This One Ingredient Swap Will Make Your Bolognese Sauce So Much Healthier

Registered dietitian Emily Kichler offers this simple tip for including more pulses in your diet.

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substitute lentils for ground beef (shown, lentil bolognese)

Making nutritious choices doesn’t mean overhauling your diet, eliminating all your favourite foods, or eating foods you don’t enjoy. Small, simple swaps can contribute to healthier eating and won’t leave you feeling deprived.

In an ideal world, everyone would eat more pulses (a part of the legume family that includes lentils, chickpeas, dried beans and dried peas) because of their link to a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, some cancers and cardiovascular disease. The challenge is, many people don’t know how to prepare them and don’t have a stable of go-to recipes that use them. But including pulses in your diet is easier than you think.

The swap

To boost fibre and nutrients in a hearty Bolognese, without sacrificing any of the comfort, try replacing half the ground beef in your spaghetti sauce with lentils — the resulting sauce is rich and flavourful from the beef, while the lentils add body but otherwise go largely unnoticed.

Why use lentils instead of beef?

Lentils provide protein, are very high in fibre, low in fat, and are packed with nutrients like iron, magnesium, calcium, zinc and folate. Women need about 25 grams of fibre per day, but most don’t come close to that target. One cup of cooked lentils provides about 10 grams, including both soluble and insoluble fibre.

Insoluble fibre keeps you regular, prevents constipation and decreases the risk of colon cancer. But it’s the soluble fibre in lentils that makes them a powerhouse for heart health, because it lowers LDL (or “lousy” cholesterol), which reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. Replacing some beef with lentils also reduces the saturated fat content, which may help lower cholesterol.

As a source of complex carbohydrates, lentils are low on the glycemic index, meaning that as they’re digested, they cause a lower, slower rise in blood sugars than simple carbohydrates. This can help control appetite by making you feel full longer, and is helpful in managing blood glucose levels.

Ground beef is also an excellent source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12, but meat is something Canadians typically over-consume.

How to do it

Use 225 grams of ground meat instead of the typical 450 grams in your favourite recipe for meat sauce. Add 1 cup of dry lentils plus 2 cups broth or water when the tomatoes/tomato sauce are added to the pot, then simmer until the lentils are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Red lentils work well because they break down as they cook and thicken the sauce, but brown or green lentils could also work.

Need a recipe? Give my simple bolognese a try; it comes together in under 45 minutes!

Lentil and Beef Spaghetti Bolognese

Serves: 6

Prep: 15 min; total: 40 min

2 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

225 g lean ground beef

¼ cup tomato paste

2 tbsp dried Italian seasoning blend

1/2 tsp salt

650-mL jar tomato sauce

2 cups no-salt added vegetable or beef broth (or water)

1 cup dry red lentils

250 g spaghetti, or other pasta (try whole wheat)

1. Heat oil in a large pot over medium. Add onion, carrot and garlic and cook until softened, 5 min. Increase heat to high and add beef. Cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until browned, 4 to 5 min.

2. Stir in tomato paste, herbs and salt and cook 2 min. Stir in tomato sauce, broth and lentils and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until lentils are soft, about 20 min.

3. Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water following package directions. Serve sauce over pasta, topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Kitchen Tips: Ground beef is usually sold in 450g packages, so make a double batch and freeze in individual portions for quick meals on busy nights, or check out some of our other favourite meals using this weeknight warrior.

To make your own Italian seasoning, combine ½ tbsp each dried oregano, thyme, rosemary and basil.