We’re living through a unique time in history, when a virus spreading worldwide has us cooking at home more than many people have done in years, a significant number of us are dealing with job loss or other reductions of income, grocery shopping is a potentially life-threatening expedition, and some foods are out of stock!
The details are unique, but humankind has survived many other situations with similar effects on our cooking habits and access to ingredients.
For example, World War II brought rationing of many grocery items and shortages of others, while many women were struggling to find time to cook in between working in essential industries and raising children alone while fathers fought in the war. Recipes from that difficult time may help to inspire our creativity and frugality–or remind us to be grateful for the ingredients and cooking techniques that are available to us now!
This is a great time to learn simple pantry recipes the whole family will enjoy, meals you can make anytime circumstances keep you from going to the store right away!
These frugal meals are great not only for this pandemic season but also for snowstorms, staying home with a new baby or an illness in the family, returning home from a vacation, or just realizing that you’ve run out of time to go shopping and cook!
Lentils and Dry Beans: Sustainable Nutrition When the Budget Is Tight
Meat can be expensive under the best of circumstances, and coronavirus infections among meat-processing workers may lead to a meat shortage, according to NBC News.1
This is a great time to eat less meat–but we still need protein to maintain our immune systems! According to Medical News Today, the immune-boosting amino acid arginine is found not only in meats but also in beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and seaweed.2
Beans or lentils can substitute for meat in many meals, or they can be combined with a small amount of meat or bone broth to make more meals from the same amount of meat.
Lentils have the lowest environmental impact of any protein source, according to the Environmental Working Group.3 They’re also affordable–especially when purchased from a bulk bin or in a 5-pound bag from Gordon Food Service–and check out their nutritional profile! Being smaller than beans, lentils cook more quickly; tiny red lentils cook even faster than green or brown lentils.
Canned beans are inexpensive and last a long time in the pantry. Dry beans cost even less per serving than canned, and dry beans stored in pest-proof containers (I save glass jars that other foods come in) will keep for years.
Most bean and lentil meals freeze well, so you can cook a big batch and put aside some of it for reheating on a day when you’re even more pressed for time and/or groceries! You can even pack up individual portions as homemade convenience foods.
Simple Pantry Recipes to Feed Your Family Frugally
Here’s a quick list of my family’s and Katie’s favorite easy, inexpensive meals using beans and lentils. Many of the bean recipes start with already-cooked beans–here are Katie’s expert tips on soaking and cooking dry beans and cooking beans without soaking in the Instant Pot or other pressure cooker.
- Bean burrito filling is made almost every week in my kitchen! Use it in burritos, tacos, or in a bowl to dip up with corn chips.
- Chipotle simmer sauce gives a deliciously different flavor to beans! It pairs well with sour cream or avocado–perfect when you want burritos but you’re out of cheese.
- American beanwich is a super-quick lunch that turns random leftover beans into something that just might satisfy your McDonald’s craving!
- No time to make lunch amid working and schooling from home? Grab half an hour whenever you’ve got it, to set up individual servings of lunchbox nachos in your favorite washable containers, ready to eat at lunchtime!
- Black bean soup in the slow cooker is a hearty meal that’s easy to set up hours in advance of dinner.
- Toss some previously cooked beans (or canned beans) on a flexican cornbread pizza.
- Katie’s chickpea wraps include little veggie burger/nuggets that are crispy, not mushy, with great flavor!
- Nicaraguan style beans-and-rice is a meal in a bowl, with a very different flavor from Mexican food. I love this with avocado, cilantro, and a fried egg on top.
- Bean dip makes a fun lunch for kids who enjoy dipping or prefer smooth foods to whole beans. It’s easy to adjust the spiciness to your tastes and to sneak in some extra veggies!
- Another chips-and-dip meal uses the Native American “Three Sisters” crops. Check out my kid-friendly meatless meal ideas for simple instructions to make this meal and connect it to social studies and agriculture lessons!
- Tex-Mex white bean dip is awesome, too! I’ve made this KS recipe with cheddar cheese, Monterey jack cheese, and nutritional yeast, and every version was yummy–so it’ll work even if you’ve run out of your preferred cheese.
- Make your own hummus and put together a delicious hummus and vegetable flatbread sandwich with whatever veggies you have. Try making your own flatbread, too, from any of Katie’s tortilla recipes, including grain-free options.
- Grildebeen burgers and black bean burgers are homemade veggie burgers that take some work upfront, but once you’ve made and frozen them, they’re convenient for future meals–at a much lower cost than manufactured veggie burgers. (Gluten-free tip: Substitute cooked brown or white rice for bread crumbs in burger recipes. If your leftover rice is kind of mushy or has water condensed on it, dry it out by frying lightly in a skillet or spreading it out in a pan for a short time in a 200-degree oven, before adding to the recipe.)
- Refried beans are delicious in tostadas or burritos–and easy to make with leftover cooked beans.
- Bean wraps with smoked gouda and pineapple are as easy as burritos–with a totally different flavor! Even an open package of smoked gouda cheese lasts a while in the fridge, and canned pineapple (more nutritious than many canned fruits) can be kept in the pantry for years.
- Use garbanzo beans (chickpeas) instead of meat to fortify your pasta sauce.
- Combine garbanzo or any white beans, any orange vegetable, any kind of greens, onions, and mushrooms into such awesomeness, I ate it for breakfast, too!
- Tuscan bean soup is ready in 15 minutes, and I bet you could make it with thawed frozen spinach if you don’t have fresh spinach.
- Sweet potato soup with beans, kale, and garlic is another Italian-flavored option, packed with antioxidants and great flavor!
- Classic three-bean soup can be blended to satisfy people who dislike the texture of beans.
- Speaking of bean-haters, don’t miss this amazing dairy-free fudge, a dessert you can eat for lunch! We love it as a dip for tart apple slices–or just grab a big spoonful for a quick burst of energy.
- Boiling lentils, rice, vegetables, and seasonings together is a basic concept that can produce many different meals. Here are flexible recipes for 3 lentils-and-rice variations plus the exact recipe for one batch I made. Katie demonstrated that Mexican lentils-and-rice in the Instant Pot is an easy meal even when camping!
- One batch of cooked lentils can make 3 different foods using different seasonings.
- Honey baked lentils is a super-simple recipe: Just measure ingredients into a casserole dish, stick it in the oven, and dinner will be ready an hour later! Bake sweet potatoes or winter squash at the same time for a complete meal packed with nutrients that are especially helpful for preventing migraines and premenstrual syndrome.
- Turmeric lentil soup in the Instant Pot or slow cooker (or just half an hour on the stove) works with whatever vegetables you have handy.
- Lentil sloppy joes in the slow cooker use smoked paprika for great flavor.
- Green ribbon lentils have a mild Italian flavor and plenty of nutritious greens.
- Apricot lentil soup has a sweet, comforting flavor. It comes together in 45 minutes on the stove–mostly just simmering while you do other things–and can be made with frozen and/or canned veggies.
- Combine curry sauce from a jar with plain boiled lentils and stir-fried or roasted vegetables to make a delicious bowl of hearty food with Thai or Indian flavor! We like these affordable sauces. This approach is super flexible about which vegetables you use and whether they’re fresh or frozen.
- Garam masala baked lentils are a no-fuss protein to stick in the oven while you’re making an Indian vegetable dish like my easy palak paneer (creamy spinach and tomatoes; works fine with frozen or canned veggies).
- Masoor dal with carrots is my adaptation of an Indian classic, adding Vitamin A with carrots, which are cheap and last for weeks in your refrigerator.
- Sprouted lentil salad looks weird, but it makes a delicious alternative to lettuce salads.
- Stretch your chicken with Katie’s Italian chicken, lentils, and rice recipe for the Instant Pot or slow cooker.
- Stretch your ground beef with Katie’s cheeseburger soup using lentils, kidney beans, or white beans.
It also offers 30 bean recipes, for the bean lovers of the world and the bean haters.
Experimental Lentils: Recipe Development Tips
I wanted to develop a new recipe for this article: an easy “just mix it up and stick it in the oven” baked lentil recipe with a very different flavor from the honey baked lentils that my 15-year-old says we’ve made too many times so now he just can’t stand to eat them anymore! He’s really into potatoes lately, which gave me the idea to incorporate potatoes rather than rice in this recipe. I based the seasoning on a recent batch of roasted potatoes that my teen said were “FIRE,” which apparently means “so good I can’t stop eating them” these days.
The exciting thing about this experiment was that I guessed exactly right at the ratio of water to oil to lentils and potatoes, and the baking time! When I took it out of the oven to see if it was done yet, all liquid was absorbed, but nothing was burnt, and both lentils and potatoes were cooked perfectly.
However, we all felt that it could be seasoned more heavily. I’ve got ideas for that in the “description” section of the recipe. It smells delicious when baking! Some of us decided that all it really needed was a drizzle of ketchup.
This recipe gives you a template for a lentil-potato casserole with the correct ratios, and you can adjust the seasoning to your liking! Maybe you’d rather have a lentil-potato curry or plenty of rosemary and tarragon…
Baking your entrée is much easier than cooking it on the stove, leaving plenty of time to make a salad, turn your potato peels into frugal fake bacon to top the casserole, or just sit down with a good book!
All of the ingredients are things you can keep on hand for weeks at a time, so this is a perfect meal for the last day before a grocery run. If you don’t have dried onion and need to use fresh onion, you might want to brown it first (and scrape all the tasty oil from the frying pan into the casserole dish) because raw onion in a casserole tends to float to the top and become unappealingly flabby.
Pre-Soak for Softer, More Digestible Lentils
There’s some debate about whether lentils need to be soaked before cooking. Many people notice stomach discomfort or gas if they don’t pre-soak and find that soaking eliminates this problem.
A more obvious effect is that soaking softens lentils so that they cook more quickly. I don’t pre-soak lentils for every recipe, but I did for this one.
Here are two soaking methods:
- Up to 24 hours in advance, measure lentils into a glass jar or other container that closes tightly. Add 2 Tbsp. lemon juice and enough water to just cover the lentils. Close jar and rotate to mix. Set aside in refrigerator or at room temperature.
- As your first step in meal preparation, measure lentils in a heat-resistant measuring cup, or pour them into a heat-resistant bowl. Add 2 Tbsp. lemon juice and enough hot water to just cover the lentils. Set aside to soak while you scrub and chop the potatoes, measure other ingredients, and generally get everything ready–about 15 minutes.
This hearty, frugal, vegan main dish has a smoky flavor that may remind you of hot dogs. Try mixing in 1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar to give it more zing–or top each portion with ketchup, mustard, relish, or whatever you’d like!
- Pre-soak lentils in lemon juice, plus enough water to cover. Soak at room temperature for 12-24 hours, or use boiling water and soak for 15 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Wash, trim, and dice potatoes.
- Put water, oil, and seasonings into a 2-quart casserole dish, and mix thoroughly with a whisk or fork.
- Drain and rinse lentils. Mix them and the potatoes into the casserole.
- Bake, covered, 1 hour, or until all liquid is absorbed.
- Serving Size: 1 cup
- Calories: 223
- Sugar: 2 g
- Sodium: 319 mg
- Fat: 10 g
- Saturated Fat: 1 g
- Unsaturated Fat: 0 g
- Trans Fat: 0 g
- Carbohydrates: 26 g
- Fiber: 11 g
- Protein: 9 g
- Cholesterol: 0 g
Keywords: frugal, pantry meal, casserole
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Experiment with lentils and explore new frontiers in flavor!
- Siemaszko, C. (2020, April 27). Groceries could see meat shortages by end of week amid plant closings. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/groceries-could-see-meat-shortages-end-week-amid-plant-closings-n1193401
- Fletcher, J. (2018, October 4) Which foods are high in arginine? Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323259#what-does-arginine-do-in-the-body
- Meat Eaters Guide: Climate and Environmental Impacts (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/a-meat-eaters-guide-to-climate-change-health-what-you-eat-matters/climate-and-environmental-impacts/