Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on August 21, 2020
You don't need to spend a bundle to stock up on protein-rich foods. Take sardines, for example. The small, silvery fish pack 20 grams of protein in a ⅓-cup serving. You can buy them fresh, but canned is cheaper. Look for those canned in water or olive oil, and rinse off any extra oil. They're easy to prepare. Just sprinkle with lemon juice and olive oil, or top with chopped tomatoes and herbs like basil or oregano.
Cottage cheese not only has nearly 24 grams of protein per cup, it also has casein. That's a type of protein you digest slowly, which helps you feel full longer. Cottage cheese is a great add-in. Blend it in a smoothie or mix it into scrambled eggs. Use it as a base for a bowl topped with veggies, olives, and seasonings. Or power up muffins by adding cottage cheese to your favorite recipe.
These legumes are small but mighty, with 16 grams of protein per cup (cooked). They’re also heart-healthy and high in iron. Lentils cook up faster than most dried beans since you don’t need to presoak them. Add cooked lentils to a salad with chopped sweet peppers, herbs, and spices. Or simmer dried ones into a soup with broth, garlic, onion, diced tomatoes, spinach, and rosemary.
You probably have some in your pantry right now, whether rolled, steel-cut, or instant. While their textures differ, all have about the same amount of protein: 5 grams per 1-cup serving (cooked). Boost fiber and flavor by topping your oatmeal with berries, nuts, cinnamon, and a drizzle of honey. For a twist, use whole-oat groats (cleaned and hulled oats) as a base for poultry stuffing.
You'll get 23 ounces of protein in a 3-ounce serving of this versatile bird. Certified organic or pasture-raised ground turkey is often more expensive, but may offer more nutrients and fewer additives. It pinch-hits for ground beef or pork in burgers, meatloaf, or chili. For a light lunch, fill crisp cabbage leaves with ground turkey sautéed with soy sauce, ginger, scallions, jalapeno, and cilantro.
Despite the name, they're not really nuts. They're legumes, like peas and beans. And just 1 ounce has 8 grams of protein. You may equate them with the PB&J, but peanuts are shape-shifters. Sprinkle them onto a salad, add them to sautéed chicken and veggies, and stir peanut butter into your morning oatmeal. Or just have a handful for a snack.
Tempeh is a fermented soy food like tofu. But it’s firmer, with a distinct savory flavor that makes it a great meat substitute. It offers 33.7 grams of protein per cup. You can steam, bake, or fry it, and add it to stews and soups. Try it on a skewer for grilling. Or put broiled tempeh on whole-grain bread and top with sauerkraut, cheese, and Russian dressing for a twist on a Reuben sandwich.
What can’t you do with chicken? There are so many ways to cook this protein powerhouse -- grilled, baked, broiled, sautéed, and more. It's got 27 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving. Toss cooked, sliced chicken breast into a salad. Stir-fry it with veggies, soy sauce, sesame seeds, ginger, garlic, and seasonings. Or, for a lower-fat meatloaf, sub ground chicken breast for beef or veal.
It's got 20 grams of protein per can, and a mild flavor that pairs well with lots of ingredients. Try it with olives, chili peppers, leeks, fennel, and/or walnuts in a tuna salad. Did you know you can use canned tuna in sushi? Roll it into sheets of roasted seaweed with cooked brown rice, avocado, and cucumber. Buy tuna packed in water or broth instead of oil to keep fat lower.
Eggs are inexpensive, quick-cooking, and offer 6 grams of protein apiece. Whip up huevos rancheros by scrambling eggs with chili peppers. Serve with black beans and corn tortillas. Chop hard-boiled eggs and mix with lemon juice, olive oil, leeks, and dill for egg salad. If you're cutting carbs, replace half the noodles in your mac and cheese with scrambled egg whites. They taste like al dente pasta when covered in cheese sauce.
Legumes like black beans are a good source of fiber and protein. You'll get 7 grams of protein in a half-cup serving. Studies show that black beans contain compounds that help control your blood sugar and insulin levels. Add canned or cooked dried ones to soup, burritos, or a layered dip with guacamole, chopped tomatoes, diced onions, and cilantro. In vegetarian chili, mix black beans with red kidney and pinto beans.
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U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Sardines," "Cottage Cheese," "Lentils," "Oats," "Ground Turkey," "Tempeh," "Chicken Breast," "Eggs," "Black Beans."
Consumer Reports: "How Much Protein Do You Need to Be Healthy?" "Is Cottage Cheese Good For You?" "How to Cook From Your Pantry," "5 Comfort Foods Made Healthy," "Protein Alternatives Can Help You Cope With the Meat Shortage."
USDA Choose My Plate: "All about the Protein Foods Group."
Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials: "3 Healthiest (and Worst) Fish For Your Health," "How to Build a Healthy Breakfast for Weight Loss," "Recipe: Cabbage Cups with Gingery Ground Turkey."