How to Include More Legumes and Beans in your Family’s Diet
Read time: 5 minutes
What to know about legumes and beans and how they can support your health
Legumes are the whole plant while beans and peas are the seeds of the legume plant
Legumes have several nutrients that are important for all stages of life
How you can incorporate legumes into any meal or snack
Not only are legumes rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but they are an excellent source of plant-based protein.1 In fact, legumes can help you reach your increased need for protein without the saturated fat and cholesterol found in animal protein.3
Read more: Protein: Getting Enough and the Best Sources
What is the difference between legumes, beans, peas, and lentils?
The words legumes and beans are often used interchangeably, but technically legumes are the whole plant while beans, peas, and lentils are the edible seeds of the legume plant (these seeds are also called pulses).1
Legumes are considered part of the vegetable family. They are also a good source of protein.16
Beans include: black beans, fava beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, white beans, red beans, etc
Dried peas include: Chickpeas, black-eyed peas, pigeon peas, and split peas
How much legumes should I eat?
Because beans, peas, and lentils are so nutrient-dense and are relatively low in calories, you can incorporate them liberally into your diet.4
The 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a minimum of 1.5 cups of beans/peas/lentils each week.6
Nutritional benefits of legumes
Beans, peas, and lentils are low in calories and high in fiber.12 High-fiber foods have been shown to help:
Promote the feeling of fullness
Positively impact cholesterol
Positively influence blood sugar (especially important for women with or at risk for gestational diabetes)
Affect the risk of certain cancers
Beans, peas, and lentils also contain iron, a mineral needed to help red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body.18
People who are pregnant are at higher risk of iron-deficiency anemia, when iron stores are too low.18 Including legumes will help fill your diet with iron-containing foods, which can be especially important for vegans and vegetarians.
Note that the iron in plants, called non-heme iron, is not as well-absorbed as animal sources.18 Help to optimize absorption by pairing legumes with Vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus or broccoli.14
Other vitamins and minerals found in beans, peas, and lentils:
Legumes are full of many nutrients that are beneficial for our health at every stage, including, but not limited to: Folate, thiamine, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
Types of legumes and how to cook them
How to prepare dried beans
Dried beans take longer to cook since they require soaking and pre-cooking the bean to be tender enough for recipes.
Good news: You can make go through the process of soaking and pre-cooking for a big batch of beans and then freeze them to help cut down on cooking time later. There are also alternative methods for cooking and soaking, including using a pressure cooker to reduce the overall time.7
Occasionally you can find fresh beans seasonally, and these have a shorter prep and cook time.8
Read more: 8 Tips for Simple, Quick, Healthy Cooking
Lentils and dried peas
Lentil and dried peas (split peas, yellow split peas, etc.) have a much shorter cooking time and don’t require soaking.11 While you can buy lentils canned or prepared in the refrigerated section of some stores, it’s also easy and inexpensive to cook them yourself.
Start with discarding any broken lentils or stones/twigs.
Rinse under cool water.
Combine lentils and water (3 cups water to 1 cup lentils) in a pot on the stove.
Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat until tender.11
You can also cook lentils directly into recipes like lentil soup or one-pot type meals.
Introduce lentils to your kids: Lentil Stew
How to include more legumes in your and your family’s diets
Keep your pantry stocked with legumes
Beans, peas, and lentils are inexpensive and easy to incorporate into many meals and snacks –and even to eat on their own – when you have them on hand. Keep a few cans of low or no sodium beans and a few small bags of dried beans. If you have the chance to buy fresh beans from your local farmers market or grocery store, they’re worth a try! You can also keep some frozen varieties, like shelled edamame, in your freezer.
If time is an issue, go for canned beans or dried legumes that are smaller in size, like lentils or split peas, as they can be cooked in less time. Remember to always rinse canned and dried beans before eating.
Get the most out of your iron-rich foods by pairing them with vitamin C
Pair iron-rich plant-based foods with vegetables and fruits that are rich in vitamin C, such as broccoli, grapefruit, kiwi, leafy greens, melons, oranges, peppers, strawberries, tangerines and tomatoes to maximize absorption.1418
How to introduce legumes to your baby
Beans are a great first food for your little one. At first, your baby may do well with pureed beans as they learn to eat, then you’d want to progress to mashed beans for a chunkier texture as your little one progresses in their eating skills. Finally, whole cooked beans make an excellent finger food for your child.
Feel free to season the beans! Add olive oil and other herbs and spices such as oregano or cumin to help make beans more appealing.
Read more: Introducing Solids: First Foods and Textures
Meal and snack ideas to incorporate legumes into your diet
Toss beans into egg dishes such as frittatas and omelets.
Try Costa Rican black beans served with scrambled eggs and rice for breakfast. To make Costa Rican black beans, sauté an onion, red and green pepper and garlic, add 2-3 well-rinsed cans of black beans. Finish by seasoning with oregano, salt, and a splash of red wine vinegar.
Add rinsed, canned beans to salads as an easy bump in nutrient density.
Black bean quesadillas on whole grain tortillas
Add beans to soups and chilis
Lentil salad. For an easy lentil salad add diced red onion and veggies like baby carrots, peppers or celery, feta cheese, and a combination of red wine vinegar, olive oil, and seasoning.
Spiced red lentil and vegetable soup
Bean-based veggie burgers.
Toss beans into pasta dishes. Try cannellini beans with cherry tomatoes, kale, garlic, olive oil, seasoning, and whole grain noodles.
Side Dishes & Snacks
Cold 3-bean salad. Use any varieties you prefer and dress with seasoning, olive oil and vinegar.
Bean-based salsa with black beans, mango, lime, and cilantro.
Hummus or bean dip is a great snack that you can buy pre-made or make from scratch.
Roast seasoned beans like chickpeas or edamame. Or keep shelled, frozen edamame in the freezer for an easy-to-grab snack.
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