When it comes to getting enough muscle-building protein, most people do just fine by having a juicy steak, a generous chicken breast or a tasty fish fillet a few times a week.

The problem is, most Americans need to get more protein from other foods and a little less from animals, since research suggests a more plant-based diet decreases risk for chronic health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. Balancing animal protein (from meat, for example) with protein from plants and other foods is one of the simplest ways to improve your diet. Of course, you don't have to be a vegetarian or vegan to enjoy meat free protein foods.* My favorite options...

For Breakfast

If you want protein in the morning, you may reach for some eggs and sausage. But not so fast! Here are some other great ideas...

Quinoa. Often used as a dinner side dish, quinoa also can be eaten as a great nutty-tasting grain for breakfast. Technically a seed, quinoa wins points for being a high-protein whole grain with 8 g per cooked cup. It's also naturally gluten-free-a bonus for those who can't safely eat most oatmeal, since oats may be contaminated in the field or through processing with gluten-containing foods.

For a great protein-packed breakfast: Have a bowl of quinoa with chopped fruit and nuts... or top it with sauteed spinach and a poached egg. To make things easier, there's nothing wrong with buying precooked, frozen quinoa-it is now sold at lots of markets.

*Adults over age 19 should consume 0.37 g of protein per pound of body weight, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Example: If you weigh 150 pounds, you need about 55 g of protein daily.

Cottage cheese. It is not a plant-based food, but it's an excellent source of protein. In fact, you may be surprised to find out that a half cup of 1% milkfat cottage cheese contains more than twice as much protein (14 g) as an egg.

Caution: Most cottage cheese is high in sodium, so be sure to stick to the low-sodium variety if you are on a low-sodium diet.

Not a fan of curds? Puree it. Make "whipped cottage cheese" in your blender and flavor it with cinnamon for a delicious spread to smear on apple slices or add chives and basil for a veggie dip.

For Lunch or Dinner

Want a quick and easy protein for lunch or dinner? Tofu or beans are excellent choices, but you may want to try something new. Here's what I suggest...

Split peas. A bowl of delicious split pea soup will add some variety. Dried peas have four times more protein than brown rice and four times more fiber. If you don't want to cook your own split pea soup, certain prepared varieties are worth trying.

Good choices: Fantastic Foods Split Pea Soup Mix and Tabatchnick Split Pea Soup.

Spinach. Most people don't realize that cooked spinach-at 4 g per half cup-offers more protein than most other vegetables. Not only that, spinach is incredibly nutrient-dense it contains antioxidant vitamins A, C and E and is a rich plant source of iron and calcium.

To get a lot of spinach, buy it frozen. Since frozen spinach is precooked, it's easier to eat more-toss it into soups, pasta sauce, bean burritos or lasagna-than if you are downing it raw in, say, a salad. Frozen spinach is picked at peak season before freezing, so it retains its nutrients for months. And it's a great value!

For Snacks

You already know that nuts are excellent protein-rich snacks. Some other options you may want to try...

Edamame. These young green soybeans are a versatile protein source. One-half cup of frozen edamame contains 6 g of protein... and a quarter cup of roasted soybeans has an impressive 15 g (roasting concentrates the protein by removing the water). Soy foods contain phytochemicals that may help slow or protect against certain cancers.

Hummus. Here's a great way to spice up the hefty protein kick you get from beans.

What to do: Blend two 15.5-ounce cans of rinsed, drained garbanzo beans with one- quarter cup each tahini, lemon juice and water. Add one tablespoon each of olive oil and Frank's RedHot Cayenne Pepper Sauce (or any brand of pepper sauce you like). Cayenne pepper contains pain-relieving capsaicin. Then finish it off with one clove of minced garlic and one-half teaspoon of sea salt. Use it as hearty dip with whole-grain pita bread or veggies... and maybe some tabouli. It's scrumptious!

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