kidney, black, navy, garbanzo, and lima beans are all great, too.
Beans are a versatile ingredient that taste great in a huge variety of cuisines, and prepared hot or cold. Canned beans make it really easy to add protein to any meal, but cooking dried beans is not hard either. I like this method for cooking beans on the stovetop and then I freeze what I make in 2-cup containers for future use. You can also check out the tutorial at The Kitchn on how to cook beans in a slow cooker, which I’ve heard is a great approach.
There are a zillion bean recipes for all tastes, but if I’m thinking kid-friendly, the One Pot Vegetarian Chili Mac Recipe from Kristine’s Kitchen (above)is a great way to get your family started.
Roasted Garlic Hummus | The Chunky Chef
Garbanzo beans—a.k.a. chickpeas—are my personal favorite, and my kids love them, too. I throw them into all kinds of dishes—even just a side of steamed rice for extra nutritional punch. But a kid-favorite is always hummus, including the Roasted Garlic Hummus that I found at The Chunky Chef. You can easily cut back on the garlic if it’s too much for your kids, and up the tahini if they like theirs a little sweeter.
Chickpeas also make the best Vegetarian Chickpea Burgers, and you can find the recipe at my own blog, This Week for Dinner. Trust me, your kids will be into these, even if you have to leave off the mushrooms.
Non-Meat Proteins: Quinoa
The total trendiness of it aside, quinoa is truly a great source of nutrition, especially protein. While most people think of it as a grain, it’s actually a seed which, like eggs, means that it contains everything needed to support growing a whole new plant. So while most other plant-based foods don’t qualify, quinoa is a complete source of protein. Score!
The key to making quinoa appealing is cooking it correctly, as we go over in our tutorial on how to cook quinoa so that it’s fluffy, mild, and delicious. You’ll be amazed at what a difference cooking quinoa properly will make.
Still, a plate of quinoa all by its lonesome, even with butter or a grating of parm on top, might not appeal to some kids. So try adding it to other dishes, like this deliciously cheesy Black Bean and Quinoa Enchilada Bake at Two Peas and Their Pod.
Non-Meat Proteins: Nut Butters (Duh)
With an average of 7 to 8 grams of protein per 2-tablespoon serving, almond and peanut butter are among the nut butters with the highest protein content. Though this isn’t off the charts, it’s comparable to about one egg or even an ounce of meat, which is a great boost to any kid’s diet — so long as they aren’t allergic, of course. Plus, nut butters are also a great source of healthy fat and fiber.
Nut butters aren’t only good for sandwiches! These Sesame Peanut Butter Noodles at The Wholesome Dish is a classic way to use peanut butter in a quick, family-friendly dinner that plenty of kids will love. All you need is a side of steamed or roasted broccoli and you’ve got an easy, complete weeknight meal.
You can also get some healthier snacks ready for them that incorporate nut butters. A handful of peanuts as a snack is fine, but if you’re a cook, instead try out one of these Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Bites at I Heart Eating. Your kids will love these bites because they are sweet (though not too sweet), and you’ll love them because they’re packed with all kinds of nutritious ingredients. Take a look it’s healthier than you might think.
Non-Meat Proteins: Greek Yogurt
Greek-style yogurt has about the same amount of calories as regular yogurt, but far less sugar and nearly twice the amount of protein. Our own list of favorite yogurts to buy includes two Greek-style yogurt brand recommendations. No matter what the brand, I like plain best because it has the least amount of sugar and is versatile enough to serve as a snack with just some thawed fruit, a spoonful of jam, a squirty of honey, or even a touch of vanilla extract to sweeten it up.
Serving Greek-style yogurt for breakfast or snack time is pretty easy business, especially if you load it up like this recipe for Blueberry Peach Greek Yogurt Bowls at Eating Bird Food. So easy, right?
But have you ever used Greek yogurt to cook? Tell me your kids won’t be psyched for a big bowl of Fettuccini Alfredo, only I’ve got a healthier twist for you with this Greek Yogurt Alfredo Pasta at Creme de la Crumb. Plus, it only takes 10 minutes! Just keep in mind that some say cooking yogurt at high heat may reduce the quality of the protein, though it’s still a far healthier alternative to traditional recipes.
Non-Meat Proteins: Tofu
Spaghetti Squash Bowl with Smoky Waffled Tofu | Spabettie
Tofu is the quintessential source of vegetarian protein and, if kids can get used to it, is a great ingredient for any meal at all. When my daughter was a baby, I would mix soft tofu into her baby food and muesli to give her meals a protein punch.
Firm tofu works very well as an alternative in meals that usually use meat, like stir fries and enchiladas. I think the key is to not think about tofu as a substitute for meat, but rather a new ingredient all on its own to experiment with.
Speaking of experimenting, keep it fun by cooking your tofu in a waffle iron to make this Vibrant Spaghetti Squash Bowl with Smoky Waffled Tofu at Spabettie (above). This method alone could get even picky kids interested enough to accept a big bowl of vegetables, because waffle shaped tofu! If not, hey, you get to eat the leftovers yourself.
Sesame Ginger Tofu Stir Fry | Little Spice Jar
However one of the great things about tofu to keep in mind if you’re trying to prepare it for kids, is that it easily takes on other flavors. (See also: Tofu Ice Creams.) And, let’s be honest, you generally need big flavors to make meals work for kids. So I think the recipe for Sesame Ginger Tofu and Veggie Stir Fry that our associate editor Kate found at Little Spice Jar while looking for kid-friendly vegetarian recipes is perfect. It coats crispy, pan-fried tofu chunks in a fresh, tasty sauce that’s tastier than any take-out, and way better for you than the same old chicken and broccoli kids tend to gravitate to.