For a protein boost in the morning, consider adding lentils to your breakfast foods. Nutritionist Carrie Dennett explains how.

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On Nutrition

Looking for a way to get more protein at breakfast, but tired of eggs and Greek yogurt? Look to lentils as a way to get more plant protein and fiber, even compared with an otherwise “traditional” breakfast dish.

When I first heard of putting lentils into smoothies and oatmeal, I was not on board, even though adding them to savory egg-based breakfast dishes like omelets, frittatas and egg casseroles was easier to swallow.

But I reconsidered: Lentils have the chameleon-like ability to adapt to any spice or flavoring, and generally play nice with other ingredients. Plus, flat, split red lentils — which are actually more salmon-colored — break down and become mushy during cooking. That makes them an epic fail if you’re trying to make a lentil salad, but perfect for slipping into oatmeal and smoothies. So I tried it at home, and there were no recriminations (unlike the time I put tofu in a pumpkin pie; I still hear about that one a decade later).

Nutritional benefits

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Why are lentils so fabulous that they’re worth adding to your breakfast? Lentils and other pulses (the edible part of legumes) have been part of the human diet for more than 10,000 years, and are an important part of some of the world’s best-researched, time-tested, healthful diets. Lentils are rich in both protein and fiber, which makes them satisfying. Plus, that fiber in lentils, along with the resistant starch — a type of carbohydrate — provide good food for our gut microbiota and help protect against cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Thanks to their protein and fiber, lentils are slow-digesting carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (GI), which means they provide a steady source of energy. Half a cup of cooked split red lentils contains nine grams of protein and is a good source of potassium, zinc, iron, magnesium and many B vitamins, and an excellent source of folate and fiber.

Lentil varieties

The Palouse region in Eastern Washington and northern Idaho grows 18 percent of the nation’s lentils — Pullman even hosts the National Lentil Festival each August — but Montana and North Dakota also have major growing regions. Canada, especially Saskatchewan, is the world’s dominant lentil producer.

While split red lentils are your best bet for slipping into breakfast foods, savory dishes that would benefit from their creamy texture (dips, blended soups, macaroni and cheese), or ground beef for a blended burger, they are not a good choice for other dishes. Reach for pretty much any other variety when you want to use lentils in salads, bowls, wraps, non-blended soups, stews or chilis, chunky pasta sauces, taco fillings or lentil-and-whole grain side dishes. Your options include whole brown or green lentils, French green lentils (sometimes sold as du Puy lentils), and black “Beluga” lentils. Each of these will hold their texture and shape when cooked.

Preparing lentils

Lentils have a few distinct advantages over beans. Some people who find that beans make them gassy have an easier time tolerating lentils. Lentils are also quicker-cooking than beans, and don’t require soaking. That makes them much more convenient when time is at a premium.

To cook, begin by rinsing lentils with fresh water to remove any dust. For every cup of dry lentils, you’ll need three cups of water, stock, broth or other liquid. Combine in a saucepan, bring to a boil, cover with a lid, reduce heat, and simmer until tender — about 5 to 7 minutes for split red lentils, or 15 to 20 minutes for whole green or brown lentils. Black lentils take a little longer — about 30 minutes — and du Puy lentils can take up to 45.

Try cooking a batch of lentils on Sunday to add to breakfasts or other meals during the week. If you want to use lentils in sweet breakfast dishes, one option is to simmer them with spices like cinnamon, ginger and cardamom, and blend a half-cup into your smoothie for a fiber and protein boost, or stir into prepared stovetop oatmeal. You can also puree the lentils and add to baked goods. To make the puree in your food processor or blender, add ¼ cup of water for every 1 cup of cooked lentils, and blend until the mixture is smooth and has a consistency similar to canned pumpkin. You can use the lentils to replace half the oil or butter in muffins and quick breads. Remember that if you can’t find split red lentils, whole red lentils take a little longer to cook but will also cook down into the desired mushy consistency.

For more lentil information and recipes, visit lentils.org and pulses.org.

Coconut apricot walnut baked oatmeal and lentils

Serves 4-6

This make-ahead dish, adapted from a recipe on lentils.org, will make your morning easier. Feel free to vary the type of nuts and dried fruit to suit your personal tastes.

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon coconut oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 can coconut milk (regular or light)
  • 1-1/8 cup water
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup steel-cut oats
  • ½ cup split red lentils
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped dried apricots (preferably unsulfured)
  • ½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon (or more to taste)
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt

Instructions

  1. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish with coconut oil
  2. In a medium bowl, beat eggs briefly, then add all remaining ingredients and stir to combine thoroughly. Pour into prepared dish, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
  3. The next morning, preheat oven to 350°F. Remove dish from refrigerator, take off the plastic wrap, give the mixture a stir and sprinkle cinnamon on top, if desired. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and bake until set in the middle, about 10-15 minutes. Serve warm.