Meals on a Budget: Save Money. Eat Beans.

Meals on a Budget: Save Money. Eat Beans.

beansby Cathe Olson

Many families have been affected by the state of the economy and are trying to save money wherever possible. My husband and I are planning to enlarge our garden so we can grow more of our own food and have severely limited our eating out. But what else could we do? How could I further cut our food expenses without sacrificing taste and nutrition? Then I hit on it—BEANS. 

For centuries, beans (legumes) have been a dietary staple in many countries around the world. Bean dishes are still found in almost every culture. Chickpeas are featured in the Middle Eastern favorites: falafel and hummus. East India dal is made with lentils or mung beans, and pinto and black beans are a common side dish in Mexico. It’s no surprise that legumes are so popular. They’re versatile, easy to store, extremely nutritious—and yes—inexpensive. 

When I was a kid, my mom made beans soups often. It was her way of stretching a little bit of meat to feed six hungry children. My siblings and I liked to sing, “Beans, beans, good for your heart . . .” Well, it’s true, they are! A University of Kentucky study showed that increasing bean intake for only three weeks lowered men’s cholesterol an average of 19 percent, thereby reducing their risk of heart attack by almost 40 percent. 

A big advantage for busy parents is that beans are easy to prepare. Most require soaking, however, so a little advance planning is necessary. Also, they take time to cook but luckily, very little hands-on time is required. 


If you know the rest of that song “Beans, beans, good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you —-.” Well, unfortunately, that part is true as well. Beans are known to cause flatulence. The human digestive system cannot break down the oligosaccharides in dried beans so they end up intact in the large intestine where the bacterial action results in flatulence. 

There are ways to minimize the effects. First of all, certain beans (like lentils and split peas) are less gas producing, so if you are not accustomed to eating beans, those are good ones to start with. Here are some ways to make beans easier on your digestive system and increase the availability of nutrients:

  • Soak beans (see preparation instructions above) to leach out oligosaccharides. Soaking also helps to neutralize phytates so minerals are better absorbed by your body.
  • Change the soak water once or twice—or even more if possible.
  • Drain and rinse soaked beans before cooking.
  • Cook beans with a strip of kombu sea vegetable to tenderize beans and improve digestibility.
  • Season beans with ginger, turmeric, fennel seeds, or asafetida. These spices add flavor and improve digestion.
  • Eat legumes with greens to neutralize the beans acidity and make them more digestible. I always add some chopped kale or collard greens to soups like minestrone and lentil.
  • Eat legumes with vitamin C foods (tomatoes, peppers, cabbage) to include mineral absorption. Another great way to get vitamin C is to sprinkle minced parsley over your finished bean dish. 


    Following are general instructions for cooking legumes. Exact soaking and cooking times for various beans can be found in many cookbooks (including The Vegetarian Mother’s Cookbook). 

    1) Purchase dried beans from a grocer that has a good turnover. Old beans take forever to cook and are almost impossible to get tender. 

    2) Sift through legumes, picking out damaged beans, pebbles, and other debris. Rinse. 

    3) Place legumes in a bowl or pot with at least three times their volume of water. Soak for 8 to 24 hours. Change the soak water several times if possible. (Lentils, split peas, adzuki beans, and black-eyed peas don’t require soaking.) 

    4) When ready to cook, drain soak water and rinse legumes. Place legumes in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add water; use about 3 to 4 times the amount of dried legumes you started with (i.e. if you started with 1 cup dried legumes, use 3 to 4 cups water.) 

    5) Bring beans to a boil over high heat in the uncovered pot. Skim off any foam that rises to the top of the water. Turn heat to lowest setting. Cover the pot and simmer for 45 minutes to two hours, or until legumes are tender. Stir as little as possible so they do not become mushy. 6) Wait until beans are slightly tender to add salt and seasonings. Salt, sugar, fat, and acidic foods added at the beginning of cooking may prevent beans from softening. 

    Note: A pressure cook is a great way to cook beans in a hurry and is a good investment if you eat a lot of beans. 

    Canned Beans 

    Canned beans are also pretty cheap—especially compared to most prepared foods—and you can’t beat them for convenience. Nutrition-wise, they are processed using high temperature and pressures. Luckily, since beans require so much cooking anyway, this makes them just slightly less nutritious than beans from scratch. Canned beans do contain high amounts of sodium, so be sure to drain and rinse all the canning liquid off of them. 

    As an alternative to canned beans, cook up big batches of beans from scratch and freeze them in two-cup-size containers (about the same amount as a can). Then you’ll have the convenience and save a little money too. 


    So what’s your favorite bean dish? Split pea soup, bean and cheese burritos, chili, bean salad? Here are a few recipes that are cheap to make, but still very satisfying and delicious. 

    Tortilla Soup
    This hearty, delicious soup is a favorite with my family and friends. Although the ingredient list looks long, this is really a quick soup to make if you have precooked or canned beans on hand. Since my children don’t like spicy foods, I leave the Tabasco sauce out of the soup and put the bottle on the table so each person can spice his or her soup. <ingredients:< b=””>

    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1 onion, diced
    • 2 cloves garlic, minced
    • 2 cups cooked pinto beans
    • 2 cups cooked white beans
    • 2 cups cooked black beans
    • 4 1/2 cups water
    • 2 cups or 1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
    • 1 cup frozen corn kernels
    • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
    • 1 teaspoon chili powder
    • 1 tablespoon miso
    • 1 tablespoon tahini
    • 2 teaspoons nutritional yeast flakes (optional)
    • 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce or to taste
    • Sea salt, if necessary
    • Tortilla chips

    Optional Toppings:
    Minced fresh cilantro
    Minced green onions
    Sliced black olives
    Shredded nondairy Jack cheese 

    Heat oil in large soup pot over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook 10 minutes without stirring so they brown. Stir in garlic. Add beans, water, tomatoes, Sea Veg Mix, cumin, oregano, and chili powder. Heat until soup starts to boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered about 30 minutes to let flavors combine. Remove 2 cups of soup and place in blender with miso and tahini. Puree and return to soup. Add Tabasco and sea salt to taste. 

    To serve, ladle soup into bowls. Insert tortilla chips into soup around edges of bowl. Top with cilantro, olives, and/or cheese if desired. 

    Makes 8 servings 

    Squash and White Bean Soup
    Winter squash is also inexpensive and stores well. This soup is a favorite of my cooking students. 

    • 1 small onion, peeled and chopped
    • 2 teaspoons olive oil
    • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
    • 4 cups water or vegetable stock
    • 1 butternut, kabucha, or hubbard squash, peeled and cut into cubes (about 7 cups)
    • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger or 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
    • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    • 1 1/2 tablespoons miso
    • 1 tablespoon tahini
    • 2 cups cooked white beans
    • 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley or watercress
    • Sea salt and black pepper to taste

    In large soup pot over medium-low heat, add onion and oil. Stir gently to spread and then cook about 15 minutes without stirring until onions are brown and caramelized. Stir in garlic. Add water or stock and squash. Cover and bring to boil over high heat. Lower heat and simmer 30 minutes until squash is tender. Puree squash mixture in blender or food processor with spices, miso, and tahini. Add water if soup is too thick. Return to pot and stir in beans and parsley or watercress over low heat. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Garnish with roasted pumpkin or squash seeds if desired. 

    Makes 6 servings 

    Garbanzo Stew
    This hearty, vegetarian stew supplies a lot of iron. Try it with lima beans too. 


    • 1 bay leaf
    • 1 onion, peeled and chopped
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
    • 4 to 5 red potatoes, cut into bite-size chunks
    • 3 carrots, sliced
    • 2 stalks celery, sliced
    • 2 cups water or vegetable stock
    • 1 teaspoon sea salt
    • 2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
    • 2 tomatoes, diced or 1 (15-ounce) can chopped tomatoes with juice
    • 1 cup chopped green cabbage
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
    • 1 tablespoon miso
    • 1 tablespoon tahini
    • 1 1/2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
    • 1/4 cup water

    In large pot over medium heat, sauté bay leaf and onion in olive oil about 5 minutes, or until onion is translucent. Add garlic, potatoes, carrots, celery, and sauté 5 minutes longer. Add water or stock and sea salt. Cover and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add garbanzo beans, tomatoes, cabbage, cumin, and turmeric. In small bowl, combine miso, tahini, and arrowroot with 1/4 cup water to form a smooth paste. Stir it into stew and heat for 5 minutes, or until broth thickens. Do not boil as this will destroy the beneficial enzymes in the miso. Remove bay leaf. 

    Makes 6 servings 

    Tamale Pie
    This is the dish I always bring to potlucks. It looks impressive and even nonvegans love it. 


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 cups cooked pinto, kidney, or black beans, drained
  • 1 cup diced tomatoes with juice (canned is fine)
  • 1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
  • Sea salt and black pepper to taste 


  • 1 1/2 cups cornmeal
  • 3 1/4 cups water
  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt 


  • 1/4 cup shredded nondairy Jack cheese (optional) 

    Preheat oven to 350ºF. Oil an 8-inch square baking pan. Heat oil in medium-size pan. Stir in onion and sauté about 5 minutes. Add garlic, chili powder, and cumin. Sauté 5 minutes more. Add beans, tomatoes, and corn. Season to taste with sea salt and black pepper. Let mixture simmer uncovered while you prepare crust. 

    Whisk together cornmeal and water in medium-size pan. Cook over medium heat until mixture begins to boil. Reduce heat to low. Stir in sea salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened (about 10 minutes). Spread 2/3 of the mixture over bottom and up sides of the prepared baking pan. Pour bean mixture into crust. Top with remaining cornmeal mixture. (Don’t worry if beans are not covered completely.) Sprinkle with shredded cheese if desired. Bake 30 minutes. Let sit 10 minutes before cutting. 

    Makes 6 servings 

    Lentil Puree (Dahl)

    We love this version of Indian dahl. It’s a delicious way to get lots of iron. If you want to be authentic, serve it with naan (Indian flatbread), but tortillas, lavash, and chaptis also work well. 

  • 1 cup lentils
  • 1/2 strip kombu (optional)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon oil or ghee
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 1 cup diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt 

    Place lentils, kombu, and water in heavy-bottomed pan. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer 45 to 60 minutes, or until lentils are tender. While lentils are cooking, heat skillet. Add oil or ghee, onion, chili powder, turmeric, cumin, and ginger. Sauté 10 minutes, or until onion is soft. Stir in tomatoes. Cook about 5 minutes. Pour cooked lentils and tomato mixture into food processor or blender and pulse to puree, leaving some texture. Serve with millet, quinoa, or brown rice, and/or flatbread. 

    Makes 6 servings 


Cathe Olson

Author: Cathe Olson

Cathe Olson is the author of the new nondairy ice cream cookbook: Lick It! Cream Dreamy Vegan Ice Cream Your Mouth Will Love, as well as Simply Natural Baby Food and The Vegetarian Mother’s Cookbook. Visit Cathe’s blog at

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