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5 Ways to Add Vegetarian Protein to Lunch Salads

May  6, 2014

As a defiant response to Sad Desk Lunches, the Food52 team works to keep our midday meals both interesting and pretty. Each week, we'll be sharing our happiest desk lunches -- and we want to see yours, too.

Today: Beef up your salad, without adding any beef.

Kale Salad on Food52

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Meatless meals have come a long way over the past decade. Gone are the frumpy kasha of the '70s and the egregious margarine of the '80s. Meatless Mondays will be getting their own Hollywood star sometime soon, between Natalie Portman and Kale.

But somehow it's still too easy to pack a salad for lunch, feel super dandy about it, and then get hungry 45 minutes after it's gone. You soon find yourself trolling Seamless for something to sustain your afternoon productivity, which makes that thrifty lunch a useless exercise.

Vegetarian protein to the rescue! (Let's all imagine a little block of tofu, fist in the air, cape a-waving, saving your lunch. Like Quailman, without the tightie whities.) A serving or two of legumes, nuts, or eggs will turn your salad into a filling and sustaining lunch, and will help you grow up to be a big, strong, to-do-list slaying adult. Superhero cape optional.

Here are five quick ways to add (vegetarian) protein to your lunch salad:

Lentil Salad on Food52

Lentils and beansLegumes are the classic choice here. They've got some of the highest protein per square inch, as far as meatless options go, and you can make a big batch of them on Sunday and keep them on hand all week. Add a big scoop to your salad -- pair lentils with more delicate greens, and bigger beans with chunkier vegetables. Or fold your lentils into yogurt with some spinach, and spoon them over toast. In springtime, white beans go nicely with crunchy radishes and bright herbs; let your legume of choice change with the seasons. 

Hard-Boiled Eggs

Boiled EggsDon't turn up your nose at this idea just because the salad bars of your youth contained icky, rubbery, sulfurous eggs. After all, they're compact, they don't need much adornment past deskside salt and pepper, and your fork will quickly break them down into salad-friendly bits. Boil one while you dry your hair or make your coffee in the morning -- here's how to do it -- then prepare yourself a new kind of egg salad. They are also perfect atop last night's roasted vegetables, alongside a handful of whatever grain you have around.

Tofu on Food52

Tofu and Tempeh
It's all about prepping these ahead and seasoning them well. Press your tofu, slice and dress it, then briefly broil it to crisp it up. Marinate and sear tempeh for better flavor and texture. Then layer your filets onto lunch, and eat with a fork and knife, as if your desk were a steak-free steakhouse. BYO-bread basket for the full effect.

Quinoa Salad on Food52

Feta (or Other Crumbly) CheeseFeta adds tang, creaminess, and contrast to crunchy vegetables or chewy grains. Bring in a tub of the good stuff and keep it in your fridge, then crumble it over your salads, whether they be green or grain. It pairs especially well with quinoa, sturdy greens like kale, and crunchy toppings. Its lifelong friends include lemon, olives, and parsley.

More: If you're a total overachiever, try making your own.

Walnuts on Food52  Roasted Pumpkin Seeds on Food52

Nuts and SeedsDon't overlook the little guys. Nuts and seeds are full of protein and good fats; they're cheap when bought in bulk; and, when toasted or roasted, they add deep flavor and fun crunch to an otherwise vanilla salad. If you've toasted them and you want maximum crunch factor, pack them separately so they're not softened by the water in your vegetables. Try adding hazelnuts to this quinoa salad, or cashews to miso-laced greens.

Tell us: How do you pack in protein for a packed lunch?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • susan g
    susan g
  • monacake
  • CurioCook
  • EmFraiche
  • Liz B. @ UMAMI LIFE
    Liz B. @ UMAMI LIFE
Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



susan G. October 30, 2016
Don't put kasha down! Check the nutrition, check the health favorable advantages. If you've eaten it since childhood, it's soul food too. Recently I've been experimenting with it as a stand-in for ground meat, with good results, on the model of a NYT recipe®ion=collection&pgType=recipebox&rank=6.
monacake May 14, 2014
cheeses and nuts have always been my fall back for adding protein to salads (been a vegetarian since i was 12), but lately seitan has worked it's way up the list. store-bought is ok, but making my own gives me the ability to flavor it as i choose (and it's cheaper). i prefer the flavor and consistency to tofu or tempeh.
and thanks for this - it's nice to see a non-snarky article about vegetarian protein options!
CurioCook May 11, 2014
egg salad link doesn't work :(
EmFraiche May 6, 2014
Love the Quailman reference!!
Liz B. May 6, 2014
This post could nearly be bento-prep instructions! I have a clean eating bento-making blog--started in part to combat "sad desk lunches"--and I'm all about squeezing that protein. For the last semester, I was the unpaid intern in an office of people who went out to lunch every day; I of course couldn't do that, and so vowed to bring sexy, healthy lunches that would keep me powered up and entertained. Check out some of the lunches!