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Nutrition: Meat extenders improve quality of recipes

Fiber is a beneficial nutrient that is lacking in the diet of many Americans. Some benefits from using meat extenders include having higher-fiber intakes and reduction in fat intake.

Fried mushrooms in cast-iron skillet
Mushrooms can help reduce the amount of fat in recipes and add more vegetables to the meal.
Tatiana Volgutova / Getty Images / iStockphoto
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Getting the benefits from plant-based protein does not mean you need to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet. Meat extenders are a great way to add in these benefits without giving up your meat and poultry preferences. Meat extenders are a meat recipe enhanced with plant-based proteins, grains or vegetables, which improves the nutritional quality of the food. Common ingredients in meat extenders include mushrooms, whole grains, seeds, lentils and beans.

Some benefits from using meat extenders include having higher-fiber intakes and reduction in fat intake. Fiber is a beneficial nutrient that is lacking in the diet of many Americans. Fiber helps to keep us feeling full longer, promote a healthy gastrointestinal tract, can help control blood-sugar levels and reduce cholesterol levels. A high-fat diet can contribute to elevated cholesterol levels and an increased risk of heart disease.

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Meat extenders take the place of some of the higher fat meat in recipes and replace it with fiber, making it a heart healthy swap without compromising on flavor. Meat extenders often add moisture to recipes that can help prevent lean meats from drying out during the cooking process. They are often budget-friendly ingredients, making them a great choice for those looking to reduce their food budget.

Mushrooms can help reduce the amount of fat in recipes and add more vegetables to the meal. Chopped mushrooms cook up similar to meat, making this a good option to try first when experimenting with meat extenders. Mushrooms can be added in any amount, ranging from 25%-70% of the total ingredients. For more flavor, try cooking the mushrooms in a little bit of oil in a pan before adding to the raw meat. Or for a simple step, just add the raw chopped mushrooms to the raw meat before cooking. Try adding chopped mushrooms to dishes like meatloaf, casseroles, chili, tacos and pasta.

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Wild rice from the Fond du Lac Reservation in Sawyer shown for sale at the Indigenous First gift shop at the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth.
Clint Austin / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune

Whole grains, seeds and vegetables are nutrient dense foods that can easily be added to ground meats. Cook your whole grains according to their package directions prior to adding them to meat. Try adding up to one cup of cooked brown or wild rice, oats, quinoa, farro or bulgur with ground meat for added fiber.
A small amount of chia seeds soaked in water can add fiber and help hold ground meat together much like an egg.

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Minced vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and zucchini can also be added to ground meats in addition to other meat extenders and add flavor and moisture.

Lentils and beans are a cost-effective way to add protein, fiber and iron to a dish while cutting back on fat. First cook the lentils or beans before adding them to your meat. Canned lentils and beans are already cooked and can be a great option if you find you are short on time, just drain and rinse before using them. Red and yellow lentils are softer when cooked with more of a pureed texture. These work well to thicken soups, or added to pasta sauces and sloppy Joes. Green and brown lentils maintain their shape better when cooked and can be pureed in a food processor.

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Beans, dried peas and lentils contain less water than fruits and vegetables, which makes them a more concentrated source of fiber.
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Whole beans work well in recipes with cubed chicken or beef such as tacos, soups and stews. Try different types of beans or lentils with different dishes as some may pair better than others depending on flavor and color. Add pureed lentils or beans to meatballs, meatloaf, burgers and stuffed peppers. Try using 1 pound of ground meat with 1 cup of cooked lentils or pureed beans to make six servings.

Meat extenders are a healthy way to reduce fat and add fiber while still enjoying your favorite meat based recipes. Whole grains, seeds, beans, lentils and vegetables can be added in any amount to a variety of recipes. If you aren’t sure if you will like the change, start with a small amount of mushrooms, grains, beans or lentils and increase from there. Any change you can make will be a positive change for your health.

Tara Fouts is a registered and licensed dietitian at St. Luke's.

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