For most people, when they think about protein, they think meat. But there are plenty of vegan-friendly options for getting your protein, that you can grow right in your own garden.
Here are some of our favorites with tips for growing and cooking from Melissa Halas-Liang, MA, RDN, CDE, dietitian and avid gardener (Source Rodale's Organic Life). I've included a scale detailing how easy (or hard) that plant is to grow for the average gardener (1 being very difficult, 5 being very easy):
1. Brocolli. One of our family's favs, but not necessarily easy to grow. Ease of growing: 2
Broccoli is a legit superfood. Not only does the cool-season crop deliver fiber and protein—1 cup has 2.5 grams of each—“it’s an excellent source of cancer-fighting phytonutrients and vitamin C for your immune system,” says Halas-Liang. (Here's exactly what to eat in a day to reduce your risk of cancer.) The florets are great in stirfries, pureed into soups, or eaten raw with dip—and you can turn the stems into slaw. To avoid mushy broccoli, don’t overcook it, warns Halas-Liang: “Cook until it’s tender and crisp and still bright green.”
2. Edamame. A perfect addition to stir-frys, or as a steamed snack. Ease of growing: 5
With all nine essential amino acids, it’s as close to animal protein as it gets; plus, a study in the International Journal of Obesitylinked soy protein to fat burning and weight loss. As well as delivering 10 grams protein per ½ cup, the green beans are rich in isoflavones and omega-3 fatty acids, inflammation-fighters linked to decreased heart attack risk and reduced symptoms of menopause. Add organic edamame to guacamole or hummus, mash into a toast topper, or eat straight up with a sprinkle of salt.
3. Asparagus. Don't start these from seed, as you can only harvest in the second year. Buy and plant one-year crowns. But once they're going, they're perennials, so you'll always have them. Ease of growing: 4
The spring spears contains 3 grams protein and 3 grams fiber per cup—all for a measly 27 calories. Asparagus also delivers a hefty dose of heart-healthy folate, and inulin to support digestion and healthy gut bacteria. “Asparagus is delicious shaved,” says Halas-Liang, who uses a vegetable peeler to turn it into ribbons for salads. It’s also tasty steamed, broiled, or sautéed.
4. Peas. Another favorite in our house, and very easy to grow. Ease of growing: 5
These glorious green pods that arrive in late spring are packed with protein (4 grams per ½ cup), as well as mood-boosting folate, heart-healthy fiber, and almost half of your vitamin C needs for the day...Toss snow peas or snap peas into stirfries and pastas, puree shelled garden peas into soups, or pair with mint in a salad. (Here's how to pre-sprout your peas to give them a head start and boost yields.)
5. Kale. Young leaves are good in salads, more mature leaves are great sauteed or in soups. Make sure to "massage" the leaves in your prep to make them less tough. Ease of growing: 5
When it comes to leafy greens, kale takes the protein prize, with more of the macronutrient than spinach, collards, and mustard greens—and double that of Swiss chard. One cup also delivers more than your daily dose of immune-boosting vitamin A and bone-building vitamin K. Plus, it’s a good source of calcium. Chop it into salads, puree it into pesto, bake it into kale chips, or try it on this ridiculously delicious kale and lemon pizza.
6. Sunflower seeds. A delicious snack. Sunflowers are relatively easy to grow, and they're a beautiful addition to your yard, but they're a direct sow; you can't start them and transplant them later. Ease of growing: 3
The glorious annual can stretch over 4 meters tall with a flower head 12 inches across, which is where the kernel comes from. As well as providing protein (¼ cup delivers 6 grams), the seeds are rich in linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat linked to weight loss. Plus, they’re a super source of vitamin E and selenium for gorgeous skin. Add sunflower seeds to oatmeal parfaits, cookies, muffins, salads, and pesto. Here's how to harvest sunflower seeds.
Steve & Corey Veldheer are organic yard & garden specialists in west Michigan.