This month’s Recipe Redux (see links below) theme is Plant-based Protein Bowls. If you’ve stepped in to a Starbucks, Panera, or even a grocery store, you’ve almost certainly seen these pre-packaged containers full of things like whole grains, quinoa, lentils, beans, and other vegetables with the occasional cheese or egg topping labeled “protein bowls,” and if you’re an Instagram fan, then you’ve likely seen plenty of homemade versions too. I’m really not sure why bowls of food are suddenly so popular among the nutrition-minded crowd, but they are! So I’m jumping in too, with a little Halloween twist since we’re only 10 days away.
This month’s theme specifically asks all participants to make a vegetarian protein bowl, and I’m sure I know why. There is a very pervasive myth out there (that I have dealt with in detail before) that we can only get enough protein from meat, dairy, or protein additives like whey powder. However, it is completely possible to have a vegetarian, or even vegan, diet and get all the protein you need in the proper ratios of amino acids to make “complete proteins”. I think I’ve gone through this before, but I’ll do it again. There are 20 amino acids that are the building blocks of all proteins, which make up every tissue in our body, at least to some extent. Our bodies are able to synthesize 11 of these, but 9 amino acids are considered “essential” because we cannot produce them ourselves and rely on them to create the remaining 11 amino acids. This table, from the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board, shows the essential amino acids in the optimal ratio that our body needs them (cystine and tyrosine are included because they are directly synthesized from methionine and phenylalanine, respectively):
|Essential Amino Acid||mg/g of Protein|
All diets, including vegetarian and vegan diets, need to have all these amino acids in approximately this relationship. Animal foods, like meat, fish, and dairy, all contain complete protein. Some plant foods, like quinoa, soy beans/tofu, amaranth, and most seeds do as well. However, other plant foods such as whole grains and beans need to be paired up to “complete” the protein profile, which explains why foods like rice and beans and peanut butter sandwiches are foods that some cultures subsist on without any meat. Therefore, a plant-based protein bowl is the perfect meal for a healthy diet of any kind!
When deciding what to include in my plant protein bowl, I knew I wanted to use seasonal ingredients that were convenient to prepare ahead of time. That way, I could fill up my trusty mason jars and just grab one on the way to work every morning. I also didn’t want to use quinoa because it upsets my stomach- quite a burden for a dietitian to bear. Then, I looked at the date that I would be publishing this post and I realized that it was just in time to offer a Halloween themed meal, which is fun for kids and adults for lunch! Since seasonal ingredients are orange and my mason jars are round, I decided to make a little pumpkin out of my bowl (despite there being no pumpkin in the recipe). So cute!
To assemble this bowl, I used whole wheat couscous as a base, paired with red split lentils to complete the protein profile. I then roasted some sweet potatoes and broccoli. The sweet potatoes added a nice sweetness and softness, as well as that gorgeous pumpkiny color indicating lots of vitamin A!
Turns out the carmelized side of the roasted sweet potatoes also makes perfect Jack-O’-Lantern eyes and mouth, if you are so inclined. That will certainly entertain children, but I was rather entertained by it as well. I topped of my pumpkin buddy with the green broccoli and some edamame, for good measure, since it also provides a complete protein. Feel free to switch out the sweet potato for other types of squash or root vegetables and swap the cous cous for any other whole grain you desire. I layered all my ingredients, but you could also combine them all first before portioning out, if you desire.
Not only does this bowl provide a hefty helping of complete proteins from plants, it also has so much fiber, since every ingredient is high in fiber. You won’t be getting hungry for a while after eating this!
So, next time you’re in the store surrounded by half-price Halloween candy, walk on by. Make a beeline for the whole grains and lovely beta-carotene rich fall veggies like sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and red lentils and make yourself one of these adorable, complete-protein-containing Jack-O’-Lanterns instead!
- 1 1/2 cups dry whole wheat couscous
- 1/2 cup dry red split lentils
- 2 sweet potatoes, microwaved for 5 minutes and large diced
- 1 head broccoli, chopped into florets
- 1 cup shelled frozen edamame
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 450F.
- Prepare the couscous and lentils according to package directions. I used chicken broth as a cooking liquid, but you can substitute water or vegetable broth if desired.
- Toss sweet potatoes (microwaved first to start the cooking process) and broccoli with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast on a lined baking sheet for 20 minutes.
- Divide about 2/3 of the couscous between 5 bowls or mason jars. Top couscous with the lentils, then the sweet potato chunks. Fill in gaps with the rest of the couscous. Use broccoli and edamame to fill up the rest of the bowls/jars.
One serving contains 18g protein, 13g fiber, 5g unsaturated fats, and 153% of your daily vitamin A requirements!