Practical tips for preparing healthy and delicious plant-based meals

Sue Radd and Kate A Marsh
Med J Aust 2013; 199 (4): S41-S45. || doi: 10.5694/mja11.11511
Published online: 29 October 2013

This is a republished version of an article previously published in MJA Open

Key points about plant-based diets
Common myths about vegetarian diets
Myth: it is difficult to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet

Studies of Australian vegetarians have found that although their protein intakes are significantly lower than those of omnivores,7,8 their intakes still easily meet recommended dietary intakes (RDIs) because most omnivores eat much more protein than is required. Most plant foods contain some protein, with the best sources being legumes, soy foods (including soy milk, tofu and tempeh), nuts and seeds. Grains and vegetables also provide protein. A glossary of protein-rich plant-based foods is provided in Box 3.

Myth: vegetarians need to take an iron supplement

Vegetarian diets can contain as much or more total (non-haem) iron as mixed diets; this iron comes primarily from wholegrain breads and cereals.11,12 Iron deficiency anaemia is not more common among vegetarians, although their iron stores (serum ferritin levels) are often lower.7,12,13 Some studies have found that lower iron stores are associated with reduced risk of chronic diseases (such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes), which may partly explain the lower risk of these diseases in vegetarians.14,15

Myth: vegetarian diets are not suitable during pregnancy

Vegetarian diets can be planned to supply the required levels of nutrients during pregnancy. Research shows there are no significant health differences in babies born to vegetarian mothers.18 The higher fibre content and lower energy density of many vegetarian diets may offer significant advantages, including a reduced risk of excess weight gain.19 Further, some studies suggest that a lower intake of meat and dairy products reduces the pesticide content of breast milk.20,21

Myth: vegetarian diets are not suitable for children

Vegetarian diets are appropriate for children of all ages.2 The growth of vegetarian and vegan children is similar to that of non-vegetarian children if meals are planned well, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics22 and American Dietetic Association.2

Meal planning

As for all healthy diets, meal planning for plant-based diets should focus on incorporating a wide variety of minimally processed foods from each of the main food groups to ensure a plentiful supply of nutrients and phytonutrients.

The Healthy Eating Plate device (Box 4) has been created as a visual guide for planning plant-based meals at home.

Vegetables and/or salads: these should include vegetables of a variety of colours, and should fill half of a main meal plate.

Wholegrains: these are preferred over refined grain foods (eg, brown rice instead of white rice), and can occupy about a quarter of a main meal plate. When choosing grain foods, choose those with a low glycaemic index (GI). Low GI carbohydrates help to regulate blood glucose and insulin levels, lower the levels of low-density lipoproteins and triglycerides and raise the high-density lipoprotein level, and can assist with weight management.23-25

Plant proteins: from sources such as legumes, nuts, seeds, soy products or vegetarian convenience products should occupy about a quarter of a main meal plate. Semi-vegetarians may sometimes substitute fish, poultry or red meat.

Dairy or calcium-fortified soy, rice or oat products: these may be liquids or solids, and consumed as a side dish or integrated into the contents of a main meal plate. Lower fat varieties are preferable. The lower protein content of rice and oat beverages may not be suitable for infants and young children.

Fruit: this is best eaten whole with the skin (rather than juiced), and consumed as a dessert or snack.

While it is desirable to plan to include all of these components in each meal, different cooking styles and cuisines may determine the composition of a meal and whether the recommended balance of nutrients is eaten at each meal or spread over the meals for the day.

Easy meal ideas for main plates and snacks are provided in Box 5, and Healthy Eating Plate images for main courses are shown in Box 6.


There are many health benefits from eating a plant-based diet, but, as with any eating plan, it is important that it is well planned to ensure that nutritional needs are met. In this article, we provide a basic guide to preparing healthy plant-based meals that incorporate key nutrients. It is intended as a starting point, as individual needs will vary. An Accredited Practising Dietitian can help develop an eating plan specific to individual needs.

This practical paper is intended for use in patient education and may be reproduced for this purpose. Additional resources are shown in Box 7. For further details on the scientific evidence behind these recommendations please see the other articles in this supplement.

2 Sources of key nutrients in a vegetarian or vegan diet*


Food source


Legumes, tofu, soy milk, tempeh, gluten, wholegrains (particularly amaranth and quinoa), nuts, seeds, eggs, milk, yoghurt


Legumes/soybeans, wholegrains (particularly amaranth and quinoa), iron-fortified cereals, tofu, tempeh, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables


Wholegrains, legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, tempeh, eggs, milk, yoghurt


Milk, yoghurt, cheese, calcium-fortified soy, rice or oat milk, calcium-set tofu, unhulled tahini, kale, Asian green vegetables, almonds

Vitamin B12

Milk, yoghurt, cheese, eggs, vitamin B12-fortified soy or rice milk, vitamin B12-fortified meat analogues (eg, some vegetarian sausages and burgers)

Omega-3 fats

Flaxseed oil,§ linseeds/flaxseeds,§ chia seeds,§ walnuts,§ soy foods,§ omega-3 eggs and DHA-fortified foods (eg, breads, yoghurts, orange juice)

Vitamin D

Milk, eggs, vitamin D-fortified soy milk, vitamin D mushrooms

DHA = docosahexaenoic acid. * Amounts of each food required each day will vary for individuals depending on age and sex and, for women, whether they are pregnant or breastfeeding. Various health conditions or the use of certain medications may also affect requirements for particular nutrients. Non-haem iron, the absorption of which is improved in the presence of vitamin C and inhibited by phytates and tannins. Mushrooms are not a reliable source as they provide only trace amounts. § a-linolenic acid (ALA) is converted to the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in the body; this conversion is improved with a diet low in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats and trans fats.

3 Glossary of protein-rich plant food

There are many protein-rich plant foods available, including whole foods such as legumes, traditional products like tofu, and faux meats, which can make transition to a plant-based diet easier and more convenient.


Description and additional information


Dry beans, peas or lentils available in hundreds of varieties (eg, chickpeas, borlotti beans, black beans, puy lentils, lima beans). Many canned varieties are available from supermarkets.

Textured vegetable protein (TVP)

A good substitute for mince when making bolognaise sauce, shepherd’s pie or taco filling. Made from soy flour, TVP is dehydrated and resembles mince crumbles or chunks. It can be stored in the pantry for many months.


This is available in different textures (silken, soft and firm) and can be cut to desired size. It is excellent for curries, stir fries, burgers, creamy dressings or dessert. Also known as bean curd, tofu is made by curdling soy milk.


This is a savoury fermented soybean cake that can be sliced or diced then grilled, baked or pan fried.


Also known as seitan, gluten has a meaty texture and can be used in stir fries and casseroles or crumbed and cooked as schnitzel. It is available canned or fresh from Asian stores or can be made at home from gluten flour.

Convenience vegetable protein products

These are made from soy, nuts, gluten and grains. They are available canned, chilled, frozen or shelf-stable. Most are ready to heat and serve or can be used as ingredients in other dishes. Many have high levels of sodium, and so are not ideal for everyday use.

5 Some delicious plant-based meal and snack ideas

Breakfast ideas

Lunch ideas

Dinner ideas

Snack ideas

Provenance: Commissioned by supplement editors; externally peer reviewed.

  • Sue Radd1
  • Kate A Marsh2

  • 1 Nutrition and Wellbeing Clinic, Sydney, NSW.
  • 2 Northside Nutrition and Dietetics, Sydney, NSW.



We thank Anna Minko for assistance with graphic design and Greg Teschner for food photography.

Competing interests:

Sue Radd previously consulted for Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing, sponsor of this supplement. Kate Marsh previously consulted for Nuts for Life (Horticulture Australia), who are providing a contribution towards the cost of publishing this supplement.

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