You may have been told that chicken is the “healthiest” of the meat options. Sure, it’s leaner and often cheaper than beef. Perhaps it’s the protein choice you feel most comfortable cooking with. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you’re seeking some change, let me introduce you to some high-protein and nutrient-rich chicken substitutes that will benefit your health and simplify your food prep. Your wallet will thank you too!
It’s Normal to be Hesitant.
I must admit, I used to be a meat lover. I hated any substitutions that replaced meat or chicken. On so many occasions, my mother attempted to add beans to our family recipes and I wanted nothing to do with it (sorry mom). Here I am, incorporating them with other plant-based vegan proteins in my day-to-day dishes. How did I do it? I learned to appreciate their health benefits, but most importantly I found creative ways to enjoy them.
When I discuss the benefits of plant-based proteins with my clients, most are open to trying them. However, some are hesitant. I get it! I was reluctant once too. For some, it’s the texture they dislike, the lack of flavour as compared to meat, or simply not knowing how to incorporate them in recipes. I believe there is a way to overcome every single one of these challenges.
What is the Best Chicken Substitute?
You could spend hours experimenting in your kitchen to find your family’s favourite chicken alternatives – but let me save you some time. In this article, I share my 5 favourite chicken substitutes along with various ways to prepare them. One of these will most definitely be a hit for you and your family!
Lentils are one of my favourite plant-based protein options for replacing ground chicken. They are inexpensive, small (so the texture factor is less of an issue) and they cook so damn quickly. Unlike other beans, there is no need to soak lentils overnight which makes their preparation a breeze. My favourite type is the split red lentils as they cook in just a few minutes. Alternatively, you can buy canned lentils which require no cooking at all.
If you are a meat lover, I recommend mixing your lentils with your ground chicken recipes as they blend in quite nicely. You can start with half lentils and half ground meat, in meatballs or fried rice for example. If you wish, you can work your way up to a greater proportion of lentils as you get accustomed to it. Or not, it’s up to you.
Curry is another great dish to incorporate lentils in, as opposed to chicken. Though I am no expert in Indian cuisine, I do love how you can experiment with different flavour options and create many variations. I especially love serving lentil curry with naan bread or rice. Top it with sour cream (or plain yogurt) and herbs, such as cilantro, parsley or mint, and you’ve got yourself a restaurant-quality dish that is incredibly simple to make. I bet you won’t even notice the lentils.
There is so much to say (and love) about tofu. Its versatility is unmatched in the kitchen. Tofu can be found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Various textures are available; soft, medium, firm and extra-firm. I like the plain extra-firm tofu, especially when it comes to using it as a chicken substitute in recipes.
Once the liquid is drained and the tofu block is pressed, my recommendation is to cut your tofu into small cubes or break it up into crumbles with your hands. You can cook it in the pan, oven or even in the air fryer. Getting it crispy is key in my opinion, especially if you are sensitive to softer textures. I like to use crumbled tofu as a ground chicken or ground meat replacement, in tacos for example. If I cut it into cubes, I may have it as part of a rice bowl (with general tao or teriyaki sauce) or add it to my favourite salads.
Another favourite recipe of mine is tofu “wings”, which are bigger-sized crumbles that I grill (or bake) and tossed in yummy buffalo sauce. Though you could use any of your favourite “wing” sauces. Have I convinced you yet?
Chickpeas can be prepared in a variety of ways, which makes them super fun. For convenience, I recommend canned chickpeas as they have been cooked and are ready to add to your favourite recipes. However, if you have a bit more time on your hands, buying them dried is worth it. There are many ways to cook them, some longer than others, but I guarantee you will end up with a more flavourful product in the end. Not to mention it’s the most economical choice.
Since chickpeas are larger (compared to lentils for example), the texture could take some getting used to. Perhaps hummus could be a good option to start with, as it is blended, to dip your raw veggies, crackers (pretzel crackers are so good with it) or pita bread. On the other hand, you may also enjoy having them roasted as part of a Caesar salad or wrap. Roasted chickpeas can be flavoured with your favourite spice mix – lemon pepper, cajun, ranch, you name it! You can also buy them ready-made, though these are generally more expensive.
4. Black Beans
Black beans were one of the last legumes I got accustomed to, simply due to their pastier texture. However, I think this makes me the best person to advocate for them. Over time, I found tons of ways to enjoy them as a chicken alternative in my go-to meals, which I am happy to share with you. Black beans also make for an inexpensive protein option, with the canned format saving you some precious prep time.
I love making Mexican-style dishes such as chicken quesadillas, nachos and burritos. When I crave these types of meals and don’t have any chicken on hand, I gladly gravitate towards the can of black beans in my pantry as a backup. You could also choose to do a half-and-half mix with your chicken to “stretch” the portion and experience a bit less of a drastic change. Another creative way of using black beans as an alternative to chicken would be in the form of burgers. I have to admit, I haven’t been adventurous enough to try black bean burgers yet, but I dare you to beat me to it. I bet it’s pretty delicious when paired with your favourite fixings.
I have to be honest, this option is a bit more “out there”. You may have never even heard of seitan before and thinking to yourself: “what in the world is this dietitian suggesting to me”? Hear me out.
Seitan is a wonderful source of plant-based protein that is made from gluten, a protein found in wheat. It can be bought in a ready-to-eat format, found with other meat substitutes at certain grocery stores, or it can easily be made at home. The secret is in the seasoning. What it entails is making a paste, combining vital wheat gluten (concentrated flour you might call it), water and seasonings. You can give it any shape you like and cook it in various ways. My go-to way to use seitan is as an alternative to chicken for nuggets.
As you can probably tell by now, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to replacing chicken or meat with plant-based protein sources. You can enjoy your chicken while benefiting from other protein sources throughout the week. Some may call it a flexitarian lifestyle, but ultimately it’s about seeking the balance that feels right for you.
Though you might still have to experiment a bit with these suggestions, I hope that this post provides you with a good starting point or, at the very least, some inspiration to get going with your goal. I know that too can enjoy more plant-based protein one day.