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:
Lentils and beans
Legumes 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.
Don'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 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.
Feta (or Other Crumbly) Cheese
Feta 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.
Nuts and Seeds
Don'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.
How do you pack in protein for a packed lunch? Tell us in the comments below!