Whenever a friend asks me for advice about food (what are they thinking, right), my answers are pretty consistent. Read your labels, avoid processed food, less packaging is usually better, yes you have to cook, buy ingredients not meals, and for pete’s sake put down that soda. Great advice, and I follow almost all of it much of the time. This is the way with advice right? Right? Please tell me I’m not the only well-intended hypocrite out there. This week I’ve made a conscious effort to remind myself of the central mission that Big Sis and I adopted when we started this enterprise. Eat food, real food. Just food, not chemicals, not gimmicks, not time-savers, and not substitutes.

A few months back, I decided to cut meat and dairy from my diet most of the time (weekday vegan). For the most part I’ve been pretty successful at staying true to the eat food, real food tenants, but there has been some slippage as I’ve tried to replace food items that are near and dear to my palate and I’ve found myself sucked in by some items that definitely don’t honor the other part of our shared philosophy, which is that eating real food can be affordable. Due to my enthusiasm and sporadic attention, the grocery bill has become a bit of a monster. We haven’t talked about this much, but Big Sis and I both believe that it is possible to maintain your current budget, and in some cases even decrease your spending by replacing processed foods with real food. This belief doesn’t even begin to take into account the long term savings in health care and work lost to illness that healthier eating can provide – don’t worry, I’m not about to do any math here, although I am now tempted to Google to see if someone else has already done that math….. Stay on target. Stay on target.

beautiful, simple, inexpensive lentils

And so after paying the last month’s bills, I decided it was time for a bit of a recalibration. Time to remind my brain and my body that there are simpler ways to stay true to my dietary choices without breaking the bank. And so I whipped up an old friend, one that you should meet as well. Enter bulgur and lentils. These two humble (and CHEAP) ingredients can be manipulated into a variety of dishes on their own, but put them together and a world of possibilities opens up, particularly for those interested in replacing some meat based dishes in their recipe box. I stumbled upon this combo in The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyzyn years ago. As a side note, if you are looking to shrink your expenditures and you come across a used, or better still a library copy of this book, you will find a wealth (hahahaha) of ideas on how to economize in just about every category of domestic life. At any rate, the recommendation here is to mix lentils and bulgur and cook them in water (2 water to 1 lentils and bulgur). This mix can then be used in essentially the same way that you would use ground meat. We used the ridiculously large amount that I made this week in veggie burgers and for a taco/burrito night. The bulgur-lentil mix performed beautifully in both of these areas. My son was particularly taken with his grainy beany tacos. I thought I’d share these simple, cheap, real food recipes with you, just in case you need to recalibrate too – or just in case you’re looking to save a little money and improve your family’s nutrition. Eat food, real food.

Lentil Bulgur Mixture – from The Tightwad Gazette

  • 4c water
  • 1c lentils (I used plain brown, super cheap, lentils)
  • 1c bulgur

Bring water to a boil, add lentils and bulgur and simmer for 45 minutes.  Do check and stir periodically as they will stick on the bottom, particularly if you over cook.  When finished, I turn off heat, leave cover on and let them steam a bit to make the bottom sticking phenomenon go away (works with rice too, by the way).  I doubled this recipe and we now have far more of this mixture than we can use in a reasonable amount of time.  I will try freezing, but remember that this is an expandy food when you make your own.  This mixture should be refrigerated once cooked.  Feel free to make the mixture ahead of time by a few days and save yourself some meal prep time.

happy little burgers waiting to go in the oven

Lentil Bulgur Burgers – adapted from The Tightwad Gazette

  • 2 c lentil-bulgur mixture
  • 2 c bread crumbs
  • 1 c chopped onion
  • 1/2 c chopped green pepper (opt.)
  • 4 T mixed herbs (I use bail, oregano and thyme)
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 eggs (flax, soy, or chicken)
  • 2 T soy sauce or Bragg’s plus milk to make 1/2 c (I used almond)
  • 1/4 c sunflower seeds (opt., but I like the texture)

Preheat oven to 350 if you want to bake your burgers.  Mix the first six ingredients.  Add eggs and soy sauce/milk and mix well.  Stir in sunflower seeds.

amazingly yum and easy pretzel rolls

If you have time, chill for at least half and hour (I did it without the chill and it wasn’t a problem).  Form into patties.  Fry 10 minutes per side, or bake (on parchment or lightly greased cookie sheet) at 350 ten minutes per side.  The fried version has a more burger-like appearance, so if you’re looking to convince someone, that may be a better approach.  I find baking easier in process and for cleanup.  We served our burgers on these pretzel rolls from our friend Somer at Good Clean Food. Traditional burger toppings plus a little kimchi for me. Delish!

Lentil Bulgur Tacos

I must confess that I got a bit slapdash here, so I’m going to describe my procedure without measurements as I would be completely fabricating quantities any other way.   Saute chopped onion until soft.  Add minced garlic.  Add chili powder, cumin, and a little soy sauce or Bragg’s.  When fragrant, add enough lentil bulgur mixture to satisfy your crew.   Turn heat up a little if you’d like to get some browning on your taco filling.  Cook until flavors meld and all is warm.  Serve with taco shells or tortillas and fixings.

No chemicals, no gimmicks, little packaging, no “time savers” (although it really didn’t take long), and no weird factory substitutes.   Just food, real food.  Cheap and delish.

59 responses

  1. There is a middle eastern dish that I often make, lentils boiled with rice. Served with caramelized onions and a dollop of yogurt on top – cheap, dalish, satisfying. Forgive the spelling, I think it’s called mjudduruh.

  2. I totally understand the $ thing. Part of me can easily toss it around when shopping but I do look at it this way – since I am not buying meat normally for a family of 5, dropping $5 to 10 a meal, I can justify spending it on gorgeous veggies. Or maybe I find ways to justify it…lol!!
    Or as I tell my husband – if we went out to eat at an average place we’d spend $50 to 60 – and we used to eat out too much – so now I can buy obscure food snob items and er….justify it!

  3. Pingback: Recalibration | my sister's pantry | Healthier Eating Tips

  4. I do think lentils are a bit miraculous in this way. And quinoa too! Easy, fast, and reasonably priced in the bulk section (and I like quinoa cakes/patties as well).

  5. I love the Tightwad Gazette and am the proud owner of a second-hand copy of one of the compendium volumes! Those pretzel buns look lovely!

    • I had a feeling I’d scare a couple of Tightwad fans out of the woodwork. The buns were a revelation, particularly as I don’t usually do much in the bread department – and poaching first? Totally new, but they were great and really easy.

  6. Oh man, I REALLY need a recalibration too. 7 months vegan and my grocery budget is through the roof. I guess I don’t really need hemp seeds, or organic everything, or PB2 (it’s not even that good) I really need to get back to basics and I’m with you that eating real food shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg, it’s easy to get over-excited by shiny new different fancy products.

    Oh and a huge thank you for the pretzel roll shout out. We worship those. And they are Cheap and Easy!!!

      • I do buy bulk, somehow I still manage to be out of control, but we eat a little fancier than we need too…. It’s hard to scale back to plain ol’ beans and rice when you are feasting on pepper-jack cashew cheez on organic red chile tortillas, organic baby spring mix and chia cacao pudding for dessert. I spend more money on groceries than everything else but my mortgage. Ridiculous, but we eat ridiculously well. I gotta pare it down!

      • Health care we eat! I SOOO love this phrase. As a nurse I see the disastrous results of the other end of the spectrum every day, and it ain’t pretty. Also not cheap at all. It is great to have this group that eggs / or flax seeds each other on 😉

    • It’s very easy to get excited by the new and the shiny, and i think that enthusiasm can be really useful, especially when embarking on a new eating plan that might otherwise feel too restrictive until you get oriented. I just need to periodically rein it in. I wholeheartedly agree that this is health care that you eat, but I am also committed to finding ways to make it affordable. If I can’t do it on a budget, given that I’ve been working at it for a while, then how can I in good conscience suggest that others can afford to make that change?

      • I’m with you every bit of the way, and some things I don’t really need, like raw cacao nibs, hemp seeds and the like. There are suitable cheap subs that are equally nutritious. I’d like to cut out a couple hundred bucks a month on groceries and with simple cutbacks I’m sure I can without missing much.

        Thanks for being a good example and here’s to good eats on a budget!

  7. Oh yay for TWG! Haven’t re-visited in a long time. I recently went to the Health food store for some special items (home made truvia, for the dh…that stuff is expensive) but the home made is cheaper. I walked out shaking my head at the expense, like 200.00 YIKES. I think costs are up everywhere, and from the news I hear ie: corn harvest impaired, apple crops total loss, I think they will only get higher. The more we can make ourselves the better. On another note, if you haven’t read it yet “Your money or your life” is another great book about saving not just money but how our precious life energy is converted into cash and what that equation means to each of us…an older book, but certainly still relevant, maybe more so these days. Happy home cooking.

  8. I’ve eaten lentils (mostly in soups) and bulgur (in tabbouleh and as the “meat” in my mom’s veggie chili) all my life, but never together like this as a meat substitute. It sounds fantastic!

    It’s so easy to get off-track and spend a lot of money on groceries. I was reading Food Matters by Mark Bittman the other day and he includes a great quote from Michael Pollan about how organic doesn’t always mean food that’s real food or even food that’s good for you–there’s plenty of organic junk food. We try hard to steer clear of all this and just buy whole foods that we prepare ourselves, but it’s not always easy.

    It’s possible to eat real food on a budget, and usually Micah and I do an okay job of it…but it’s hard sometimes, and I love that you’ve tackled the task of recalibrating. Small steps, deep breaths. 🙂

    • I think snacks can be the hardest part, financially speaking. My 11 year old feels so deprived by not getting what his friends get, even though he is smart enough to understand why we eat the way we do. So when the ‘healthier’ chips go on sale, I buy them – but they’re still expensive and then that’s all he wants to eat. Yikes! Another Merry-Go-Round 😦

      • One thing I do with my teen boy is that if he wants junk, he has to pay for it! And walk to the c-store, which is a mile round-trip 😉 I know he mooches at his friends houses, I can’t control that but I can at least control our home.

      • Snacks are a challenge. We don’t have kids, so there’s no peer pressure element for us to deal with right now, but it’s definitely something I’ve thought about for the future. I like to think that I won’t give in, but the reality is that I probably will at least some of the time…

      • It’s a real challenge. I just keep talking about it with them (5 year old twins) and they at least know WHY we eat the way that we do, and I’ve heard reports of them refusing treats at pre-K and such (really). I realize that this will be less likely as they get older and less impressed with my level of dictatorship.

      • They’ll thank you for it when they grow up. My mom bought a lot of processed foods when I was a kid, but she always bought skim milk and only let us have sodas or sugary cereals on special occasions. I always loved going to friends’ houses and getting to enjoy a bowl of Lucky Charms washed down with a tall glass of Coke, but now that I’m an adult, I have absolutely no taste for sweet cereals or sodas. I’m much happier with homemade granola or a glass of unsweetened iced tea. So even if they rebel or indulge some now, you’re still building lifelong good habits! 🙂

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  13. Love the humble lentils! My favorite recipes all contain bread or bread crumbs so I need to “recalibrate” my recipes since discovering my gluten allergy 5 years ago 😦 . I just wish I could find a way to get through to my 14 year old daughter about eating wholesome and healthy foods. Her father (whom I split custody with) and his mother have her so addicted to fast and convenience foods that she flat out refuses to eat when she is at my house. In fact, her father tells her that my cooking is nasty and will make her sick! I do need to check out that pretzel bread recipe, she might like that……

    • That stinks. I’m so sorry he undermines you that way. It can be so hard to help kids establish good habits, particularly when you’re not getting support (or are getting anti-support). My two usually dig in, but we occasionally hit a wall. I have gotten pretty hardcore: “This is dinner. If you’re hungry, have some.” While I usually stick to the hardline, if they make a good faith effort and it’s clear that they are really miserable, I will relent with something like bread and nut butter – still not their first choice, but enough to get something in there. They still have to eat their veggies. It is hard in this convenient world to teach appreciation for wholesome whole foods.

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