When Beans Save Dinner

dried lentils, chickpeas, black beans and more in glass jars ready for dinner

FotografiaBasica / Getty Images

Who needs meat when you've got beans in the pantry?

Since giving up meat, I can’t tell you how many times beans have saved dinner. All my old quick-meal tricks were made obsolete by our dietary shift, but my children are still as hungry and grumpy as ever when 5 p.m. rolls around. They don’t care that I’m struggling to figure out what to make that doesn’t involve tossing a pan of sausages in the oven or roasting a few chicken breasts. If it weren’t for beans, I don’t know what I’d do.

We now eat beans and lentils four or five times a week and use them in every imaginable way. These are some of my favorite go-to meals when I’m in a rush, need dinner on the table quickly, and have a batch of cooked beans in the fridge, freezer, or on the pantry shelf. (Note: I do not provide full recipes here, but merely inspiration for quick dinner ideas. If you're an experienced home cook, there is likely sufficient information to prepare dishes.)

Chickpea Curry

This curry is as basic as they come, and it’s wonderfully delicious. Onions, garlic, ginger, curry paste, tomatoes, and chickpeas simmer together in a pot, are topped with cilantro, and served over hot basmati rice. It’s my kids’ favorite meal.

Bean Soup

Soak white (navy) beans overnight, then simmer for several hours in a stockpot with plenty of broth, chopped carrots, onions, celery, and garlic. Add tomatoes if desired. Serve with crusty bread. Another version is made with black beans and seasoned with cumin and pureed chipotles in adobo sauce for smoky flavor. Stir in yogurt to finish.

Black Bean Tacos

Sauté onions. Add chopped green pepper and/or carrots. Season with minced garlic and a generous amount of chili powder. Stir in cooked black beans and cooked diced sweet potato. Serve in warm tortillas topped with salsa, avocado, and cheese.


This may sound like cheating, but I’ve discovered some awesome powdered falafel mixes in the International Foods aisle of my small-town grocery store. The ingredient list is short and normal-sounding. Just add water, let sit for 10 minutes, then fry small rounds into hot, crunchy falafel. Serve in a pita with garlic-tahini sauce or tzatziki, and salad.

Bean Bowl

Make a grain of some kind (quinoa, millet, rice, couscous). Mix a can of cooked black or pinto beans with chopped cilantro, fresh lime juice, cumin, and minced green onions. Top the grains with the beans, and garnish with feta cheese (or non-dairy substitute) and diced avocado. Pass the hot sauce.

Pasta with Beans

Not exactly a common pairing, pasta with beans is delicious. Add a can of navy beans to spicy tomato sauce, or toss chickpeas with sautéed greens and garlic (rapini is a favorite of mine), or make pasta with fava beans and pecorino.

Bean Burgers

White beans or black beans are my preferred choice, particularly the Island Black Bean Burgers in my all-time favorite vegan cookbook, Isa Does It. Bean burgers come together quickly and can be cooked in a frying pan, although baked recipes are less messy and the oven heat can be used to make delicious sweet potato fries at the same time.

Bean Chili

This must be the easiest one-pot meal ever. Sauté an onion; add 2-3 tbsp chili powder, 3 cans of washed mixed beans (black, pinto, and chickpeas are what I usually use), and 1 large can diced tomatoes. Simmer for 20 minutes. This is the most basic version, and you can embellish with additions such as corn, sliced black olives, and other chopped vegetables added at the beginning of the simmering time. Top with grated cheese and serve with bread.