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Protein-rich foods are staples you should always have on hand. As part of a well-rounded meal, protein helps suppress your appetite and, if you are overweight, it may even aid in weight loss. Besides curbing hunger, eating higher-protein meals can improve the body's ability to burn fat, research suggests. Plus, getting enough protein helps maintain strong muscles, a powerful immune system and healthy hair and nails.

Between a long day at work and chauffeuring kids to after-school activities, we often rely on the same old protein sources, such as chicken breast, tuna and egg whites. The following seven nutrient-filled and protein-packed foods are go-to staples that will liven up your menu. But don't stop at dinner. Many are versatile enough they can also be made into healthy breakfasts, lunches and snacks.

Edamame

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These fresh green soybeans are among the few plant foods that deliver complete protein (e.g., an adequate amount of all nine essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein – our body can't make on its own). Along with 16 grams of protein, a 3/4 cup serving of shelled edamame packs in eight grams of fibre and a hefty amount of calcium (100 milligrams), magnesium (100 mg) and potassium (676 mg) – minerals that help control blood pressure.

You'll find precooked edamame shelled or in pods in the frozen food section of the grocery store. For an easy protein fix, add frozen shelled edamame to a stir-fry or soup near the end of cooking. Top a green salad or brown rice bowl with cooked edamame beans (hot or cold). Steamed edamame (in pods) are also a tasty snack.

Canned sardines

Not only are sardines packed with protein (21 g per three ounces), they're also an excellent source of DHA and EPA, heart- and brain-friendly omega-3 fatty acids. Sardines also serve up considerable calcium (if they're not boneless), vitamin D, potassium and selenium, a mineral critical for making thyroid hormones.

Use drained sardines in salads (they pair especially well with Greek salad), pastas and omelettes. Enjoy whole grain crackers or toast topped with mashed sardines, thinly sliced onion and a dash of hot sauce. Or, try sardines on individual endive leaves with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Cashews

These crunchy nuts deliver protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper and plant sterols, natural compounds that have cholesterol-lowering properties. While cashews are high in fat – just like all nuts – 55 per cent of their fat comes from heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

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Add cashews to an Asian-inspired vegetable stir-fry and serve over quinoa, brown rice or rice noodles. Toss cashews into a green salad or whole grain pilaf. Boost protein at breakfast by mixing chopped cashews into granola or sprinkling over oatmeal.

Tempeh

Made by fermenting cooked whole soybeans, tempeh is more easily digestible and contains more protein, fibre and vitamins than tofu. Three ounces provides 16 g of protein and seven grams of fibre and is a decent source of calcium, magnesium, iron and B vitamins.

Tempeh's firm texture and hearty flavour make it a good substitute for meat in many recipes. Many brands of tempeh also add whole grains (e.g., wild rice, brown rice, millet), vegetables and seasonings.

Add cubed tempeh to soups, stews, curries and vegetable stir-fries. Replace ground meat with crumbled tempeh in taco, chili and pasta recipes. Grill thin slices of marinated tempeh and serve as a sandwich.

Black beans

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These small beans are true multitaskers. One 3/4 cup serving of black beans offers 11.5 g of protein, 30 g of low glycemic carbohydrate, 11 g of fibre and plenty of magnesium, potassium and folate. And, thanks to their deep hue, black beans have three times more phytochemicals than white kidney beans or navy beans.

Canned black beans are easy to add to meals because they are already cooked. Drain and rinse them before using to remove excess sodium and gas-producing carbohydrates.

Use black beans in tacos, burritos, salads and chili. Make taco pizzas on whole grain tortillas with salsa, grated cheese, chopped green peppers and onion and black beans. Round out a homemade or store-bought vegetable soup by adding black beans.

Part skim ricotta cheese

Light ricotta cheese (five-per-cent milk fat) is a healthier alternative to cream cheese because of its higher protein and calcium content. (It's also lower in calories.) One-half cup serving has 12 g of protein – the amount found in two large eggs – and half a dairy serving worth of calcium (165 mg).

Stir light ricotta into marinara sauce for a quick pasta dish. Instead of cream cheese, spread ricotta on whole grain toast and top with sliced tomatoes or sliced strawberries (a tasty breakfast, too). Top a bed of salad greens with a few dollops of ricotta, then drizzle with olive oil and season with herbs.

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Or, stuff tomatoes with ricotta (mix with chopped chives), drizzle with olive oil and bake until heated through.

Vegetarian chicken breast

Vegetarian chicken products made from soy are convenient and offer the versatility of chicken. They're low in fat, fortified with B vitamins, zinc and iron and deliver as much as 24 g of protein per three-ounce serving.

Sold frozen and refrigerated, they're easy to add to stir fries, salads, pastas, pizza and wraps. These products are higher in sodium than plain (unseasoned) chicken breast, so avoid salty condiments in the same meal.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel.

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