When your grocery budget is tight, there are always two things you can count on: beans and rice. These stalwart champions of tiny grocery budgets are affordable, accessible, and nutritious.
Beans make a versatile ingredient that can stretch a pound of ground beef into a pot of chili that feeds a crowd. Add a little cheese and a can of tomatoes, and you have a casserole for a hungry family. Stir them into a pot of broth with last night’s leftovers, and you’ll have a nourishing soup.
Beyond extending what you have and stretching a tight grocery budget, beans and other pulses are highly nutritious foods. There’s a reason why pulses count among the best foods you can buy, whether your resources are tight or you have a little more wiggle room in your wallet.
What Are Pulses?
Beans belong to a food group called pulses, which also includes dried peas, lentils, and chickpeas. While all of these foods are also legumes, in the context of food, the term “pulses” refers specifically to the dry, edible variety.
Pulses are rich in minerals, B vitamins, and dietary fiber, and boast a fair amount of protein.
A cup of lentils contains roughly 90 percent of the daily value for folate, a nutrient that is essential for women of childbearing age for its ability to prevent neural tube defects, and is a good source of both potassium and iron.
Similarly, chickpeas are rich in vitamin B6, which supports the immune system and guards the body against infection. They also contain ample phosphorus, a mineral that supports bone and cellular health, as well as manganese, which supports metabolism and blood sugar regulation.
Beyond fiber, protein, and plenty of vitamins and minerals, pulses are also a rich source of antioxidants. Black and kidney beans contain anthocyanin, a flavonoid also found in red wine, tea, and blueberries that gives them their deep, dark color.
Like other antioxidants, anthocyanins calm inflammation and support heart and metabolic health. Some research has linked the phytonutrient to the prevention of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Organically grown beans tend to be richer in these compounds than those grown on conventional farms.
Beans and lentils are so nutritious that researchers consider them functional foods, meaning that they deliver more health benefits than basic nutrition alone. A 2018 study published in Clinical Nutrition found that a diet rich in beans cut the risk of both Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Similarly, many studies show that people who eat beans have a lower risk of cancer. Researchers attribute these benefits to the rich antioxidant profile and plentiful fiber in pulses.
Tiny but mighty, pulses count among the best foods you can buy and eat. (pbd Studio/Shutterstock)
Making Beans a Little Better
While beans are certainly healthy, they cause digestive discomfort for many people. Beans and other pulses contain raffinose, a complex carbohydrate that can be difficult to digest, and food phytate, a potent antioxidant that also binds certain minerals such as iron, zinc, and calcium and makes them difficult for your body to absorb. To remedy this problem, take care in preparing beans.
Traditionally, cooks have soaked, sprouted, or fermented certain pulses, all steps that made them a little more nutritious and easier on the digestive system. Soaking pulses overnight helps combat the effects of raffinose and food phytate—especially if you add a little baking soda to the water, which helps to break down the raffinose—and also makes the minerals in them more bioavailable, that is, easier for your body to use.
If you’re concerned about lectins, a type of carbohydrate-binding protein found in pulses, rest assured that soaking them and cooking them at high heat, especially pressure-cooking, deactivates most of the lectins.
Buying canned beans is an easy, affordable option for most people; however, you’ll save more money by buying dried beans and cooking them yourself. Soak them overnight, cook them in big batches, then freeze what you don’t use right away in one-cup portions for easy use later.
With their earthy flavor and need for long cooking, beans are often used during the colder months of autumn and winter—but there are plenty of ways to cook with these affordable, nutritional powerhouses in the summertime, too.
Bean and chickpea salads are a classic option. They’re easy and affordable, they can be served cold or at room temperature, and they keep like a champ, which makes them perfect for both potlucks and weekday packed lunches. The trick for a vibrant bean salad is to add enough acid, salt, and herbs to liven up their natural earthy flavor. Plenty of vinegar does the trick, along with green onions or garlic, parsley, chile, and a good pinch of salt.
Dips are another excellent choice for warm weather. There’s hummus, traditionally made with chickpeas, but you can make similar dips using just about any pulse. Try puréeing red lentils with chile paste and plenty of olive oil, or partner white beans with sage and garlic for a classic flavor combination.
RECIPE: Chickpea Salad
RECIPE: Marinated Beans
RECIPE: Red Lentil Dip