How to include more beans/legumes in your diet

What to Know

  • Legumes have several nutrients that are important for a pre & post-natal diet
  • How to incorporate legumes into any meal or snack

Legumes are a class of vegetables including beans, peas and lentils and they are packed with nutrients. Not only are legumes rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals but they are an excellent source of plant-based protein. During pregnancy especially, beans can help you reach your increased need for protein without the saturated fat and cholesterol found in animal protein.

Womans hands holding a jar of nuts and dried fruits

Here, we’ll focus on beans such as kidney, pinto, black, navy, fava, split peas, lentils, chickpeas and edamame. Note that green peas and green lima beans have properties closer to starchy vegetables while green string beans have properties closer to non-starchy vegetables.

Because beans are so nutrient-dense and are relatively low in calories, you can incorporate them liberally into your diet. They are so unique and nutritious, they can be considered both a protein and a vegetable when preparing meals and snacks.

You can purchase beans that are fresh, dried or canned. Fresh beans are seasonal and can be cooked up in 10-45 minutes (depending on the type) in simmering water. With the exception of lentils and dried green or yellow peas, which do not require soaking and are fast-cooking, many dried beans are best soaked overnight or brought to a boil, let sit for an hour, and brought back to simmer until tender. Using a pressure cooker speeds up the time considerably and using a slow cooker means you can ignore the passage of time altogether! Canned beans are pre-cooked and ready to eat but rinsing them before eating will reduce the sodium.

Nutritional Benefits

Legumes are low in calories and high in fiber. High-fiber foods help to promote the feeling of fullness, lower cholesterol, control blood sugar (especially important for women with or at risk for gestational diabetes) and manage constipation (a common pregnancy complaint).

Legumes are also rich in iron, needed to help red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. Eating legumes may help combat iron-deficiency anemia, a common condition in women of childbearing age.

Legumes are also good sources of:

  • Folate (folic acid): Needed to form new blood cells. Adequate folic acid is especially important for women who are of childbearing age because healthful diets with adequate folic acid may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with brain or spinal cord birth defects.
  • Thiamine: Important for nervous system and muscle function, digestion and carbohydrate metabolism.
  • Manganese: Needed for bone production and collagen production. Also plays a role in blood sugar control.
  • Magnesium: Important for bone integrity and energy production and blood sugar control. Also plays a role in nervous system regulation and decreases inflammation.
  • Potassium: Helps maintain healthy blood pressure.
  • Zinc: Supports your immune system as well as cell division and growth.

What to Do

Keep your pantry stocked with beans

Beans 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 beans that are smaller in size, like lentils or split peas, as they can be cooked in less time. Remember to always rinse canned beans before eating.

Get the most out of your iron-rich foods and supplements with food pairings

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.

Incorporate legumes into your diet in a variety of tasty ways

  • Don’t rule out legumes for breakfast. Toss beans into many egg dishes such as frittatas and omelets. Or try Costa Rican black beans, which are often 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 them to soups. During the cooler months, add beans to soups and stews. Any varieties will do or you can try adding a dried bean medley. A small cup of soup also makes a great snack.
  • Add them to salads as an easy bump in nutrient density.
  • Make a side dish. Use canned beans for a quick side-dish. You can have them plain, over a whole grain or sautéed with vegetables like onions, carrots and celery.
  • For a quick lunch or dinner try black bean quesadillas on whole grain tortillas. Sautee black beans, onion, spinach or arugula and season with chili powder, cumin and cayenne pepper. Add the filling to the tortillas with some fresh grated cheddar cheese and bake until cheese is melted.
  • Toss beans into pasta dishes for a protein and fiber boost. Try cannellini beans with cherry tomatoes, kale, garlic and whole grain noodles.
  • Try making a lentil salad using either dried or pre-cooked lentils. 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 and olive oil.
  • Try a cold 3-bean salad. Use any varieties you prefer and dress with some good olive oil and vinegar.
  • Make a bean based salsa with black beans, mango, lime and cilantro.
  • Stuff a whole grain tortilla with beans, cheese and lots of veggies like diced peppers, onions and zucchini. If you want, you can add some lean meat. Eat as a taco or roll up into burritos. You can even wrap in foil and then freeze for future use.
  • Instead of regular burgers, try making bean-based veggie burgers.
  • Make chili with a variety of beans like black, kidney and pinto.
  • Hummus or bean dip is a great healthy snack that you can buy pre-made or make from scratch. You can also use bean dip as a spread on a sandwich in place of mayonnaise. If you’d like to try making your own hummus, try using traditional chickpeas, or substitute any other bean, and play around with garlic and greens (such as arugula) for more flavor and color.
  • Try roasting small beans like chickpeas or edamame for snacks. You can also buy roasted beans from the grocery store, just look for varieties that are low in sodium.
  • Keep shelled, frozen edamame in the freezer for an easy-to-grab snack.
  • And keep in mind that young eaters who are developed enough to safely handle whole cooked beans love them as finger food.

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