Going meat-free is not only a dietary decision that could have positive effects on your health, it’s also an environmentally-friendly way to eat that’ll reduce your carbon footprint. You don’t have to go entirely meat-free to reap the benefits of a more veggie-focused diet, even one to two meals a week makes a difference, and there are plenty of plant-based meal kits that’ll deliver ingredients right to your door. There are plenty of meat alternatives that go beyond the boring, under-seasoned vegetables you think of when you hear the phrase “vegetarian option,” and many of them are tasty, delicious swaps you’ll look forward to regularly making in your go-to recipes.
We’ve gathered a wide selection of ingredients that make excellent meat alternatives, and recommended high-quality products to make your shopping trip easier. We’ve also highlighted the type of meat they’re an ideal swap for so you can narrow down your choices based on your current diet.
Whether you’re trying out a new diet, looking to replace a few meals a week with something healthier or are eager to shake things up culinarily, here are the best meat alternatives for cooking in 2021.
What Are Meat Alternatives?
Meat alternatives are ingredients you can use in cooking that are substitutes for animal-derived protein like chicken, pork or beef. Typically these ingredients, when seasoned properly, can feel and taste similarly enough to meat to satisfy a craving or recipe goal, without using parts that come from a live animal.
Examples include soy, nuts, beans, legumes and occasionally plant-derived meat alternatives that strongly resemble the real thing — like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. It’s important to keep in mind that not all meat alternatives are vegan, as some may contain traces of eggs or other animal byproducts, and very few have flavors that exactly replicate meat.
Best Overall: Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
As the environmental need for a reduction in the carbon footprint of cattle raising has grown, so has the number of brands that make lab-raised, plant-derived meat designed to mimic the real thing as closely as possible. Brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods use plant fibers to create the tough, fibrous texture of meat as well as the color of beef in their chef-friendly products. Some eaters are still not on board, and the meat is heavily processed due to how it’s made, but if you’re going for a greener option it definitely checks that box.
Beyond Meat Burger Patties
These plant-based patties from Beyond Meat contain 20 grams of protein each, are soy-free, non-GMO and 100% vegan. The meat is designed to cook, look and satisfy just like beef, and the newest version of the recipe has lower total fat, added B vitamins and minerals and fewer calories per serving.
Beyond Meat Burger Plant-Based Patties
Beyond Meat Plant-Based Sausage Links
They’ve made a few different dinner-ready, plant-based meat products including these sausage links that are made for grilling, griddling or pan frying. Each one has 16 grams of protein and 35% less saturated fat than a pork sausage. They’re vegan, contain no antibiotics or hormones and are non-GMO as well.
Impossible Foods Plant-Based Ground Beef Patties
Impossible Foods is the other big brand for plant-based meat alternatives. These burger patties are pre-shaped so they’re easy to grill, and contain no animal hormones or antibiotics. They use 96% less land, 87% less water and emit 89% fewer emissions than beef from a cow, plus they contain 0 mg of cholesterol.
Plant-Based Meatless Chick’n Tenders
These plant-based chicken tenders are breaded, frozen and made to mimic the texture of real chicken on their own, on a salad or even mixed into a pasta. The breaded outside adds flavor while the vegan inside adds plant-based protein. They’re made without artificial flavors or preservatives, and are perfect for dipping into your favorite sauce.
Good & Gather Plant-Based Chick'n Tenders
You know it, you *might* love it, you probably already have feelings about it — tofu. It’s a great, affordable substitute meat alternative for things like stir fries, soups, noodle dishes and sandwiches. It can be marinated, grilled, baked and sautéed, and is very easy to cook. All of the options below are gluten-free and have the extra firm tofu texture you’re used to working with.
Mori-Nu Silken Tofu
Mori-Nu Silken Extra Firm Tofu
Wildwood Organic Extra Firm Tofu
BEST PORK ALTERNATIVE
Jackfruit is a delicious, tough, shreddable meat alternative that’s great in tacos, sloppy Joe’s or other barbecue dishes where you’d otherwise use pork. It’s an exotic fruit that grows in tropical regions in South India, and it’s now become globally popular as a vegan alternative to meat. It’s pretty easy to handle, goes great with sauces and comes ready to cook so your prep time is reduced.
Native Forest Organic Jackfruit
Native Forest Organic Jackfruit
Upton’s Naturals Bar-B-Que Jackfruit
BEST CHICKEN ALTERNATIVE
Seitan, when cooked and seasoned well, can closely mimic the texture and taste of chicken, despite being plant-based. It’s made of wheat protein and is great grilled, sautéed or crisped up in the oven with a little soy sauce or curry on top. It’s high in protein, and is as versatile as chicken when it comes to the recipes you can add it to.
Upton’s Naturals Italian Seitan
BEST BEEF ALTERNATIVE
Tempeh is a smokier, chewier version of tofu that’s an acquired taste for some, but can be a great beef alternative that’s less processed than the plant-based meats above. It’s made from fermented soybeans that become binded into a cake form during the fermentation process. Tempeh can be easily marinated, grilled, baked, and even homemade if you’re a veggie-curious DIY-er. Here are a few of our favorite Tempeh brands that are available to order online.
Lightlife Original Organic Tempeh
HIGH IN PROTEIN
Lentils are a truly plant-based alternative in that they’re a legume you can easily cook, smash and make into burgers, pasta sauce and more. They’re a close cousin to the chickpea, soybean and peanut, and are commonly used in Indian, Ethiopian and Egyptian dishes as a filling alternative to meat. The color of the lentil has an effect on the taste, with red and yellow lentils being sweeter and black lentils having more of an earthy flavor.
Note: the most important part of eating lentils is cooking them thoroughly before eating them, as consuming them raw is unsafe due to a protein called lectin that can bind to your digestive tract if not properly cooked out.
365 by WFM Green Organic Lentils
Good & Gather Dry Lentils
Good & Gather Dry Lentils
When it comes to versatility, it’s hard to beat beans. Black beans, pinto beans and garbanzo beans are all filled with protein, fiber, B-vitamins, iron and other key nutrients for a healthy diet. They can be ground up and made into patties, tossed in pasta or made into meat-free tacos with the right spices.