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The Surprising Plant-Based Protein My Kids Will Always Eat

By Carrie Havranek
September 16, 2020

We all need those go-to ingredients, snacks, or dinners that we know will be a hit, regardless of anything else. Those sorts of foods are first-string in the kitchen. They make for more peaceful dinnertime and take a lot of guesswork out of the process because let’s not mince words: kids are great, but they are often notoriously, wildly inconsistent when it comes to food. But there’s something mine agree upon, and that is this simple fact: they like tofu.

Here’s my situation: I have twin boys who are 11. Their top picks for dinner are anything Asian, Mexican, and my homemade pizza. One of them will try (and then eat) just about anything I make, but he’s currently vegetarian 90 percent of the time. The other is much more particular, but despite these differing preferences and appetites, tofu is one of those foods that always bridges the gap. If it’s in the fridge and I make it for dinner, it will be eaten with much enthusiasm.

Kids Love Tofu

With its beige, wiggly appearance, it may not seem like something kids typically go for, but tofu has a lot going for it when it comes to the appetites and preferences kids have. It could very well be the gateway plant-based protein your family will love.

“I grew up eating tofu from a very young age. It’s a friendly, accessible, sustainable food,” says Andrea Nguyen, a James Beard award-winning author whose books include Asian Tofu and Vietnamese Food Any Day.

Tofu is a Blank Slate

Nguyen calls it “a great canvas for painting flavors. You can simply dress it up with a drizzle of soy sauce, sprinkle of salt, or dip into a favorite sauce. You can pan-fry it to transform its texture with extra crisp brown character then tumble it in sauce. Dropped into hot broth, it absorbs flavors. It’s versatile so kids with different food preferences can jive with tofu. In that regard, tofu makes life for parents easier, too.”

Tofu is a Plant-Based Protein

When my son Desmond is going through a very strong vegetarian phase, this is a good way for me to get a plant-based, non-GMO protein into him. His brother, Miles, will eat any sort of protein with gusto, whether it’s salami or salmon or Greek yogurt or — yep — tofu. He will even go back into the dish and scoop out more tofu. I have to gently remind him, “Hey, there are other people here, and hey, there’s also broccoli in that bowl, which you like.”

It’s Affordable

High quality tofu is not expensive. Other more traditional proteins such as meat are so expensive and increasingly so if you’re buying organic, pastured, etc. Even the meat substitutes are typically twice as much as a container of tofu.

Tofu is Easy to Prep

Tofu is always ready for you, whenever you are ready for it. Unlike meat, which has a shorter shelf life in the fridge and then needs to be frozen, tofu’s got a long lead time — it’s typically good for at least a month. This provides incredible versatility and makes it the refrigerator equivalent of a pantry staple.

Tips For the Best Crispy Tofu Kids Will Love

“If you’re a tofu and soy curious household, tofu is just the beginning. It comes in many guises — like cheesy fermented tofu and jiggly tofu pudding. There’s also deliciously fresh soy milk and tofu skin (yuba in Japanese). So much can be done with a mighty bean,” says Nguyen.
Even though you can do lots with it, including scramble silken tofu into eggs and chop firm tofu into little seasoned bits for Southwestern-style tacos, for example, I am a one-hit-wonder when it comes to cooking with tofu.

Reliably, I slice extra firm tofu vertically and then into bite-size cubes to toss into a stir fry with other first-string veggies: some permutation of carrots, broccoli, snap peas (if they’re in season), bell peppers, cabbage, and bok choy. Sometimes I add noodles. Sometimes I make rice. Sometimes I use jarred organic stir fry sauce; other times, I do a homemade sweet and sour or it veers off into pad Thai territory. Often, tofu begets fried rice and I scramble an egg into the mix for a double-dose of protein for my ceaselessly growing children. Tofu is the designated hitter in my kitchen, and it’s always in my cart at the grocery store.

Follow these tips for making crispy tofu bites you and your family will enjoy in grain bowls, soups, and stir-fries.

  • Drain and press it well: Tofu does not cook well if it’s soggy. You will be fighting a losing battle if you try to crisp up chunks of tofu that are giving off water when you pop them into a pan.
    • Remove the block from the package and drain the liquid. Place it on a cutting board and wrap it in a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. Gently press out the liquid, but try not to squeeze it. You can have little ones help with this, too. Cut the tofu into long slices and then into chunks, depending on your recipe (or your preference).
  • Use a very hot pan: If you are stir frying, take that well-drained tofu and put it in a hot pan, to which you’ve added whatever oil (with a high smoke point) is called for in your recipe. As it cooks, toss it frequently (I like tongs for this; it just makes life easier) so that all the sides get cooked evenly.
    • Even if you are using it in a soup, you’ll want to stir-fry wedges of it (4 to 5 minutes per side) to crisp it up before you add it to soup.
  • Cook Till It’s Dry: When it’s finished cooking, it will look almost dry to the touch and there should be very little moisture left in the pan. Keep in mind, it’ll absorb whatever you cook it with, so the sky’s the limit in terms of flavor combos.
  • Tender tofu absorbs flavors better: “People are often afraid of tofu breaking up so they press the heck out of extra-firm tofu or they buy super firm stuff. Tender tofu will absorb flavors better so don’t be afraid of using medium-firm or firm tofu. If tofu breaks, it’s not a deal breaker,” says Nguyen.


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