Sure, vegetables on a whole aren’t commonly known for being a super source of protein. But if you ask any vegetarian or vegan, they’ll tell you, beans, legumes, and even greens can deliver plenty of the macronutrient that feeds your muscles and keeps you feeling fuller longer. Bonus: Eating them in place of meat (or at least to reduce your overall meat consumption) helps lower your carbon footprint. Since most plants aren’t a complete protein on their own—meaning they don’t contain all the essential amino acids—adding a complimentary grain to your day ensures you’re getting the full spectrum, says Melissa Halas-Liang, MA, RDN, CDE, dietitian and avid gardener. Here, we’ve rounded up 8 nutrient-packed plants with the best protein-to-calorie ratio to grow in your garden.
Fresh lima beans aren’t exactly a supermarket staple, but growing the bulky bean, which likes high soil temperatures and hot summers, means plenty of protein. Just 1 cup delivers 10 grams of the muscle-building macronutrient, as well as filling fiber and potassium for cardiovascular health. Added bonus: “Legumes and beans add nitrogen back into the soil,” says Linda Ost, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and super gardener. Bake lima beans into a savory gratin, puree into a dip, toss into a salad, sauté with garlic, or make these savory lima beans with bacon.
Protein-packed sunflower seeds come from, you guessed it, sunflowers. 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.
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.”
“[Organic] soy beans are the gold standard of bean protein,” says Ost. With all nine essential amino acids, it’s as close to animal protein as it gets; plus, a study in the International Journal of Obesity linked 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.
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.
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. “Peas can be planted in spring in cold parts of the country even before the last snow and stop producing when the temps hit 80 degrees,” says Ost. Toss snow peas or snap peas into stirfries and pastas, puree shelled garden peas into soups, or pair with mint in a salad.
Also called cowpeas, these earthy-tasting legumes are a protein superstar, with a whopping 10 grams per ¼ cup—and according to a University of Copenhagen study, peas and beans can fill you up more than meat. They’re also full of fiber for healthy digestion, as well as folate and thiamin, B vitamins to help the body convert food into fuel. “Black-eyed peas are really good steamed fresh and buttered, with just a little crunch still left in them,” says Ost. Or you can make a Southern succotash, sauté with greens, or whip up a vegetarian Hoppin’ John and serve over rice.
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.