Many years ago, I decided to become a vegetarian. My mom had been feeding me braunschweiger for a while and I found it delicious. One day, she left the package out and I read it. I was horrified to learn that one of my favorite afternoon snacks was pork liver. Then and there I decided to become a vegetarian. I didn’t know much about protein but I figured I liked beans and peanut butter enough that I could make it work. My mom was a little more concerned than I was. She insisted on buying me vegetarian cookbooks so I would have at least some idea about what I was taking on. I learned a bit about combining proteins and making sure that I was getting enough Iron. It takes some learning and planning in order to be a healthy vegetarian. There are plenty of options for getting the protein you need, but it does take thought. Even if you do not eat a vegetarian diet, it’s important to pay attention to protein. Protein is made of amino acids. Our bodies can make some of them but not others. Those we can make are called non- essential because we do not have to eat them and those we cannot make are called essential because we must eat them. Meat proteins are “complete” proteins because they have all the essential amino acids our bodies need to keep us healthy and strong. Vegetarian sources, such as beans, are “incomplete,” so they are missing at least one amino acid. This is why vegetarians often discuss food combining. Rice and beans are a perfect example of a food combination that makes a complete protein. Rice is missing one amino acid that the beans have and the beans are missing one amino acid that the rice has. Together, all the essential amino acids are present. Research has shown that we don’t need to get a complete protein every time we eat but it is important to eat a variety of protein sources so that our bodies can maintain our muscles, bones, hair and everything else.
I did study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and if I wanted to eat, I was more than likely going to need to eat meat. Since then, I have become an omnivore again, though I won’t touch braunschweiger (sorry mom). Here are some tips for choosing healthful proteins whether you are a vegetarian or not:
- Choose vegetable sources when possible. They contain fiber, vitamins and minerals that animal sources do not.
- Some examples of vegetable proteins are whole grains, beans, nuts and even vegetables.
- Choose poultry and fish when eating animal proteins. These two sources are lower in saturated fats. Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna are great sources of omega 3 fatty acids which are essential for our health.
- If you do choose red meats, choose lean cuts and moderate your portion sizes. Red meats are a great source of Iron, but saturated fat levels can get very high very quickly!
- Eat less processed meats such as deli meats as they are processed and have high levels of sodium.
Here’s a recipe from the Cooking Matters curriculum that uses chicken and beans so you know you’ll get lots of good protein. It’s also a recipe of one of our volunteers!
White Bean Basil Chicken Chili
Chef Kathleen Showalter • Seattle, Wash.
Serves 6, 1½ cups per serving
1 pound boneless chicken breast
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1 medium tomato
1 large lime
1 Tablespoon fresh basil
2 Tablespoons canola oil
2 (15½ ounce) cans Great Northern beans
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1½ teaspoons chili powder
1½ teaspoons cumin
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon salt
1⁄8 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves
1. Remove any skin from the chicken breast. Cut chicken breast into ½-inch cubes.
2. Peel, rinse and finely chop onion. Peel and mince garlic.
3. Rinse tomato, lime, and basil.
4. Remove tomato core and seeds, then chop tomato.
5. Cut lime in half and squeeze juice of one half of the lime into a bowl. Discard any seeds.
6. Finely chop basil.
7. Drain and rinse beans, in a colander.
8. In a large saucepan or soup pot, cook onion and garlic in oil over medium heat until onion is tender, about 5 minutes. If the onion or garlic start to brown, lower the heat.
9. Add chicken, beans, broth, spices, tomato, lime juice, and basil to pot, stir, and bring to a boil.
10. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
11. Top with red pepper flakes and rinsed and chopped fresh cilantro if using.
••Use Thai basil for an East meets Southwest flavor.
••Serve over a bed of cooked greens like spinach, kale or chard or serve over rice.
••Try substituting other canned beans — like kidney, cannellini or pinto — for the Great Northern beans.