How to Use Lentils (Plus 9 Benefits for Your Health and the Planet You’ll Love)

As demand for clean, plant-based protein is on the rise, lentils are having a moment. 

From pasta to chips, protein-packed lentils are popping up everywhere. The United Nations named them the food of the year in 2016. February 10th is now the annual World Pulses Day, named to celebrate this powerful little legume. Even trendsetting Prince George loves to eat them. Here, we review how to use lentils in your kitchen. And the benefits for your health and the planet are sure to motivate you to try them every which way.

What Are Lentils?

Lentils are legumes, also called pulses. And they’re found in many varieties, including green lentils, red lentils, puy lentils, and black lentils, each with varying textures and flavours. Traditionally used in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Mediterranean cuisine, lentils are known for their somewhat nutty flavour and versatility. And it turns out this new carb chameleon isn’t so new after all. Humans have been harvesting them for 9,000 years. High in fibre, folate, and plant protein, and boasting several health benefits, it’s no wonder.

How to Use Lentils
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Health Benefits of Lentils

Versatile, tasty, and inexpensive, lentils are an easy way to boost your health. And there’s science to back that up. The health benefits of lentils don’t disappoint; take a look at these. 

1. Excellent source of plant protein

Diets high in protein, particularly protein from plants such as legumes (peas, beans and lentils), whole grains and nuts, have been linked to lower risks of developing diabetes, heart disease and stroke. A 2020 study by the British Medical Journal reported that “Diets high in protein, particularly plant protein, are associated with a lower risk of death from any cause.” 

The researchers say these findings “support current dietary recommendations to increase consumption of plant proteins in the general population.” According to the USDA, a cup of cooked lentils (180g) provides 16.2g protein, 0.01g of saturated fat and sodium. This compares to a 4-ounce broiled sirloin steak which delivers 33g worth of protein but 5g of saturated fat and a 4-ounce ham steak with 22g protein,1.6g of saturated fat, but 1,500 milligrams of sodium

2. Heart healthy

Lentils — and other pulses —  are high in fibre: The USDA states that 1 cup (180g) of cooked lentils provides 14.2g of dietary fibre. This amounts to approximately half of the American Heart Association recommended daily intake of 24-30g. According to the British Heart Foundation, adding pulses to your diet reduces risks of stroke and heart disease. Figures from a 2019 AHA study showed increasing fibre intake reduced levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or bad cholesterol.

3. Weight control

Whilst pulses are low in calories (207 kcal per 180g cooked lentils), they are high in complex carbohydrates (36.1g) and fibre (14.2g). This acts as a ‘bulking’ agent in the digestive system, increasing the feeling of fullness and reducing appetite and overall calorie intake. The high fibre content in lentils also helps keep the digestive tract healthy, which in turn, prevents constipation and promotes regular bowel movements. A British Heart Foundation Senior Dietician Tracey Parker states “Replacing half or even all the meat you eat with pulses is a great way to eat less unhealthy saturated fat, manage your weight and keep your digestive system healthy.”

4. Folate-rich

Folate is critical for preventing neural tube defects in newborns. This essential vitamin can also reduce the risk of gestational diabetes. A 2019 study of 14,553 pregnant women found that those who took more folate during pregnancy were less likely to develop gestational diabetes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that females of childbearing age consume a minimum of 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate or folic acid every day. The USDA states1 cup of cooked lentils contains 362 mcg of folate.

5. Rich Source of Iron

Iron deficiency is a common cause of fatigue as it affects how efficiently the body uses energy. The USDA reports that 100g of beef contains 2.6g of iron compared to 3.3g in the same amount of cooked lentils. Plants provide non-heme iron and the body cannot absorb non-heme iron as well as heme iron. So, try combining pulses with vitamin C rich foods, such as citrus, berries, and peppers, which will improve absorption.

How to Use Lentils
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How Lentils Support the Planet

These little gems aren’t just great for your body, they’re great for your planet, too. Let’s take a look at how they compare to animal protein.

1. More water efficient than meat

According to the Farming and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations official data, to produce 1kg of chicken takes 4325 litres of water. 1kg of lamb takes 5520 litres and 1kg of beef takes 13,000 litres. Compare this to 1kg of drought-resistant lentils which takes only 1250 litres. 

2. Lentils prevent soil erosion

In 2016, the UN FAO declared lentils ‘the food of the year’ because planting them would help the health of the world’s soils. According to the FAO, soil erosion had reached critical levels. All pulses, including lentils, have nitrogen-fixing properties. In symbiosis with certain types of bacteria, they are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen compounds that can be used by plants, while also improving soil fertility.

According to the 2016 FAO report, 85 million hectares of pulses were cultivated in 2014 worldwide and they fixed approximately 3 to 6 million tonnes of nitrogen. Moreover, cereals grown after pulses yield 1.5 tonnes more per hectare, equivalent to adding 100 kilos of nitrogen fertiliser. FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva stressed, “Soils and pulses embody a unique symbiosis that protects the environment, enhances productivity, and provides fundamental nutrients to the soil and subsequent crops.”

3. Fewer carbon emissions

The World Resources Institute (WRI) scorecard gives an indication of the differing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) per gram of protein from both animal and plant-based protein foods. Producing 500g of lamb generates five times more GHGs than 500g of chicken and around 30 times more than 500g of lentils. In the US. alone, beef accounts for 36% of all food-related GHG emissions, concludes the WRI. Consequently, pulses contribute to the more rational use of fertilisers, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

4. Sustainable food source

According to the 2016 FAO report, pulses are a critical and inexpensive source of plant-based protein, vitamins and minerals, especially for subsistence farmers. “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Food insecurity is a major issue for many people and households in poor and developing countries — it is estimated that 795 million people are undernourished. Pulses can help contribute to food security in a number of ways.”

Smallholder farmers who cultivate lentils can eat and/or sell their harvest and use for animal feed. Moreover, lentils can be stored for months without losing their high nutritional value, thus providing increased food availability between harvests. 

How to Use Lentils
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How to Use Lentils 

 So, we’ve seen why we should eat lentils. But how do we eat lentils?

These tiny powerhouses are super easy time savers and can be added to most any dish. Lentils are typically sold dry, but unlike dry beans, there’s no need to soak them before cooking—just a quick rinse will do. Either pop them in your pressure cooker or cover your lentils with water and simmer for about 20 minutes. Depending on the variety you are working with, you may want them still slightly chewy for green and black lentils or soft and soupy for red lentils. 

Canned lentils are also another great time-saving option.

It’s also fun to sprout lentils. It takes a couple of days — you simply need to soak your desired quantity in water overnight, then drain, rinse them and leave them in a jar. Once they’ve sprouted, you can store them in an airtight container in your fridge and add them to salads and sandwiches. 

Not only are they delicious and inexpensive, but lentils are also incredibly versatile. In the colder months, they are the perfect addition to a nourishing, hearty soup  When the weather warms up, lentils can bulk up a salad, adding texture, protein, and flavour. They’re also ideal as the basis for bakes and bowls. Try experimenting with the different types of lentils by tossing yellow lentil croutons on your next salad, whipping up some green lentil and veggie soup, or making the traditional Indian red lentil dal. You can also whip up a delicious veggie burgers and meatloafs from lentils for heartier fares. 

How to Use Lentils
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Soups

Middle Eastern Lentil Soup

This style of lentil soup is a Middle Eastern staple. It can be chunky, not blended. But once smooth, It’s so creamy and satisfying, it’s hard to go back. Made with just six simple ingredients, it can serve serve four as an appetiser, or two as a main course. so it’s good for the pocket as well as the palate. Satisfying all roound.

Find the recipe here.

Sweet Potato, Red Lentil and Chickpea Soup

This hearty and delicious Sweet Potato, Chickpea and Red Lentil Soup ticks all the boxes: healthy, vegan, gluten free. Quick to make it in your slow-cooker or stove.

Find the recipe here.

Turmeric Lentil Soup with Ginger and Cumin

Healing and comforting, this soup is blessed with two ‘superfoods’ – ginger and turmeric.  Good for the body as well as the soul. It’s also is surprisingly easy to make. Again, the texture of the finished soup is up to you. Use a potato masher for chunky or a hand-blender if you prefer a smooth soup. One non-negotiable – use fresh root ginger. The soup needs to be zingy for maximum healing feeling.

Find the recipe here.

Vegan curries
Lentil Curry | Yup It’s Vegan

Stews

Slow-cooker Lemon Dal

The joy of dal. It’s hands off cooking at it’s best. Cook it on high and it buys you two hours. But prepare it on low and you get five. Either way, the low, slow heat transforms the pink lentils into a ginger- and lemon-scented pool. Enjoy on its own as a soup, or spooned over basmati rice as a hearty vegetarian gravy. (We’ve got a lot more vegan curries to try here.)

Find the recipe here.

Spanish-style Lentil Stew

Easy to make with very simple ingredients, this stew is perfect for those on a serious budget. Hearty and comforting, this oil-free recipe is great as a plant-based main dish for chilly evenings or as a side for a summer barbeque or picnic. Plus, like most lentil dishes, it’s freezer-friendly. Super-versatile, it’s great with some crusty bread to mop up all the goodness and a fresh green salad. Or, you could also use it to stuff a baked potato or serve it as a side at your next BBQ.

Find the recipe here.

Super Easy Lentil Curry

This curry is wholesome, super delicious and high in protein and fiber. All that good stuff. It’s super easy and pretty quick too. You can have dinner on the table in less than an hour with this meal. If you have leftovers, you’ll be happy too because leftovers are divine for lunch the next day.

Find the recipe here.

Lentil, Pomegranate and Walnut Stew (Fesejan)

Fesenjān (also called fesenjoon) is an Iranian stew traditionally made with meat, pomegranate molasses, and walnuts. Supposedly, it was served to celebrate the new year. This plant-based version is not traditional, but it is made with similar ingredients and flavours. And it is hearty, comforting, savory-sweet, and so simple to make. Perfect for the bleak mid-winter.

Find the recipe here.

How to Use Lentils
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Salads

Moroccan Lentil Salad

This flavourful Moroccan Lentil Salad is infused with fragrant spices, crunchy celery, toasted almonds, dried apricots and loads of fresh herbs. You feel energised just looking at it. Perfect for midweek lunches, this vegan and GF beauty keeps well in the fridge so can be made in advance.

Find the recipe here.

Secretly Amazing Lentil Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

It’s not witchcraft, just a smart combination of ingredients that makes this salad so amazing. Black lentils are key to this recipe. They have firmer skins and a slightly earthy flavour that complements the arugula. Plus, the beautiful black colour contrasts so well against the various green ingredients in this dish. By the way, if you’re not keen on raisins, then replace with something else sweet. Marinated sundried tomatoes or roasted red peppers would both work. 

Find the recipe here.

Mushroom, Lentil and Lemon Salad

This nutritional powerhouse may look like a winter dish. But the tart brightness and freshness of lemon really brings the mushroom lentil salad into summer. Feel free to experiment with the mushroom type. Meaty portobello mushrooms would also be lovely as they have a richer, deeper, almost meaty flavour. King brown mushrooms would be great too, or even a mix of wild mushrooms.

Find the recipe here.

How to Use Lentils
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Meaty Lentil Recipes

Lentil Burger with Maple Mustard Sauce

Now the versatility of this burger is what makes it so appealing. Depending on your mood, you can make it more hearty, pump up the spices, or give it a stronger veggie note. A combination of more earthy flavors (lentil) with a touch of sweetness from the raisins and, of course, the nuttily walnut component. The Mustard Sauce with Maple is everything. Spicy and sweet, it’s not just amazing as a topping for the Vegan Lentil Burger. Add to the burger patty mixture for an extra flavour kick.

Find the recipe here.

Vegan Lentil Loaf with Gravy

This vegan lentil loaf is such a great recipe for the holiday season! Or everyday. It’s easy to make, healthy, and soooo delicious! Serve with gravy, pumpkin and sweet potato mash, and cranberry sauce.

Find the recipe here.

Turkish Lentil and Bulgar Wheat Patties

These have a tasty hit of chilli paste and a lovely cumin flavour which makes them the perfect thing to serve for a healthy dinner. But they would be also be great for addition to your lunchbox. Or fry them up for a pre-dinner appetizer!

Find the recipe here.

Lentil Bolognese

Filling and flavourful, bolognese is a family staple. Keep things fresh by sometimes swapping green lentils for brown or black. They all hold their shape when cooked. If you only have red lentils on hand, keep in mind that they will cook faster and may give this sauce more of a softer texture.

Find the recipe here.

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