7 Budget-Friendly Ways I Eat More Protein Without Even Trying

My favorite hacks and tips to sneak protein into my day without spending more money or putting in extra effort — no meal prepping required.

Pantry shelves lined with dry goods
Photo: Getty Images

Listen, I don't need to tell you groceries are expensive. Everyone and their mother is kvetching over prices these days, especially for meat and poultry. Personally, I know I feel my best when I get a significant source or two of protein in each meal, but for budgetary and sustainability reasons, I try not to rely entirely on meat to get it. So over time, I've developed a strategy that amounts to me getting protein throughout the day from some unlikely sources.

Here are all the ways I sneak extra protein into my diet without really trying. That means no spending extra money, buying any specialty items (no protein powders in sight!), or doing hours of meal prep. These are daily tips, hacks, and habits that I rely on to eat more protein.

How to Eat More Protein

1. Mix Eggs Into Pasta

Now I'm not talking strictly carbonara. You can mix egg yolks or whole-beaten eggs into any pasta dish to add a luscious, silky quality to the sauce. For pasta recipes where the sauce is just pasta water + cheese (like cacio e pepe), an egg yolk helps thicken the sauce. In other dishes with more robust cream sauces, you can add a whole beaten egg or two to add a hit of extra protein to the sauce without even knowing it. Even the pickiest of eaters that hate eggs won't be the wiser.

Just be sure to add any egg gradually while the sauce is still coming together in the pan and/or the pasta is hot to ensure the egg cooks through without curdling in the sauce. Chef John's tips for Carbonara serve as a great visual guide for how to ace this technique.

2. Everything Gets a Topping

Dressing up my food with lots of toppings is not only an easy way to add more protein, but also makes even the most plain dishes look and taste more appealing (there's a reason everything looks better at restaurants!). It also helps me elevate and transform cheap pantry staples like oats, beans, grains, and pasta — meaning I'm more likely to shop from my pantry and eat what I have than open up the food delivery app.

In my house, (almost) everything gets a topping — whether it's a drizzle of nut butter or tahini, a dollop of Greek yogurt, a sprinkle of toasted nuts, or a few pieces of crispy baked prosciutto. And I mean everything; salads, soups, and bowls of oatmeal, rice, and pasta all get at least one creamy or crunchy element added on top.

The textural contrast makes each dish irresistible and making big batches of the toppings at the top of the week means I can just mix and match toppings throughout my meals. Not to mention they give leftovers a new life, especially on day 3 of eating that same chili.

Justine Doiron aka @justinesnacks on TikTok (the creator behind viral hits like the Butter Board and purple blueberry cookies) has some amazing ideas and recipes for crunchy, protein-packed toppings like Crispy Quinoa and Pistachio Dukkah.

3. Don't Underestimate Veggies

While they typically don't have as much protein as a chicken breast, I rely on veggies to add up to a substantial portion of my protein throughout the day. The best tips I have garnered are knowing which ones have higher amounts of protein and finding ways to "sneak" them into my usual comforts. Spinach pesto is a staple in my kitchen, and my favorite way to use those greens I bought and maybe forgot in the crisper. Blanching or sautéing fresh greens and blending them means you're left with an incredibly nutrient-dense sauce that can be seasoned or treated any way you want — I'm not above green mac & cheese.

Canned artichoke hearts are another staple in my pantry. They're very affordable and super mild in flavor, meaning I can chop them up and toss them on a weeknight pizza, mix them into pasta, or toss them into a cheesy quesadilla.

Other veggies that are higher in protein include peas, corn, avocado, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and kale, to name a few. So there are lots of great options for adding these versatile vegetables into everyday meals, from tacos to stir-fries, to soups, and more.

4. Keep Your Freezer Stocked

And it's not all about that crisper drawer. Knowing which ingredients are convenient to have on hand, but also lend themselves well to being frozen is key. Two of my always-stocked staples are frozen peas and frozen soybeans (aka edamame).

Frozen peas are a mini protein powerhouse. I will admit I don't even really like peas but I always keep them on hand for one thing in particular: dips. I love to make dips like pea "pesto" and "mockamole" for a fun, budget-friendly break from hummus. I also frequently make them for potlucks and parties — they're way more affordable than nut or avocado-based dips and just as delicious, if not more! I still have friends asking me for, "that pea dip recipe", all the time.

Soybeans, or edamame, are another one of my favorite protein-packed snacks, but I often forget I have them in my freezer. My hack here is as simple as boosting their visibility. By moving them to the front of my freezer or defrosting a bunch and putting them in my fridge, I'm immediately confronted with a great snack or meal add-on when I open the fridge or freezer door.

5. Use Hummus as a Salad Dressing

Salads are just... not exciting. Try as I may to zhuzh and switch things up, they just never feel like they end up on the right side of the effort-to-enjoyment ratio. One way I discovered I can make salads taste better and fill me up more was to just remove the act of making a homemade dressing.

But instead of using a store-bought one, simply start with your favorite hummus and thin it out using a little olive oil, vinegar, or heck, even water. You'll end up with a creamy, super flavorful dressing that packs more protein than the usual. Here's a hummus salad dressing recipe to guide you, but really, you can improvise.

6. Don't Be Afraid of Tofu

The best thing I ever learned about tofu was when someone said, "Stop treating tofu like other things, just let it be its own thing." I don't know why a thought so simple was so impactful, but my cooking with tofu got 1000% better when I stopped treating it, and wanting it, to taste like chicken.

These days, I reach for silken tofu at the grocery store way more than the firm stuff. It easily disappears into smoothies, desserts, and blended soups with zero taste, but I also love to marinate it and serve it chilled in the style of Japanese Hiyayakko. With firm tofu, I like to shred it or crumble it, then season generously and sauté or bake it until crispy.

My best tip though comes straight from my mama! She used to hide crumbled tofu in the ricotta layer of her lasagna, stretching an expensive cheese even further and sneaking in protein without tipping off her (at times) picky kids.

7. Be Strategic About Prepping

As promised, I will not be telling you to spend your Sunday preparing all of your meals for the week. I don't want to and I know it doesn't work for me — I never, ever want to eat the [insert lunch] by midweek. However, there are some things I prep, especially snacks and in-between bites for the times when I'm not full after a meal.

Hard-boiled eggs, crispy chickpeas or air-fried butter beans, granola, and baked goods made with almond flour are just a few of the things I like to batch prep ahead of time on busy weeks. Having them available means that I'm more likely to reach for something filling if it offers the same convenience as say, a bag of chips. Don't get me wrong, I'm still going to have chips — I'm just not entirely reliant on my main meals for protein.

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