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Monday, May 4, 2020

The Meat Eater's Guide to Crafting a Meatless Meal, pt.1

You would have to have your head in the sand to not realize that there are meat shortages looming. Supply chain issues will continue to be a problem as processing plants grapple with the problem of keeping their employees healthy while maximizing production. The tremendous quantity of our country's meat processing in the last several decades has hinged upon workers in very close proximity to one another for long shifts, working as quickly as they can. There's little real social distancing in one of these plants. 

In addition, this is an underpaid segment of workers in our country. Many of them absolutely need to go to work, even when they are sick, as they truly need the income to pay basic bills. The way to offer safety to those who work to provide meat for our tables may be to slow production, which in turn will lead to less meat in our stores and higher prices for what is there. 

We may very well have reached the tipping point for how we eat as Americans. The changes that are instituted in this current crisis may reflect a greater awareness of the immorality of asking workers to risk their health in order for us to have meat on our tables every night. Eating meatless a few nights per week can not only save us some money, but it can help spread the smaller supply a little further.

Eating meatless doesn't mean staring down at a plate of beans every night. In fact, if all you ate were beans, your diet would be deficient in many key nutrients. To healthfully eat meatless, we need to pull together meals that incorporate multiple meatless sources of nutrients.

When talking about eating a vegetarian meal, the primary nutrient most of us consider is protein. After all, meat is the comparison food for newly-hatched vegetarians, and meat is mostly the muscle tissue of an animal. Animal muscle is primarily water, at 75% of weight, followed by protein, at 20%. 

For myself, protein is the first thing that I think of when I think of meat, followed by iron, zinc, and vitamin B-12. There are a few tricks to getting enough iron, zinc, and B-12 from vegetarian sources, and I'll get to those in a later post.

Focusing on protein, when I pull together a vegetarian dinner to satisfy my meat-eating family, I try to incorporate at least 3 different sources of protein from the different food groups that are protein-rich (i.e. dairy/eggs, grains, beans, nuts/seeds, and to a lesser extent, some vegetables/mushrooms).

Here's an example of one of our recent meatless dinners and how the nutrients stack up. A few nights ago, I made TVP and Parmesan spaghetti in a tomato and herb sauce. 

For protein, I used 3/4 cup of dry TVP (a bean food), about 7 oz (not quite half of a 1-lb package) of dried spaghetti (grain), 1/4 cup of powdered Parmesan cheese (dairy) both stirred into the sauce and as topping, and 5 small slices of half wheat/half white sourdough bread made into garlic toast (grain). 

The total amount of protein for all four plates was about 91.5 grams, or an average of not quite 23 grams per person. In general, I eat less than my husband. So I gave him a larger serving of the pasta dish and 2 slices of garlic sourdough and myself a smaller amount of the pasta dish and 1 slice of sourdough. That means my husband had about 26 grams of protein, while I had about 20 grams. 

Incidentally, if I were to have made this same dinner from 12 ounces (the amount I normally use for our family of four) of 70/30 ground beef (the cheapest blend of lean to fat ground beef), tomato sauce, and spaghetti noodles, the total protein content would have also been about 91.5 grams.

Warning: Digression Approaching

Here's an interesting factoid: sourdough bread actually contains more available protein per weight than commercial yeast bread. The reason is two-fold. First, most sourdough bread is made simply with flour, active culture (the starter), water, a smidge of sugar and salt (my recipe for a two-loaf, 5 to 6 cups flour batch calls for 2 teaspoons of sugar), and no fat. In contrast, most yeasted breads contain far more sugar plus fats to ensure a tender loaf. So, the ratio of higher protein ingredients to lower protein ones in sourdough is favorable compared to most white or wheat bread. (Obviously, one could make a yeast bread with additional protein ingredients, but I'm just referring to your standard sourdough vs. yeast bread, here.) The second reason for the higher protein content in sourdough compared to yeast bread has to do with all of the "work" that goes into making sourdough. The "work" or steps of resting, folding, and the feeding in order to activate natural yeasts for a good rise also activate the dough's gluten content. (source: You simply get more protein-bang for the buck with sourdough. 
Digression Complete

Back to the topic. The USDA recommends 0.8 to 1 gram of protein for every 1 kg of body weight (about 2.2 lbs). The low end being for a sedentary individual and the high end for an active one. A simple formula is to multiply your body weight (in pounds) by 0.36. By that formula, an average adult woman weighing 125 lbs, would need a total of 45 grams of protein per day, while an average adult man weighing about 160 lbs would require about 57 grams of protein per day.

To illustrate how these needs can be met on a meatless day, here's a typical vegetarian day of meals and snacks for me:

I'm petite, average build, and somewhat active. On the night we had the spaghetti meal, my dinner of 20 grams of protein was about 45% of my total requirement for the day. (By the way, my husband's plate was also about 45% of his total requirement for the day.) That left 55% of my protein needs to be met through breakfast, lunch, and a couple of several snacks per day. I get about 16 to 17 grams of protein in my breakfast of a cup of homemade yogurt and 2 pieces of sourdough toast. I consume about 13 to 15 grams of protein in primarily vegetarian lunches of beans/TVP/rice/veggies/peanut butter/bread/fruit. And there's another 15 to 16 grams of protein in my snacks throughout the day (including a daily cup of soy milk made into soy cocoa). This gives me a total of 44 to 48 grams of protein in addition to my TVP spaghetti dinner of about 20 grams. That puts me over my daily protein requirement by 19 to 23 grams. 

Variety, variety, variety

Some days, my eating is more protein-rich than others; but I'm fairly certain that I meet my needs on a daily basis. Variety is truly the key to healthy eating, in general, and crafting protein-rich meals, in particular. But, honestly, the task of getting enough protein into the vegetarian meals I prepare is not as complex as this post may make it seem. I'll tell you the hows and whys in part 2.

Till next time . . .


  1. You never fail to amaze me, Lili, with your scientific approach to nutrition and budgeting. I think I will have to read through this several times to pick up all your information! So many aspects of our lives are being changed in short order. Flexibility in how we approach life is going to be key to our survival, but I confess that sometimes it seems overwhelming to me.

    1. Hi Kris,
      I agree. I can't believe how much routine daily life has changed in just 2 months. There is so much I took for granted that is now gone. And for the first time, my eyes are open to the many disparities in our culture. It is overwhelming and profoundly sad.

  2. As I said before, I like your analyses because you account for most variables. Many "studies" leave out key factors either to make a point or because they just don't occur to people. Anyway, getting enough protein, no matter what the source, is something I struggle with. Probably time to start counting again and thinking about the comparisons you just made.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      My struggle is mostly making the choices that I know I should be making. I'd much rather eat cookies than have a snack of cheese or eggs. But I do know I'll feel better if I at least eat something that is not sugary before I go for the cookies. I've learned a lot about making better food choices from my daughters. Both of them make themselves really healthy snacks and breakfasts. Like I said, I'd rather be eating cookies.

      I think it does help me to occasionally check my nutrients (count grams) to see if I am still on target. Good luck to you as you try to get more protein in.


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