Lentils might not top your list of favorite foods. But they’re a great option if you’re looking for an inexpensive, tasty, and protein-packed meat substitute.

Lentils, a type of legume also known as a pulse, are commonly eaten around the world as part of different cuisines. If you’ve only tried lentil soup, it may be time to expand your palate. You can use lentils in a variety of dishes, such as chili, tacos, stews, and more.

Here’s a look at the different types of lentils, their nutritional benefits, and why you’ll want to add them to your pantry as a staple.

Are lentils healthy?

Lentils are in the pulse family, along with foods like dried peas, edible beans, and chickpeas. Like other legumes, they grow enclosed in pods. But the term pulse refers only to the dried seeds.

Pulses are good sources of protein. One cup of lentils has around 18 grams of protein. Protein makes up the enzymes that power chemical reactions in your body. It’s important to eat enough protein to help maintain a number of important functions in the body, including regulating hunger and fullness.

Lentils are also a great source of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber, also known as roughage or bulk, is important for preventing and treating constipation. In addition to helping you maintain bowel health, eating a diet rich in fiber can help lower cholesterol levels, control blood sugar levels, and help you maintain a healthy weight. Lentils are even low in fat, making them a healthy choice to add to your diet.

Lentils are also a healthy source of:

  • folate
  • iron
  • phosphorous
  • potassium
  • magnesium

Folate and iron are important for preventing anemia. Potassium and magnesium can help with muscle and nerve function. Phosphorous helps you maintain healthy bones and teeth.

Are lentils gluten-free?

Lentils are a naturally gluten-free food. For individuals with celiac disease who avoid wheat, they’re a healthy alternative to starchy foods. They’re also a way for people who avoid foods such as enriched pasta and bread to get their daily recommended servings of fiber. If the lentils are packaged with seasonings, check the ingredient list to ensure that it doesn’t contain any gluten.

Can lentils help prevent cancer?

Lentils contain antioxidants and phytochemicals, substances that may help prevent cancer. Lentils are on the American Institute for Cancer Research’s list of foods that fight cancer.

Studies have shown that the phytochemicals in legumes might reduce your risk for many different types of cancer. This may be because of their ability to reduce growth factors and chronic inflammation, and even help with the body’s ability to destroy cancerous cells.

Types of lentils

There are three main varieties of lentils: green, red, and brown. You may see other specialty types at the store like beluga, or black lentils.

  • Green lentils: These are also known as French lentils. They stay firm when cooked, and can be used in dishes like salads, soups, and vegetarian burgers.
  • Red lentils: These cook the fastest, have a mild flavor, and are very soft. They can be used for soups, stews, and dishes like Indian dal.
  • Brown lentils: Are the most common variety of lentils, and range in shades of brown, from light to dark. They should only take 20 to 30 minutes to cook.
  • Black lentils: These are the smallest variety of lentils, and are also known as beluga lentils because they resemble caviar in appearance. Black lentils stay firm and hold their shape when cooked, so you can use them in salads, vegetarian burgers, or for rice pilaf.

History of lentils

The lentils you know today likely come in a package at the grocery store. But this legume has a history that goes back thousands of years. According to archeologists, the earliest archeological dating of lentils was made from a cave in Greece, 13,000 to 9,500 years ago.

Lentil recipes

You can use lentils in several different types of recipes, from savory to sweet. Here are some creative ideas.

Vegan lentil tacos

If you have vegetarians or vegans coming over for dinner, consider serving them lentil tacos. The legumes are flavored with a taco seasoning mix for a spicy kick. View the recipe.

Chicken and green lentil casserole

If you’re not excited about vegetarian dishes, you can still enjoy lentils. This recipe for chicken and green lentil casserole is great for feeding a crowd. You only need a few basic ingredients like celery, carrots, and a can of diced tomatoes to bring this beautiful dish together. View the recipe.

One pot red lentil chili

Don’t get scared off by the long list of ingredients here. This flavorful chili is worth the effort. Your shopping list may be long, but the best part is that you only have to clean one pot. View the recipe.

French lentils with kale and shrimp

French lentils maintain enough texture to serve as the base for this dish. Kale and shrimp are great accompaniments. It’s a good choice if you’re watching your carbohydrates, but also delicious to enjoy with bread. View the recipe.

Vegan lentil soup

If you think of lentil soup as mushy and unappetizing, wait until you try this vegan version. Its rich flavor comes from the curry powder and cumin. It takes less than an hour to prepare and cook, so you can serve it for dinner and enjoy it all week long. View the recipe.

Chocolate lentil brownies

Lentils can be used for more than just savory dishes. Try including them in your dessert recipes, like this version of chocolate gluten-free brownies. You’ll get a hearty serving of protein while enjoying a sweet treat. View the recipe.

Next steps

Lentils are a healthy source of protein, fiber, and more. They are inexpensive and don’t take long to cook. Add them to your shopping list and try using them in different dishes.