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Vegetarian Protein Swaps to Use Instead of Meat

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

These meat substitutes prove even the most carnivorous cook can kick it vegetarian-style

You want to accommodate your vegetarian friends without having to serve them nothing but sides or a boring salad at your cookout. But you also don't want to make a whole dish that only one person will eat. What's a party food maven to do?

Turns out, you just need some mad meat-swap skills to create a dish your omnivorous (and carnivorous) guests will mow down just as happily as your very appreciative cruelty-free friends. So, what are these vegetarian-friendly meat substitutes? We thought you'd never ask...

More: The complete guide to stocking a low-carb vegetarian kitchen

1. Instead of chicken or pork, use jackfruit

These meat substitutes prove even the most carnivorous cook can kick it vegetarian-style
Image: Minimalist Baker


Yes, it's a fruit, but jackfruit holds up incredibly well in meat recipes. It can be sliced, diced or even fliced (OK, we meant shredded, but that didn't rhyme, so we decided to start a thing… #Fliced).

Because it's a fruit, it has a little sweetness, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you're going the barbecue route.

Try it pulled BBQ sandwiches or use it in stir-fries, where the sauce can counter some of the fruit's natural sweetness.

2. Instead of steak, use portobello mushrooms

These meat substitutes prove even the most carnivorous cook can kick it vegetarian-style
Image: Laurenda Marie

The large meaty caps of the portobello mushroom have just the resistant bite you're looking for when subbing for steak on skewers or for fajitas or just cooking it up alone like a steak. They don't taste exactly like steak, but don't be surprised if some of your non-veggie friends actually prefer them to the steak (or even alongside it).

Just marinate the mushrooms in a large sealable plastic bag in olive oil, salt, pepper and any herbs and spices you want for about an hour (or use a vegetarian-friendly steak marinade). Then grill or sauté them on high for five to seven minutes. You can stack them on a burger (try this portobello burger with smoked provolone and caramelized onions) or slice them up for fajitas. For skewers, put them on raw and cook them until the other veggies are done (you can't really overcook them).

More: How to Use Powdered Peanut Butter — Your New High-Protein Vegan BFF

3. Instead of ground beef or sausage, try beans, legumes or lentils

These meat substitutes prove even the most carnivorous cook can kick it vegetarian-style
Image: Nugget Market

Beans, legumes and lentils can be made into substitutes for ground beef or even sausage (by using traditional sausage seasonings). They also provide a good amount of protein and other good-for-you vitamins and minerals. Try a chickpea burger with coconut cabbage slaw or make black bean enchiladas or tacos for a casual get-together.

4. Instead of hot dogs, use carrots

These meat substitutes prove even the most carnivorous cook can kick it vegetarian-style
Image: Clean Eating Veggie Girl

Hear us out. I know it seems weird, but not only are they the perfect shape and texture, but with the right toppings, it's absolutely ah-may-zing. Does it taste exactly like a hot dog? Nope. Will you or your vegetarian pal give AF? Not one bit. We love this idea for using lettuce instead of buns for the health conscious among you. (Pro tip: This is also a good way to get your kids to eat their veggies.)

5. Instead of steak or poultry, use cauliflower

These meat substitutes prove even the most carnivorous cook can kick it vegetarian-style
Image: mealmakeovermoms/Flickr

You're not alone if you feel like cauliflower subs are overdone, but we're super-excited about these cauliflower steaks. Your veggie-head friend will get her vegan option and there will inevitably be smaller "steaks" for your meat-friendly friends to have a taste too. And if you're hosting an event like Thanksgiving or Christmas (or just Sunday dinner), this spicy whole-roasted cauliflower acts as a main affair for your vegetarian BFF and a tasty side for everyone else.

More: 11 vegan lunchbox ideas for little people who love big flavor

6. Instead of chicken, use eggplant

These meat substitutes prove even the most carnivorous cook can kick it vegetarian-style
Image: Patricia Conte/SheKnows

Eggplant has a pretty meaty texture, and while it may not be quite as meaty as some other things on this list, there are tons of entrée recipes that will satisfy everyone on your guest list, so there's no need to make two main dishes. Better yet, it's typically really easy for someone just beginning to experiment with cooking for vegetarian and vegan friends to jump right into. Try eggplant Parmesan, use it in place of meat in a stir-fry and more. You can even make an appetizer of eggplant chips everyone will enjoy if you want extra vegetarian-accommodation bonus points.

7. Instead of fish or chicken, use tofu

These meat substitutes prove even the most carnivorous cook can kick it vegetarian-style
Image: Olives for Dinner

Tofu is a soy-based meat substitute that usually comes in a block. You can find it in the refrigerated vegetarian or health food section at your supermarket or in a specialty vegetarian or health food store. For a meat substitute, avoid the silken variety and go for the extra-firm, which has a firmer texture.

You'll need to drain off the excess fluid, then wrap it in a clean, dry kitchen towel. Place it on a cutting board over the sink to drain, then place a heavy-ish object like a dinner plate or cookbook on top and let it sit for 10 or 15 minutes. Then cut it or crumble it as the recipes calls for, marinate it for 15 or so minutes and cook it up according to the recipe. Remember, tofu doesn't have much flavor on its own, so the marinade is key. If you need some inspo, check out these 23 tofu recipes.

8. Instead of bacon or beef, use tempeh

These meat substitutes prove even the most carnivorous cook can kick it vegetarian-style
Image: Sails & Spices

Tempeh is similar in many ways to tofu, but it's fermented, lending it more inherent flavor than its pale-colored counterpart. Its meatier texture makes it perfect to sub for ground beef in things like meatballs and burgers or DIY your own vegan bacon for burgers, BLTs, salads and more.

9. Instead of chicken, use seitan

These meat substitutes prove even the most carnivorous cook can kick it vegetarian-style
Image: The Edgy Veg

Seitan — also called wheat meat, wheat protein or wheat gluten — is a wheat-based (rather than soy, like tempeh and tofu) meat substitute that has such a meaty texture, you could probably fool your most carnivorous friends. Yes, you can use it in stir-fries, curries and tacos and pho. But we strongly suggest you go for the seitan Buffalo wings.

One last thing…

Just remember that vegan and vegetarian aren't the same, so while a vegetarian will gladly toss back a vegan treat with abandon, your vegan friend might have more restrictions, including cheese and other dairy products, eggs and more. So if you're a vegan food rookie, make sure you check in with them on the ingredients you're using first.

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