Transitioning to a plant-based or flexitarian diet has been a big priority for many healthy eaters in 2020. But just because there's a new interest in eating less meat doesn't make it easy, especially if it's been a big part of your plate for most of your life. Which is where the OG concept of "meat extenders" comes in.
I admit, whoever came up with the term meat extenders isn’t winning any awards for marketing. (Feel free to wince at the image of a cut of beef engaged in some weird, unholy calisthenics.) Still, the concept behind this term is actually a great one for your health, your wallet, and the environment.
What is a meat extender? Basically, it is a plant-based protein sources like lentils and beans that can be added to meat in home cooking to “extend” its reach—and reduce cost—in recipes. See? No creepy meat aerobics involved. It's a practice that dates back to at least World War II, when government agencies encouraged mixing additional ingredients into the precious supply of beef and pork to make them last longer. (There were entire cookbooks published on the subject.) “Cooking for victory” became the rallying cry for winning the war in the kitchen.
This has been a "eating cheap and healthy" hack that cooks have relied on for decades. But it's one that can actually be treated as a way to make eating more plants and eating less meat a bit easier. By mixing plants into your meatloaf, for example, you're increasing the overall volume of the food—meaning you get more servings out of the same amount of meat. Plus, it dilutes how much meat is in each serving, ensuring that you get a decent amount of plants in every bite without having to make an extra meal. Think of it as the DIY version of the "blended meats" product trend.
TL;DR: If you're not interested in going fully vegan, plant-based meat extenders are a great way to go halvesies. And the good news is that, even if you’re not an experienced cook, getting started with them isn’t rocket science. We spoke to culinary dietitian Julie Andrews, MS, RDN, CD for her hot takes on the top ingredients that can extend the reach of meat at mealtime.
1. Best affordable meat extenders: Oats and beans
Protein (oats): 13 grams per 100 grams raw oats
Protein (beans): 6 grams per 100 grams canned black beans
Think oats are just for oatmeal (or cookies)? Think again. These little flakes are surprisingly high protein, making them a good choice for dinner items, too. They’re also chock full of the soluble fiber that reduces blood cholesterol. And at bargain-basement prices, they’re a fraction of the cost of even clearance counter meat.
So how do you disguise oatmeal as beef? “You can add oats to ground meat as an extender to make burgers, taco meat, to add to casseroles or chili… basically anywhere you would use ground meat,” says Andrews. “You can add uncooked old-fashioned or quick oats directly to the raw ground beef, then proceed with the recipe.”
Meanwhile, beans are a low-cost nutritional powerhouse that can add fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein to tons of meat-based dishes. Mashed pintos make a nearly-unnoticeable addition to ground beef in tacos or half-veggie burgers, while black beans are a friend to chili any day.
Try it: Andrews recommends swapping white breadcrumbs for oats to up the total nutrient content in meatloaf or meatballs, like in this prize-winning recipe. As for beans, this chili recipe serves eight with just one pound of ground turkey, thanks to beans.
2. Best meat-extending multitasker: Mushrooms
Protein: 3 grams per 100 grams of mushrooms
“Mushrooms are another great meat extender,” says Andrews. “You can chop them up and add them to many dishes, and they don’t need to be cooked in advance—think burgers, taco meat, chili, [and] lettuce wrap fillings.” There's a reason why they're a popular addition to the various blended meat products on the market. And because they hold so much water, they add lots of moisture to your final product. (If you don’t love mushrooms’ texture, chopping them finely is key for helping them blend seamlessly into meat.)
3. Best complement to ground meat: Lentils
Protein: 9 grams per 100 grams of cooked lentils
Maybe you’ve never been fan of lentils ever since Grandma forced you to eat them as a kid. But you might change your mind when you taste them mixed with meat. These little legumes’ creamy texture is a perfect complement to ground beef, pork, turkey, or chicken. In many recipes, you’ll need to cook lentils before incorporating them into the mix—but not all!
“Another way to use lentils is to mix them in to Indian-style dishes like curries,” says Andrews. “An example is this Indian Coconut Chicken that uses both chicken thighs and lentils as the ‘meat’ of the dish.” Indian spices galore and it’s made in the Instant Pot? We’re sold.
Try it: Try this Moroccan beef stew with lentils, which simmers meat, lentils, and veggies all together.
4. Best complete protein option: Quinoa
Protein: 4.4 grams per 100 grams cooked quinoa
Quinoa has the distinction of being a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs, but can’t produce on its own. (And did we mention it's a stick-to-your-ribs complex carb?) Quinoa’s crumbly texture fits right in just about anywhere you’d normally use ground meat.
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