Cheap, quick and healthy digestible meals
November 22, 2022 7:40 PM   Subscribe

I am no longer able to digest beans/lentils and need cheap protein alternatives.

For years, I mostly lived on brown rice, vegetables and lentils/beans supplemented by eggs, dairy and some canned fish. Unfortunately, digestive issues mean that I can no longer rely heavily on beans/lentils as my main source of protein.

My trigger foods don't seem to correspond neatly with low fodmap lists. I can eat some supposedly high fodmap foods with no issues. My main trigger foods are beans/lentils as well as certain high fiber vegetables such as spinach. I am trying to lose weight at the moment and many people tell me to "just fill up on vegetables" but I find this advice frustrating because eating too much, especially the wrong ones, will result in the runs for me.

I do well on a diet with low (complex) carbs, some easily-digestible vegetables and high protein. However, I'm not sure how to design a meal plan like this given limited money and time as well as my digestive issues.

I do not like chicken/pork. I like beef/lamb/fish but they are expensive so out of necessity, most of my meals per week must be vegetarian. I am racking my brains trying to think of proteins that fit my criteria such as tofu and tempeh. Quinoa is too expensive.

Some websites claim that canned chickpeas are more digestible than chickpeas cooked from scratch (as I usually do). I have personally not noticed any difference. What is the science behind this? I usually soak my beans overnight, and throw out the soaking water before I boil them. After boiling, I drain them again before I eat them. How would this be different from the canning process? The temperature? The length of the soaking time?
posted by whitelotus to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Mushrooms? Their prices will vary by type and season, but I’ve also seen ever so slightly imperfect mushrooms sold at massive discount at farmers markets here in the PNW, and you can stock up on dried ones if there is a sale and they will last for ages. Iirc white button mushrooms are especially high in protein?

I’ve had really delicious results subbing part or all of the beef for mushrooms in dishes like stroganoff, beef and broccoli stirfry, baked Moroccan spiced meatballs, and hot steak and cheese sandwiches with peppers and onions. They taste like mushrooms, of course, but I love mushrooms so I’m not looking for a perfect dupe. Mushrooms can be a little confusing to cook well, because they don’t really act like vegetables or meat due to their cell structure, so if you make another AskMe about cooking mushrooms I will blather in greater detail there!

I love pearled barley. It’s cheap, relatively fast to cook, has tremendous flavor, keeps well in the fridge after being cooked and reheats to a yummy texture. It has a pretty good amount of protein. One of my very favorite breakfasts is a bowl of pearled barley I cooked before in some veggie stock and stashed overnight, zapped in a microwave, topped with scallions and a fried egg with some hot sauce. Pearled barley is also a wonderful thing to bulk up things like meatloaf and similar, it has a good chewy texture and a nutty flavor that adds to it. It also thickens soups and adds nutrition, and doesn’t disintegrate like noodles or white rice after storing and reheating.
posted by Mizu at 8:07 PM on November 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

How do you feel about cottage cheese? It's very high in protein. Sometimes I add it to pasta or a rice bowl.
posted by pinochiette at 8:24 PM on November 22, 2022 [7 favorites]

How does farro work for you? Unusual among grains in that it has a decent protein content--about the same as an egg per 1/4 cup serving. You can get fancy expensive brands but TJ's has a bag for like $2.99.
posted by praemunire at 8:51 PM on November 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Peanut butter is pretty high in protein, and has various vitamins and is very satiating. You mention eggs as a supplement, but for various periods of my life I have eaten eggs as a primary protein. Veg quiche is a flexible excellent, and tasty meal that you can make in bulk, freeze, and reheat. Let me know if you want the recipe I use (the base is eggs, sour cream, and cheese).
posted by ClaireBear at 9:16 PM on November 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Also: have you ever tried black soybeans? You can often use them like black beans in recipes that are spiced (chili, mashed black bean tacos, etc.), they're actually much lower in carb than other beans, and maybe you wouldn't react to them?
posted by ClaireBear at 9:18 PM on November 22, 2022

Are there any protein powders that work for you?
posted by aniola at 9:27 PM on November 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: BTW I'm not living in the U.S. so certain foods like cottage cheese is difficult to buy or expensive. Oddly, the best value non-processed cheese I can find seems to be Greek feta. I eat a lot of nuts, they are calorie-dense but given that I eat very little meat I think I can afford it.

I'm looking especially for complete proteins since most plant-based sources like grains lack something or other and I don't have the mental bandwidth to do complex combining over 24 hours. I looked up the protein stats for mushrooms before since I do love them but unfortunately, it seems that they don't have much.

ClaireBear: I can eat tofu/tempeh/fermented soy like miso but actual soybeans and edamame seem to trigger the runs. It's really the fiber and not the carbs doing it. Processing/fermentation seems to make soy more digestible.
posted by whitelotus at 9:31 PM on November 22, 2022

How do you do with peas? They’re a decent protein source and frozen green peas are super affordable.
posted by vanitas at 9:32 PM on November 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: IANYRD, but please please seek one out or an equivalent in your state if your insurance will cover it. This sort of thing is exactly what we do!

Dietitians, especially outpatient RDs who focus on dietary restrictions and (possibly in your case) integrative/functional nutrition can take your unique dietary restrictions and ensure you're meeting your health goals plus meeting your nutritional needs. Plus, your restrictions may change over time again and we can help you adapt to those shifts. A lot of us love to cook and eat!

Re: chickpeas, each different pulse/legume has a different composition of starches and fibers. We generally lump them together, but just like a Yukon potato acts differently than a russet, the same science/logic applies to the various pulses. Regarding the digestive impacts of canned vs soaked/boiled beans, I'd have to dig through the literature or ask around, but there is a definite texture difference between home prepared vs canned chickpeas.

You might have some success with sprouted or fermented pulses or pulse batters as that may decrease the digestive impact of whatever specific starches/carbohydrates you are sensitive to -- like it sounds like you've discovered, you might not be sensitive to *all* fodmaps, just certain ones in certain quantities. And, a hull-less legume (ex: masoor dal/split red lentil) may be less irritating for you.

Seconding peanut butter/seed butters, cottage cheese, tofu, tempeh, and adding seitan/wheat gluten, canned tuna/sardines, eggs, seaweed. Caveat with the peanut butter and seed butters to watch portion sizes at first because they are more calorically dense and higher in fat than most pulses so it might take your GI system a minute to adjust to that.

Re: complete proteins - no need to do "the math" as much, most diets are adequate these days that as long as you're making up the "deficient" amino acids throughout the week you'll be okay. Woohoo for updated research!
posted by OhHaieThere at 9:35 PM on November 22, 2022 [5 favorites]

Quinoa's a complete protein. Like farro, it can be sold at a stupid markup but you should also be able to find it relatively inexpensively.
posted by praemunire at 9:38 PM on November 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

You should probably see a doctor or dietician or both. Your digestive issues could be a sign of something that needs treatment.

A practical tip is to learn to make a Spanish tortilla. You will perhaps be frightened by the enormous amount of oil in the recipe, but only a little part of it goes into the tortilla, and the rest can be reused for your next tortilla. With a simple side salad, it makes for a complete, nourishing meal. I make a half portion of the linked recipe, and it gives me two good meals. It is a bit of a challenge the first times, but it is easier with the half portion and when you get used to it, it is an almost perfect food.

Then play with the salads: what about lettuce, green peas and blueberries? Dress with a traditional vinaigrette, or mix cream, lemon salt and pepper instead. Or romaine, roasted nuts and dried cranberries, good with a honey mustard vinaigrette, or with Caesar dressing. Or if you are in a warmer place than me: a tomato and cucumber salad with red onions and feta, dressed with a bit of olive oil and some lemon juice.

I always have instant miso soup packages (with dried greens and seaweed garnish) and silky tofu on the ready for a simple, nutritious meal.

A salade niçoise seems to fit your requirements exactly. The green beans in it are delicious, and you can use frozen, but if they upset your stomach, just don't use them.

Roasted root vegetables with feta is a great simple and cheap meal.
posted by mumimor at 10:41 PM on November 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

I’m surprised you’re able to pay for nuts and cheese but quinoa is too expensive. It just goes to show the variance of food prices around the world.

I like to make chickpea pancakes. It’s a basic batter: just chickpea flour plus nutritional yeast (both have protein) plus water, seasoned with spices (cumin, paprika, thyme, turmeric). I add a splash of cider vinegar and baking soda to improve the texture. Then I fold in whatever flavourful veggies I have on hand like sundried tomato, onion, garlic, kale, olives, antipasto, salsa, mushrooms, etc.

I’m sure there are many different ways to customize this thing and you could use cheese and nuts/seeds as a garnish.

I also sometimes use TVP for chili or tortillas. Anywhere you’d normally use a “minced meat.”

My dietician friend (who is the type to keep current on research) recently told me that combining proteins is no longer considered important.
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:54 PM on November 22, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Canned lentils is another thing you can try. Like the canned chickpeas, you discard the liquid, and also rinse them, then eat. You might find you can tolerate this better than regular lentils that you cook.

The main reason canned checkpeas and lentils (drained and rinsed) can be better than fresh-cooked ones is that the fodmaps in them are water soluble. So the high pressure/water of cooking plus sitting in the liquid for a long time helps get more of the fodmaps dissolved into the water, which you then discard.

(There might be other reasons, too - but that is one.)

I wrote out in great detail here how I cooked lentils in an instapot, in a way that seemed to reduce the fodmaps to a point similar to canned lentils. (I don't have any way to test those fodmap values, though - that's just based on my own reaction to them.) In short it involves SEVERAL soaking, rinsing, discard-the-water steps both before and after cooking. The instapot is not essential - you could do the same process cooking on any stove.

I would imagine you could try cooking chickpeas using a similar regimen and you might find this works similar to canned chickpeas.

Still, I would try canned lentils and canned chickpeas first, if they are available (don't forget to discard the liquid AND rinse them well). Also I would start small - like add literally a teaspoon of the drained/rinsed lentils or chickpeas to your meal. If that goes well for a couple of days, add two teaspoons, and so on - working up VERY gradually.

If that works and you find you can eat a decent amount of the canned lentils or chickpeas, then experiment with cooking them using the multiple-soak-rinse-discard method and see if that works as well.

Also, you probably know about beano? That does help some people digest beans better. Usually people take to solve the problem of beans giving them gas, but the main ingredient is an enzyme that helps digest the main problematic ingredient in beans, so it might help in your case, too. A lot of people with fodmap sensitivities find it helps - not that it solves the problem completely but it helps so you can eat more of the beans, lentils, etc than you otherwise could.

The important ingredient is Alpha Galactosidase and you can find a bunch of products containing it on Amazon here. I use Bean-zyme as it is a fair bit cheaper than Beano. Of course, I don't know if this or something similar might be available in your part of the world.
posted by flug at 1:21 AM on November 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

White button mushrooms may be high in protein compared to other mushrooms, but they are not a high protein food. Apparently a whole cup of cooked mushrooms has only 3.4 g of protein, so you would need to eat a truly unreasonable amount of mushrooms to get enough protein.
posted by Cimrmanova at 1:40 AM on November 23, 2022 [5 favorites]

You don’t specify this but upping your other proteins such as eggs and dairy would be an easy step. That would not be the same volume of food but they do fill me up. Although I would expect that to be more expensive than beans it should still be less than switching to meat.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:26 AM on November 23, 2022

Seconding eggs. If you're worried about cholesterol, I think the idea that eggs are bad has been deprecated (but you'll want to make sure).

Are there cheap fish (sardines?) where you live?

Are you looking for more protein because it affects how you feel, or because you think you ought to? I think it's also been established that the "complete proteins with every meal" thing is not necessary and that most people don't need nearly as much protein as had been recommended for a while. If you're eating eggs and nuts and dairy on top of the proteins found in vegetables, you're probably fine (though there's obviously a lot of individual variation).

On a different note, you've probably been to a doctor, but if not it might be worth seeing one (maybe a specialist), both to check that this new sensitivity isn't related to anything and to see if there's some treatment that would make these foods accessible to you again.
posted by trig at 3:35 AM on November 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it's available where you are, but nutritional yeast is a good cheap protein supplement where I am.
posted by metasarah at 4:40 AM on November 23, 2022

You asked about designing a meal plan. I don't have expertise, but I do have notions about how to start.

You need to organize some background information. It would be helpful to know the numbers behind what you are eating now. I'd suggest logging the calories, protein, dietary fiber, sugars from which you can get totals by meal and totals by day. That is some guidence on which meals are working well for you and which are not.

It also helps with evaluating whether some new ingredient is likely to work.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:15 AM on November 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

So the reason you combine beans and grains is for amino can get your protein from other sources but if you're suddenly not eating legumes you probably want to look out for lysine. (If you can eat tofu/tempeh regularly you're probably getting a decent amount.) Peanuts (a legume) contain it and other nuts that will help are cashews, pistachios, and pumpkin seeds.

I say this mostly to set your mind at ease - if you're eating tofu, tempeh, feta, and maybe some eggs and canned fish still (?) you are doing well. Parmesan is high in lysine.

Is it that your meals aren't as satisfying? In your shoes I think I would look at which higher-protein grains I could have in my diet (steel cut oats, whole wheat berries, teff, farro, millet, buckwheat) and then look at having a reasonable-sized portion of that combined with the vegetables that aren't triggering, plus some tofu/tempeh/cheese/eggs/fish.)

So grain bowls or hearty salads, fried 'rice' (can be rice can be barley or wheat berries), etc. with seeds and nuts on top. Adding some fat like olive oil might help.

Can you tolerate coconut milk and is it affordable? That's a great way to give things a creamy satisfying texture, make curries or creamy soups, again focusing on the tofu and things you can eat.

For cheap and filling, may or may not relate to your caloric goals (is the losing weight medical? because it's a lot to take on all at once), something like a roast sweet potato with tahini (seeds!) and sprinkled with seeds is really yummy and satisfies me. This is one of my go-to recipes, and you can vary the oil if sesame is really expensive. Tahini also makes my bowls taste good. I look for sales. I'm sorry if all this is ignorant of costs where you are!

I hope you can get medical advice about the fiber as well, so that you can return to the meals that you were loving before.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:26 AM on November 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

Can you buy protein powders in bulk and have protein shakes, then have lots of low(er) protein actual meals?

1 kilo of whey protein isolate in the US is 40-60 bux. thats 33 servings of 30g of protein, which is $1.50 - $2.00 per serving. Other protein isolates are more expensive but may have better digestive properties for you.
posted by lalochezia at 4:13 PM on November 23, 2022

You don't need to worry about complete proteins, your body breaks any protein you eat down into amino acids and then builds whatever protein it needs. (N.B. Do not take medical advice from the internet. :-) :-)
posted by charlesminus at 4:58 PM on November 23, 2022

One reason canned beans can be more easily digestible is that they sometimes have added kombu, a seaweed that helps break down the starches.
posted by Comet Bug at 5:14 PM on November 23, 2022

Response by poster: Thank you all, you've given me some ideas. I'm on a weight-loss diet because I am overweight by BMI and losing weight has visibly improved my health though I'm still quite far from normal weight. I need more protein because it keeps me full, carbs make me bloated and sluggish after I eat them so I'm trying to reduce the amount I eat.

I plan to eat about two cans of cheap sardines per week and I do eat peanut butter on toast at breakfast as well as nooch, eggs etc. so I hope that supplies some protein.

I might try some protein powder if I can find a vegan one within my budget and I'll look into seaweed. I tried making socca in the past with chickpea flour from the Indian grocery. It didn't turn out too well but I might give it another go.

Unfortunately, I don't digest frozen peas and green beans too well. I tried looking for quinoa and sunflower/pumpkin seeds in the supermarket but I could only find them in the organic aisle where they are priced beyond my reach. Non-organic nuts like almonds and walnuts are still affordable. Have checked various retailers but quinoa just costs too much compared to everyday grains like brown rice.

Am trying to decide if quinoa's higher price is worth for the extra protein. I'm not very experienced when it comes to cooking quinoa. Can I cook it in my rice cooker?
posted by whitelotus at 7:46 PM on November 24, 2022

Response by poster: I googled and it seems that quinoa can be cooked on the "white rice" setting (I usually eat brown rice so I always use the "brown rice" setting which takes quite a long time). I'll try cooking some next week! Due to the higher price, I might reduce the amount I eat compared to my usual brown rice.
posted by whitelotus at 8:24 PM on November 24, 2022

After reading your comment, I wonder if you should look into buckwheat? Soba noodles and buckwheat crêpes are great foods that we eat a lot.
It takes a while to make the crêpes, but you can make a stack and keep them in the fridge or freezer.
IMO soba noodles are one of the best pantry staples in existence.
Buckwheat is a carb, but it is not like other carbs. The best way to figure out wether it works for you is to try a soba noodle recipe.

Another thing I didn't mention above because most people can't do it is offal, and specially liver. Liver in any shape or form is a really cheap protein and incredible rich in iron. IMO it is very tasty and a lot of people have tasted my liver dishes (in restaurants or as appetizers that I did not force anyone to eat) and changed their minds. This is one recipe I use. I prefer bird liver to pork.

Here, fish and shellfish are expensive, except for mussels. Mussels are amazing and good for the planet, and they are quite easy to cook when you learn it, which is very easy. Start with frozen or canned, then move on to fresh.
posted by mumimor at 9:51 AM on November 25, 2022

OP: I tried making socca in the past with chickpea flour from the Indian grocery. It didn't turn out too well but I might give it another go.

I didn’t enjoy my first couple of attempts. A lot of socca tends to be very flat, almost like thin-crust pizza, and it’s very dense. I preferred a thicker, airier result, which is why I added the baking soda and cider vinegar. I also started cooking it in a cast iron skillet, and treating it more like a fritter, i.e., the batter exists to coat the veggie pieces. It also puffs up more if you bake it.
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:35 AM on November 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

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