Vegetarian Substitutes


Many people think twice about adopting a vegetarian diet because they believe it is inconvenient to eliminate meat from their everyday diets. Although meat and fish consumption is generally encouraged in moderate amounts, there are still a variety of plant-based alternatives that can be used as substitutes for those who do wish to eliminate or reduce meat consumption due to health or personal reasons.

Below are some commonly found foods that can substitute for popular meat items, like meatballs, burgers, and more:


While tofu is a popular product, it should not be confused with tempeh. While both are derived from soybeans and are excellent sources of protein (tofu provides 40%DV protein per one cup serving, while tempeh provides 62%DV), the two differ in how they are produced and both vary in taste – tempeh is less processed and carries a stronger flavor (see here for a more complete breakdown of the two).

Tempeh contains a significant amount of calcium and iron (18%DV and 25%DV, respectively), and is rich in minerals manganese and phosphorus. Studies have shown that low manganese intake may be linked with bone malformation and signs of manganese deficiency include poor eyesight, memory loss, and muscle tremors. Similarly, studies indicate that phosphorus (in conjunction with calcium) is necessary for optimal bone and teeth health. Tempeh’s dense texture makes it a perfect substitute for meats.

Check out these recipes for easy tempeh meatballs or an even simpler BBQ tempeh. Alternatively, the sweet and sour sauce from the tempeh meatball recipe can be omitted and the tempeh meatballs can be added to any pasta sauce for versatility.


Lentils, like peas, are part of the legume family and come in a variety of color (the most common are green, brown, and red). Due to their small size, lentils (unlike other legumes) do not to be pre-soaked before cooking – their small size allows them to be cooked quickly and with ease. Furthermore, because lentils are purchased dried, they are said to have an “indefinite” shelf life when properly stored in an air-tight container, away from heat and moisture.

One cup of cooked lentils provides 63%DV of fiber and 18 grams, or 36%DV, of protein. Lentils are also an excellent source of vitamins folate and thiamin, and minerals manganese, phosphorus, and iron. Folate is a form of vitamin B and is necessary for proper liver, skin, and eye health. Adequate folate intake may aid in the prevention of osteoporosis, age-related macular degeneration, depression, and sleep issues, among other conditions. Thiamin is also a form of vitamin B (there are 8 B vitamins total!) and thiamin deficiency has been linked with dementia in Wernicke-Korsakoff disorder, a brain disorder characterized by nerve damage and memory issues.

Craving burgers? Check out this lentil hamburger recipe here! While this recipe falls more on the challenging side, there are also commercial brands of lentil and bean-based patties that are frequently sold in stores.

Mock/Soy Meats

For the busy person or those who favor convenience above all, there are many brands of mock meats commonly found in grocery stores. The ingredients these mock meats consist of vary from brand to brand, although most are made from either soy or grains. A few of the more popular products include: Gardein Beefless Tips, MorningStar Farms Sausage Patties, Boca Burgers, and Garden Malibu Vegan Burgers.

Prep for these commercial “meats” are simple, as most are already cooked.

Although plant-based foods lack some of the essential nutrients that meats and seafood provide, plant-based alternatives are naturally void of cholesterol and saturated fat and may be a good substitute for those wishing to decrease cholesterol or saturated fat intake (some meats, like beef, are high in both).

What meat substitutes do you most commonly use? Feel free to comment below!

By Esther Chen, Clinical Nutrition Student

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