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How to use lentils, the protein-packed, plant-based staple everyone needs in their pantry


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Photo: Getty Images / Oksana Kiian

If you’re like most of us who stocked up on groceries in the age of COVID-19 social distancing, you likely picked up one pantry staple: lentils. Not only do these yellow, red, green, and brown legumes last on shelves for months—whether you buy them canned or dried—every bite of them gives you a high dose of nutrients, so there’s good reason for storing them in bulk.

“First things first, lentils are loaded with protein,” says Nealy Fischer, founder of The Flexible Chef and author of Food You Want for the Life You Crave. One cup of cooked lentils provides 18 grams of the macronutrient—even more than an equivalent serving of black beans. “That makes them a great meat substitute,” says Fischer.

If protein isn’t enough to keep you full and satisfied, lentils also offer up a whopping 16 grams of fiber per seving. And to round out their health-promoting properties, you also get a mega dose of calcium (36 grams per cup), plus some iron, folate, potassium, and magnesium.

When you’re shopping for these protein- and fiber-packed little bites, you’ll see them either sold dried or canned. And while either work well for soups or stews, Fischer prefers the taste of the dry variety. (Though she says to go for canned if you want to toss them on a salad—it’s just easier.) “One big concern about canned lentils is the sodium content,” she says. While it’s best to look for those canned in water, with no added sodium, running your canned lentils under cool water will remove a majority of the extra sodium as well, she adds.

After you pick up your lentils, Fischer says they’re super easy to cook. “Unlike many legumes, lentils don’t need to be soaked and they cook up in 30 minutes or less, depending on the type,” she says. Her quick tip on making sure they don’t get mushy: Once you bring the lentils to a boil, turn the heat as low as it can go to finish them off. Also, Fischer suggests using red and yellow lentils for soups and curries, and black and French (or green) ones for salad, as they hold their shape better, she says.

Got all that? Awesome. To give you some inspiration for your upcoming pantry meals, here are five recipes to help you use up your lentils. You’ll never look at the legume the same way again.

How to use lentils in 5 delicious, healthy recipes

Ready to cook up something that tastes good and does your body good, too? Try these easy recipes, all from Fischer.

lentil bolognese how to use lentils
Photo: Getty Images / Enrique Diaz / 7cero

In-A-Pinch Lentil Bolognese

Make your favorite pasta meal meatless, without ditching the protein. It takes just a few minutes to make to get a satisfying, nutrient-dense dish.

Ingredients

Spaghetti
Olive oil, for pan
1 large onion chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 frozen bag of mixed veggies, defrosted
2 cans whole tomatoes
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 cup dried brown lentils
Salt and pepper, to taste
Dried basil, to taste

1. In a large pot, bring water to a boil and cook desired amount of pasta. Once pasta reaches desired doneness, drain, and lightly drizzle with olive oil. Set aside.

2. Heat olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes.

3. Add in the garlic and veggies, stir to combine. Then add the canned tomatoes and tomato paste, stir to combine. Lastly, add the lentils, salt, pepper, and basil. Stir to combine.

4. Lower heat to simmer and cook sauce for another 10 minutes, or until cooked through.

5. Taste for seasoning one last time.

6. Plate the spaghetti and top with lentil-infused sauce. Eat and enjoy!

how to use lentils lentil soup
Photo: Getty Images / Lauri Patterson

Lentil Soup

Yes, you could buy canned lentil soup—but it won’t be nearly as fresh or as flavorful as this delicious bowl of comfort food. Whip it up in under an hour and enjoy as you sit back and relax on the couch.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 onion, chopped (or 1 cup frozen diced onions)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup celery diced (omit if your supermarket is out)
2 carrots, diced (omit if your supermarket out)
1 teaspoon cumin
2 cups dry lentils
1 cups veggie or chicken stock or water
1/2 cup fresh or frozen spinach
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a large soup pot over medium heat, heat the butter or olive oil and cook onion, stirring, until translucent, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the garlic, celery, carrots, cumin, and lentils and cook, stirring, until fragrant, roughly 1 minute.

3. Add the broth, spinach, salt, and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the soup until the celery and carrots soften, about 30 minutes. Serve in bowls and enjoy.

lentil salad
Photo: Stocksy / Harald Walker

Lentil Salad

In fewer than 30 minutes, you’ll have a veggie- and vitamin-packed salad, with lentils to boost its satisfaction factor. It’s a fresh and filling lunch or dinner.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 1/2 cups Puy (or French or green) lentils
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
3/4 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
Handful of spinach leaves
1/4 cup mint leaves
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1. In a large frying pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add curry powder and stir for about 20 seconds.

2. Add the lentils, stirring to coat well. Add generous pinch salt.

3. Cover the lentils with water, bring to a simmer, and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the lentils are soft. Don’t let them boil dry, top up with more water if necessary but don’t make them too wet.

4. Remove from heat, drain, rinse and set aside to cool.

5. Put cooled lentils in a large bowl with the onion, tomatoes, spinach, and herbs, whisk together the vinegar and oil in a separate dish, pour over the salad and toss well. Season to taste with the sea salt and pepper.

lentil stew
Photo: Getty Images / Westend61

African Coconut Lentil Stew

Fischer learned to cook up this dish on a recent trip to Africa. While this recipe calls for more ingredients, it’s worth the purchase—and it’s still super easy to make.

Ingredients

1 teaspoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium carrot, grated
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon tomato puree
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1 can coconut milk, divided
1 bunch coriander leaves, chopped
1/2 cup chopped red pepper (use frozen if that’s what you have)
1/2 cup chopped yellow pepper (use frozen if that’s what you have)
1 bunch spinach (use frozen if that’s what you have)
1 cup cooked brown lentils
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat oil in a large pot. Add the onion and cook for about 1 minute, until fragrant. Add the garlic, stir-fry until they start to brown.

2. Add the spices, stir for 30 seconds.

3. Add tomato puree. Stir until well coated.

4. Add tomato sauce, 1/2 cup coconut milk, vegetables, and lentils.

5. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Once bubbling, reduce to low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, until vegetables are cooked through.

6. Add the remaining coconut milk, stir until sauce thickens to desired consistency.

7. Turn off heat, taste, and season to your liking. Eat hot.

Vegan Italian soup with lentil meatballs

You can also make a surprising dupe for meatballs using lentils, as proven by Kelly LeVeque in a recent episode of Well+Good’s Cook With Us show.

Ingredients

For the meatballs:
1 tsp olive oil
1 medium shallot (minced)
3 cloves garlic (minced)
1 Tbsp flaxseed meal
1 tbsp of olive oil,
1 1/2 cups cooked + cooled lentils (cooked in vegetable stock)
1 1/2 Tbsp dried Italian seasonings
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp nutritional yeast
5-6 Tbsp vegan parmesan cheese (plus more for coating)
~1/4 tsp Sea salt and black pepper to taste
2 tbsp of almond flour

For the soup: 
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
1cup 1/4 inch diced celery
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 cups vegetable broth
2 (14.5 ounce) cans petite diced tomatoes
1 rosemary sprig
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
2 zucchinis, zoodled
Pink Himalayan salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. First, make the meatballs: In a frying pan, sauté garlic and shallots in 1 tbsp of olive oil.

2. Pulse lentils, 1 tsp olive oil, sautéed garlic and shallot, Italian seasonings, flax meal, parsley and tomato paste.

3. Roll into balls and dust with almond flour.

4. Sauté balls in a frying pan until golden brown, 6-8 mins. Transfer to a plate and cover with tinfoil or put in the oven on low to keep warm.

5. To prepare the soup, heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic and sauté until tender and fragrant, 4 to 6 minutes.

6. Add the broth, tomatoes, rosemary, bay leaves, basil, and parsley. Cover, bring to a simmer over medium-high, turn the heat to low, and simmer for 30 minutes.

7. Remove the bay leaves and rosemary. Add the meatballs and zoodles, cover and simmer for 5 minutes, until the meatballs and zoodles are heated through. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Looking for more things to do with your pantry staples? Here are some delicious and creative ways to use chickpeas. And this surprising pantry food can come with a side of pesticides.

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