Homemade Hamburger Macaroni and Cheese with Parsley

Can You Make Hamburger Helper Without Meat?

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Hamburger Helper is an incredibly handy boxed meal to have in your pantry. But unfortunately, it requires ground beef, which as you can guess, doesn’t suit everyone’s dietary needs.

So, does that mean there are simply no budget-friendly vegetarian options out there? Should you simply leave the ground beef out and eat a bowl of seasoned carbs? 

Is there a way you can make Hamburger Helper without meat? Yes, there are some great plant-based meat alternatives you can use. Some are easy, like buying plant-based meat products or pan-frying mushrooms. Others involve more hands-on work, like preparing and cooking lentils or beans. Some more unusual alternatives that also work are nuts, tofu, and tempeh.

In today’s article, we will look at different ways you can make Hamburger Helper without having to use any animal meats. We’ll explore these options in-depth and even discuss ways you can incorporate them!

What Is Hamburger Helper?

A chili macaroni skillet dinner shot from above

We’ll be honest — Hamburger Helper has saved our dinners on multiple occasions.

Sure, it doesn’t live up to the “homemade is healthier” ideal, but sometimes you’re simply too busy to spend hours making dinner from scratch!

Hamburger Helper is a range of easy-to-make Betty Crocker boxed meals. They offer a wide selection of options like Tuna Helper, Chicken Helper, Whole Grain Helper, and Pork Helper.

Today, they even have different types of Hamburger Helper meals! These will ensure that you at least have variety in your dinners. They have Cheeseburger Macaroni, Beef Pasta, Four Cheese Lasagna, and Beef Stroganoff, to name a few!

That’s great! But what exactly goes into these boxed dinners?

The box always contains some form of dehydrated carbohydrate. It can be rice, pasta, and even potatoes. Each box also contains pre-measured dried spices and herbs or a powdered sauce. It’s what makes each box unique in flavor!

The only ingredients you need to buy and add separately are the meat (and sometimes milk).

Now, depending on the type of box meal you have, you will need to buy different kinds of meat. Hamburger Helper meals specifically use ground beef in all their products.

Can You Make Hamburger Helper Without Meat?

Homemade Hamburger Macaroni and Cheese with Parsley

Now, Hamburger Helper is great! But it’s not perfect. The main issue is that it needs meat. 

If you don’t have meat in the fridge, that means you will need to go to a store and buy some. Ultimately, this defeats the “quick and easy” convenience this product is supposed to offer.

Another issue is that not everyone can eat meat. Whether or not it’s for dietary reasons or religious restrictions, it doesn’t matter — the point stands that you can’t use ground meat.

So, there are two routes you can take if you don’t want to use hamburger meat to make your Hamburger Helper: 

  1. Remove the ground meat from the recipe completely. Unfortunately, this makes for a pretty boring meal. It won’t necessarily be bland, but it won’t be as good as it should be. Not to mention the massive carb overload and lack of nutrients that it will lead to!
  2. Use a meat substitute. This will counter that lack of nutrients, but which would actually go well with most Hamburger Helper meals while adding protein? Or, at the very least, other nutrients?

Meat Alternatives For Hamburger Helper

Chili macaroni with a cast iron skillet in the background

Below we have compiled a list of our favorite meat-free alternatives that will all go great with Hamburger Helper meals and also add a lot of nutritional value.

We tried to include a variety of options that will suit everyone’s needs.

Some options cater to dietary needs, and some make great low-budget options. Others are there solely for convenience and speedy dinners.

So, let’s take a more in-depth look at these meat-free alternatives!

1. Brown Lentils

Lentils, especially brown lentils, have always been an exceptional meat substitute since they are packed with protein (which will fulfill your daily requirement) and they have an incredibly realistic umami meaty flavor!

Lentils are very easy to find and affordable, too. Their only downside is that they do take a while to cook — but you’re not looking at hours! 

The other great thing about lentils is that they pair well with almost anything. It’s mainly their texture that some people don’t like, but you can easily adjust the amount you cook the lentils to make them less grainy.

There are also hundreds of ways to cook lentils. And they can all easily be added to your Hamburger Helper meal!

The method we would recommend to start with is to simply cook the lentils on the side. Once cooked, fold them into your Hamburger Helper sauce and starch. This method is the easiest and doesn’t require any skill or effort.

2. Beans

Beans are an odd meat substitute to many people. However, hear us out! Beans have become a lot more “delicious” than what they used to serve up. Back in the day, the only beans you got were mushy, flavorless, and just plain gross.

Today, there are hundreds of different bean varietals you can try. So, there is bound to be one out there that you’d like. Not to mention, there are much more recipes to make beans tasty!

Beans are a completely vegan (and vegetarian) option that is packed with protein. And, depending on the specific type of bean you use, you’ll get loads of other nutrients too.

The most popular type of bean to substitute for ground beef is black beans. They are incredibly meaty, have a similar savory flavor profile, and are very easy to cook and season. Ultimately, they’re an easy substitute in Hamburger Helper.

Even if beans may not be on the top of your list, please give them a try! You won’t regret it once you find a way to cook and flavor them the way you love.

3. Mushrooms

For our mushroom lovers out there, you probably already know that mushrooms are an amazing meat-free ingredient. Unfortunately, their biggest downside is that they aren’t loaded with protein.

However, different varieties do contain loads of nutrients!

Mushrooms are easy to find and for the most part affordable. The best thing about this option is the variety — each type of mushroom has a different flavor profile. And they all share similar meaty and earthy flavors!

Different mushroom types can also offer different textures. You even get the same varietals in various sizes. So, you can play around as much as you’d like!

To incorporate mushrooms into your Hamburger Helper meal, we would recommend pan-frying them with some onions. You can even add some garlic, ginger, and herbs if you’d like!

Pan-frying mushrooms help release their delicious flavors while caramelizing the sugars in the onions. It creates a beautiful flavor profile that goes great with any meal!

You can also roast them for a hands-free cooking option. Then, fold the mushrooms into the meal after they are completely cooked!

4. Plant-Based Meat Products

This category includes virtually any type of plant-based meat alternative.

Whether it is “ground beef” made from mushrooms and lentils, vegan meat patties, or vegetarian sausages — any plant-based meat product can be used as a ground beef substitute.

What makes this option great is that the work is already done for you! The texture will be similar to ground beef and for the most part, they are all high in protein, contain other nutrients, and have a meaty flavor.

Depending on the type of meat-free product you are buying, you may have a little bit of work to do.

If you buy vegetarian or vegan beef patties, you will need to break them apart when frying them to create a ground beef texture. The same goes for sausages and meatballs.

You could also just buy vegetarian or vegan ground beef. The biggest downside to this alternative is that they are more expensive than previously mentioned. But, its effectiveness as an alternative could make up for that!

5. Tofu Or Tempeh

Both tofu and tempeh are soybean products and great sources of protein for those following a vegetarian or vegan diet. They are (to some extent) similar in texture and can be cooked similarly.

Tofu is made from soybean curd and there are a variety of textures available. We recommend using pressed tofu for the most realistic ground meat texture — you’d need to break it apart though. Silken tofu is just too creamy for this use.

Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans. So nutritionally, the composition will differ slightly (many say for the better) — the texture will also be different.

Either way, both of these are great options. They are still relatively neutral in flavor so can pair well with your Hamburger Helper meal. You can pan-fry them, roast them, and even grill them if you’d like!

6. Nuts

Hear us out! Nuts are incredible sources of plant-based protein — they’re also easy to find, delicious, and offer a great variety of flavors.

Arguably the best part is that you don’t have to cook them at all! At the most, you can toast them over medium heat. But that’s it! 

Incorporating nuts into your Hamburger helper meal is easy. Once your carbs are cooked and the sauce is made, you can simply sprinkle some nuts over the dish and fold it in if you’d like.

Try walnuts or pecans first. In our opinion, they go the best with savory dishes like this. But feel free to experiment with different flavors.

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