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Get your protein with meatless combinations

Eating more vegetarian-based meals can prove challenging in getting complete proteins – proteins that include essential and nonessential amino acids that your body needs for complete nutrition. However, the right combination of foods can ensure your meatless meals are supplying you with all the nutrients you need.

Healthy Couscous Salad

Are you one of the many people eating less meat and incorporating more meatless dishes at mealtimes as part of a healthy lifestyle? Even if you are not going completely vegetarian, finding the right combinations of foods to create the complete proteins your body needs can be daunting.

Here are some tips to help eliminate the gastronomic guesswork and make your meatless meals balanced and complete.

Not your typical “food combining”


Do not confuse combining foods to get complete proteins for the dietary trend called “food combining.” The two differ in both theory and practice. The dietary trend of food combining requires that all food intake be scrutinized and that specific combinations be eaten in a certain order and even at a certain time of day. This type of eating is supposed to result in digestive benefits, including easier digestion, more complete absorption of nutrients and easier breakdown of fats and carbohydrates.

On the other hand, combining foods for complete meatless proteins is a process with the goal of supplying balanced nutrition for meals that do not contain meat. There is no digestive or nutritive goal beyond making complete proteins from vegetable, grain, bean or legume, and seed or nut combinations. Though these foods are healthy, by themselves they cannot supply complete proteins.

Single meal or spread it out

There has long been speculation as to whether or not it is necessary to combine proteins within a single meal to complete them. Some say it is, but a position paper on vegetarian diets by the American Dietetic Association states that plant protein can meet dietary protein requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and a person’s diet has sufficient calories. In addition, research indicates that plant foods eaten throughout the day can provide the diet with all essential amino acids. Further, the proteins do not have to be eaten together in a single meal.

Complete protein combinations

Combining foods for complete proteins is not a new practice spawned from the popularity of vegetarianism. Most cultures have integrated some form of bean and whole-grain dish for their meatless protein combos. A nice added benefit of complete proteins is that, unlike animal proteins, they are high in heart-healthy fiber as well.

Some combinations, such as legumes and seeds or nuts and meals of legumes and whole grains readily make complete proteins. However, eating beans and lentils all the time, though healthy, can get really boring. An easy way to avoid “bean burnout” is to compile lists of foods you particularly like but which lack similar amino acids. Just pick and choose one from each list for your meatless meals to round out your proteins. Use the following lists of foods to mix and match to round out a complete protein meal. These lists are by no means exhaustive, and more extensive information on food combinations can be found at And remember, to make complete proteins, these foods can be eaten together in one meal or spread out over the course of your day.

List One
(foods low in sulfur)
Green beans
List Two
(foods low in tryptophan)
Green peas
Garbanzo beans
Brown rice
List Three
(foods low in lysine)
Pumpkin seeds
Brown rice

Getting complete proteins may seem like an issue reserved for vegans or vegetarians but knowing about plant proteins and combining them to make complete proteins can be important for even the lightly carnivorous.

New potatoes, yams and green peas

Serves 4 to 6


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian or flat-leaf parsley
  • 10 small new potatoes, scrubbed under running water, quartered
  • 2 large yams, scrubbed under running water, diced into 1-inch chunks
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 3 cups frozen green peas, thawed
  • 1/4 cup chopped green onions (green and white parts)
  • 1 cup chopped pecans


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. and spray a large baking pan with nonstick cooking spray (or use a paper towel to coat the inside of the pan with a thin layer of olive oil).
  2. In a large mixing bowl, add the olive oil, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper.
  3. Add potatoes to the mixing bowl. Using your hands, toss the potatoes until they are coated with the olive oil mixture.
  4. Pour into the baking pan and place in the oven on the center rack to bake until the potatoes are just fork-tender, about 30 minutes.
  5. The potatoes should yield when pressed but not be mushy. Add the green peas and onions and toss with a spatula to distribute them evenly.
  6. Bake for another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve garnished with chopped pecans.

Asparagus, mushrooms and pumpkin seeds

Serves 4 to 6


  • Olive oil
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 pound sliced mushrooms
  • Juice and zest of 1 large lemon
  • 2 pounds asparagus, woody ends trimmed


  1. In a large skillet, heat a short drizzle of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the pumpkin seeds, salt and pepper and toast, stirring constantly, until seeds turn golden-brown, about 3 minutes.
  2. Transfer seeds to a medium-sized bowl.
  3. Pour a little more olive oil to the pan and add mushrooms and cook, stirring constantly, until they just begin to brown and release their natural juices, about 4 minutes.
  4. Transfer mushrooms to the bowl with the pumpkin seeds. Add a drizzle more olive oil and the lemon juice to the skillet and let heat for 1 minute.
  5. Add the asparagus and cook, using tongs to turn spears, until the tops are just tender, about 3 minutes.
  6. Add the mushrooms and pumpkin seeds to the skillet and toss until well-coated and heated through. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and turn out onto a serving dish. Sprinkle with lemon zest and olive oil to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

More vegetarian recipes

Portobello mushroom pizzas
Veggie wraps with honey avocado dressing
Black bean and sweet potato enchiladas

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