Beans, beans, the magical fruit. The more you eat, the more you … increase your nutrient intake, manage your weight and fight heart disease.

While beans and legumes aren't typically considered a fruit, their beneficial properties can seem nearly magical. The puny packages are packed with a vast variety of necessary nutrients including protein, fiber, B vitamins, iron, potassium and zinc — just to name few. Increasing the use of beans and legumes can increase fiber and vitamin consumption and lower fat and calorie intake. It can also have a positive impact on the environment and your pocketbook.

The difference between beans and legumes can be confusing. Legumes are a type of vegetable that actually includes beans. So, all beans are legumes. But not all legumes are beans. Commonly known beans include Lima, black, pinto and kidney. Popular legumes include chickpeas, lentils and split peas.

A variety of dried beans and legumes are available at many local grocery stores. Because of their long shelf life and low cost, dried beans and legumes can be an economical staple in any pantry. Most should be soaked in water for 12-24 hours before cooking; the exception is lentils, which do not require soaking. Simply follow the directions on each package to ensure proper technique.

Canned beans and legumes are also widely available. These are, however, higher in sodium than their dried counterparts. Look for those labeled "low sodium" or "reduced sodium." Rinsing and draining the beans and legumes can further reduce the sodium content.

Beans and legumes can be combined with ground meats to be used as "meat extenders." Adding whole, mashed, pureed beans and legumes, or those pulsed in a food processor, not only increases the nutritional value of the meat dish; it also adds volume, therefore, "extending" the amount on the meat.

Green and brown lentils work well as a meat extender because they require a short cooking time and do not become mushy when cooked. Add cooked lentils to raw ground meat using a ratio 3:1 or 2:1, meat to lentil. Lentils can also be used in place of ground meat in certain recipes. When substituting lentils for meat, use one cup of dried uncooked lentils per one pound of raw ground meat. Lentils can be used in many ground beef dishes such as tacos, meatballs, sloppy joes and meatloaf. When using ground chicken or turkey, chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) and great northern beans work well.

Beans and legumes are incredibly versatile and can be easily used in almost any dish. Try adding one of these magical fruits to your favorite recipes and enjoy the bountiful benefits!

  • Add your favorite beans to soups, chowders and chili to create a hearty and healthy meal.
  • Toss lentils or chickpeas into salads and pasta dishes to turn a side dish into a protein-packed entrée.
  • Mix beans or legumes with steamed veggies for a tasty accompaniment to any meal.
  • Spread hummus on a sandwich, in place of mayo, to decrease fat and calories.
  • Try a legume-packed dessert!

Black Bean Brownies

1 can (15.5oz) black beans, rinsed and drained

3 eggs

½ cup unsweetened applesauce

¼ cup cocoa powder

⅛ tsp salt

1½ tsp vanilla

¾ cup white sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8x8 baking dish. Combine all ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour into baking dish. Bake about 30 minutes, until top is dry and edges begin to pull away from the sides of the baking dish.

Lentil Taco 'Meat'

1 tsp vegetable oil

⅔ cup onion, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

⅔ cup dried lentils, rinsed

1 tbsp low-sodium taco seasoning

1⅔ low-sodium chicken broth

Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté onions and garlic until tender, about 5 minutes. Add lentils and taco seasoning, stirring for about 1 minute. Pour in chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until lentils are tender, about 25-30 minutes. Uncover and cook until slightly thickened, about 6-8 minutes. Mash lentils and serve in taco shells with your favorite taco toppings.

Kaia Chamberlin is a clinical dietitian for St. Luke’s.