Plant-based diets are becoming popular, but a lot of marketers and consumers focus on switching from meat to expensive, over-packaged, over-processed fake meats. My own household’s less-meat journey began 20 years ago this spring, when my partner Daniel and I gave up meat for Lent–and never resumed eating as much meat as we had before. Rereading our diary of meatless eating a few weeks ago, we were struck by how our eating habits have evolved in several ways . . . one of which is that it seems bizarre to go six weeks without cooking any lentils! The diary mentions Daniel eating lentils in restaurants twice, but I appear to have eaten no lentils at all, during Lent, for pity’s sake!! I mean, it’s right there in the name. . . .
It was a few years later, pregnant with our first child, that I impulsively bought some lentils on sale and started working them into our meals. A few years after that, our little boy was so accustomed to lentils as a yummy food that he was intrigued by the story of Esau giving up his inheritance for a bowl of the lentils his brother Jacob had cooked; “Too bad they didn’t write down his recipe in the Bible!”
There are five main reasons lentils should be part of your life: Nutrition, environmental impact, price, shelf stability, and culinary usefulness. Here are some details….
Lentils aren’t just a plant-based protein; they also contain many other helpful nutrients! Here’s a full nutritional profile. Different colors of lentils are similar in nutrients. One cup of cooked lentils will give you
- 18 grams of protein, about one-third of what an adult needs in a day;
- 15 grams of fiber, 63% of the Daily Value;
- B vitamins, including 90% of the Daily Value of folate, 22% of thiamin, and 18% of Vitamin B6;
- minerals, including about half your daily manganese, one-third of iron and phosphorus, and one-fifth of magnesium, potassium, and copper;
- a variety of amino acids, particularly lysine, arginine, and glutamic acid;
- 65 milligrams of choline;
- only 226 calories and 13% of your daily carbohydrates, leaving plenty of room for additional healthy foods in your menu!
Manganese helps with wound healing and bone and cartilage growth. Potassium helps nutrients move between cells. Our bodies use copper for a bunch of things related to energy, nerves, and properly metabolizing iron.
Lentils offer 86% complete protein, containing a range of amino acids. That’s not as complete as meat, but it’s pretty good, and it gets better when combined with the different amino acids in the vegetables or grains you’ll probably eat with your lentils. If you are eating other high-protein foods in other meals, you’re likely to get a good balance over the course of the day.
Arginine is an amino acid that helps to regulate blood flow. It’s known to be helpful for people with clogged arteries, high blood pressure, or erectile dysfunction. There’s also some evidence that arginine helps with immune function, especially wound healing. Uneven dilation of blood vessels also plays a role in migraine, so taking an arginine supplement could help alleviate migraine, or getting more arginine in your diet might help as well. Anecdotally, I’ve found that lentils or beans with an orange vegetable (see recipes below!) is one of the best types of meal for me to eat during a migraine or at a time when I feel migraine impending.
Another amino acid, lysine, helps our bodies convert fat into energy, absorb calcium from food, and build healthy skin and tissues. Lysine can reduce the severity of herpes outbreaks.
Glutamic acid is converted by our bodies into glutamate, which improves message transmission between nerve cells, helping with learning, memory, and mood.
Choline also supports the nervous system, as a building block for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. It’s used by our bodies in maintaining cell walls, blood plasma, and myelin, the insulation of our brain and nerves.
Low Environmental Impact
Lentil production creates less greenhouse gas pollution than the production of any type of meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, tofu, or even unprocessed beans, potatoes, or tomatoes, according to the Environmental Working Group. Lentils don’t need much fertilizer or pesticide. The waste left over after harvesting the food is compostable plant material, not toxic manure. Lentil plants don’t produce methane like cows do; they absorb carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen for us to breathe!
Most of the energy used to generate food from lentils is the energy that goes into cooking them. You can minimize that by using a pressure cooker (which saves time) or a slow cooker (very convenient when you need to prepare a meal ahead of time to eat at the end of a busy day, or when you don’t want to stand over a hot stove).
Lentils typically are packaged for sale in simple plastic bags that hold 1 pound or more, and the bags typically are recyclable in a plastic film bin at a supermarket or Target store. Even better, you can avoid the bag by buying bulk lentils in a reused container at a store like East End Food Co-op here in Pittsburgh. (Did the lentils in the bulk bin arrive at the store in a big plastic bag? That’s likely–but a bigger bag means less plastic per lentil, anyway! It’s also possible that the bulk lentils were packed in a refillable bucket or a cloth bag that was sent back for reuse.)
If you cook too much and don’t finish your leftovers before they spoil, lentils can go into your backyard compost bin and will break down quickly .
The energy used in transportation of dried lentils is minimized by their light weight per serving, compared to foods that are transported with a lot of liquid in them. The non-bulky packaging of lentils means a lot of them can be packed into a train car or truck.
Pre-cooked lentils also are available, sometimes in steel cans but more often in pouches made of multiple layers of plastic. These are less environmentally friendly, so avoid them except in situations where you really need the convenience.
Green lentils are sold in most supermarkets for less than $2 per pound. Red lentils are harder to find and often cost about $4 per pound, still a bargain. (Look for red lentils in Indian stores and health-food stores.)
One pound of lentils is about 3 cups. One cup of lentils is the amount used in many recipes that make 6 main-dish servings. So when lentils are $2 per pound, that’s only 11 cents per serving! And most recipes combine lentils with other low-priced ingredients like rice, onions, carrots, and tomatoes, keeping the total cost of the meal pretty low.
Kept dry and protected from weevils and mice, lentils last 2 to 3 years before they begin to lose nutritional value. (They remain safe to eat for several years longer.) We store them in glass jars that other foods came in, on a pantry shelf away from sunlight.
This long storage time means lentils are perfect to have on hand as a back-up option when you’re running out of fresh food before going to the store, or when you’ve just come home from a trip and are ready for a home-cooked meal!
Versatile and Delicious!
Lentils have a plain, bean-like flavor, but they soak up seasonings to become many different flavors of delicious! Red lentils cook quickly (20-30 minutes) to a fluffy texture like oatmeal. Green lentils take longer (40-60 minutes, unless you use a pressure cooker!) and retain a chewy texture and pleasant shape. Check out all my lentil recipes! My family also loves this slow-cooker sloppy joe recipe from A Veggie Venture.
Even a recipe-shy novice cook can boil lentils in plain water, then mix them with other ingredients. We like to use curry sauce from a jar on lentils, vegetables, and rice. Red lentils just blend in with the sauce to make it heartier and more nutritious without really changing the flavor.
Baked lentils also are very easy: Just combine with water and seasonings, then stick them in the oven while you do something else! Honey Baked Lentils is a classic recipe almost everyone likes, which can be thrown together in five minutes by anyone adept with measuring spoons, using only shelf-stable ingredients–and it goes very well with sweet potatoes or winter squash, which can bake alongside it using no additional energy.
Stovetop recipes for lentil soups or lentil-and-rice meals take a bit more attention but aren’t tricky–lentils are hard to mess up.
Sprouted lentils make a great salad topping, or there are lots of recipes for salads made from cooked lentils combined with vegetables and dressing.
Any lentil recipe tends to taste good left over, so you can cook once and keep eating it for days! Recipes without meat or raw vegetables last about five days in the refrigerator or months in the freezer. Lentils reheat well in the microwave, perfect for office lunches.
Please share your favorite lentil recipes in the comments! I’m always interested in trying new ways to enjoy this nutritious, delicious, affordable, eco-friendly, convenient ingredient!
Lentils also can be used as art supplies! On repurposed cardboard with white glue, they can be composted when you’re done admiring the art. Who needs craft foam??
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