Many people are worried about a recession. This worry is currently compounded by the large tech companies doing layoffs. And no, my own family is not immune. My husband was hit in a recent round. We will be fine, but it’s a stressful event and a great time to audit the food budget to see where we can tighten things for the moment. Increasing our reliance on legumes, including dried lentils and beans, is one way we can accomplish this. (Getting our act together and sticking to menu planning is another one.)
How to substitute dried lentils for ground beef in recipes
If your recipe calls for one pound of ground beef, you will want to use one cup of dried lentils. This is for a one-to-one substitution. When cooked, one cup of dried lentils yields approximately three cups of cooked lentils.
In most recipes, you will need to cook the lentils before using them, reducing the overall cook time of the substituted recipe.
How to cook lentils
Important: Lentils do not need to be soaked. Before cooking the lentils, check them for any small stones or other debris.
When you cook your lentils, you will use four cups of water for every one cup of lentils. Place the lentils and water in a pot, cover, and bring to a simmer. Green or brown lentils will take 20 – 30 minutes. Red lentils will take approximately 12 – 15 minutes.
As you will be using them in other recipes, it is generally best to leave them with some texture and not let them get too mushy as they will cook further in whatever recipe they will be used in next.
When you are going to be using lentils instead of ground beef and not because you are trying to go meatless, you may find that using beef bouillon in the cooking water makes a big difference in the outcome. You may not need the usual strength (one cube for every cup of water, but experiment until you find what works for you). Be aware that this will increase the sodium content, and watch how you salt and season the rest of your recipe accordingly.
Tip: What Is the Difference Between Boiling and Simmering
Tips for successfully using lentils
I see posts all the time that say things like, “I tricked my family. They never noticed that it wasn’t meat.”
Are you kidding me? I have many questions and don’t know how to ask them without sounding extremely rude. A straight-up, unacknowledged lentil for ground beef substitution would never fly in this household. First, I don’t try to pull things over on my family; second, texture issues are real.
You will almost always want to use green or brown lentils when substituting for ground beef, but if red lentils are all you have in the pantry, use them. The color will differ, and you will want to adjust your seasonings toward the stronger side.
If this is not an emergency budget situation, you could substitute half of the ground beef for cooked lentils. You will still receive the benefit of reducing the overall amount of red meat you are consuming, it is not as immediate.
For example, if you were going to have tacos one night, cook and season the meat, but use twice the seasoning and extra liquid, and then add the cooked lentils toward the end. Remove half of the meat mixture and put it in the refrigerator for later in the week. Enjoy taco night.
Then make a taco skillet, but this time, you’ll need to adjust the recipe a bit since your protein is already cooked. Heat your liquid in a large skillet, then add your pasta and cook until it is nearly done; add your protein, cheese, taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
I’ve found using this technique reduces suspicion from young children, and as long as the older ones know what is going on, everyone is cool with it.
It’s really not kind to surprise anyone’s GI tract with a lot of legumes. Let them adjust their portions accordingly. Agency and consent are always important. We have lots of other ideas for budget-friendly recipes if beans aren’t going to work for your family.
Recipes featuring dried lentils:
Lentil pilaf is a side dish, but as it is high in protein, it can reduce the reliance on a main dish.
Lentil burgers, no one will ever think these are hamburgers, but they are good in their own right.
Lentil enchiladas – not a favorite, but it will work in a pinch.
Recipes that would work well with a dried lentil for ground beef swap.
Or a partial swap.
I tend to start with more strongly flavored recipes and proceed accordingly as changes are accepted.
Other Budget-Friendly Recipes featuring Beans
Budget-Friendly Bean Recipes
Beans and rice are synonymous with tight budgets, but your tastebuds don't have to feel the pinch. Learn how to make this comforting classic.
This budget-friendly Tex-Mex soup is a family favorite and is easy enough for a weeknight
This recipe will feed a crowd. Make it once and freeze the rest for another night.
Get to know black beans and all they have to offer with this easy classic.
This recipe is a traditional New Year's meal in the South, but black-eyed peas are cheap and don't need to be a once-a-year treat.
Bean burritos are a favorite here for lunches and dinners. A bag of dried pinto beans costs roughly the same as a can of refried beans and yields far more.
Pea soup is a wintertime favorite
You may also want to check out: Short-Term Grocery Budget Strategies