One of the easiest substitutions to make when you’re trying to spend less, stretch a meal or simply make do with what you have, is swapping lentils for ground beef.
If the stars align and Grocery Outlet has stock, one pound of grass-fed ground beef in my area costs $4.99/lb. However, on the remaining 364 days of the year, grass-fed ground beef costs an average of $6.99/lb. Since most recipes that use ground beef call for a full pound, that makes dinner cost a minimum of $7.
A Reason to Eat a Meatless Meal: Word on the street says ground beef is the cheapest of meats. If you picked up 30 pounds of grass-fed goodness for the smokin’ deal of $5/lb, you’re spending $150 on ground beef in one month. That’s nearly half of my grocery budget – spent on just meat, for just dinners. Skipping meat at a meal could save up to $5. Each. Time.
Green lentils, on the other hand, always hover at the rock-bottom, affordable price of only $1.82/lb. But wait! The math gets even better and this is where your love for lentils will soar.
The average pound of beef measures at 1 1/2 cups after browning. Lentils double in size when cooked, so it takes only 3/4 cup of raw lentils to replace a full pound of beef. At $1.82/lb, it costs only 54¢ to cook 1 1/2 cups of lentils in place of a full pound of ground beef – that’s a savings of 92%!
Cheesey-Mexi Lentil Macaroni
The first time I made Dad’s Cheeseburger Helper from Better Than a Box I had to make a few substitutions to accommodate what I had on hand. Although my version was a far cry from “helper” status, the kids and I could have cared less. We thought it was great!
With 1/2lb of lentils hanging out in my pantry, I was curious how they’d do in my rendition of the original recipe. I kept the same substitutions as I had before (because I regularly have diced tomatoes, but not tomato sauce) and the kids and I AGAIN thought it was great! We devoured it for dinner and then again the next day for lunch.
Although it’s been YEARS since I’ve had any sort of “helper” from a box, I think this new, real food version would be an excellent alternative for a fast, frugal and TASTY weeknight meal.
And this recipe is very forgiving. Nearly any noodle or bean or variety of lentil can be used instead of green lentils and as long as you skip the meat, you’ll be serving a real food dinner for a family of four for less than $5!
- ¾ cup green lentils
- 1 quart homemade chicken stock
- 2 Tbsp taco seasoning
- 2 tsp cumin
- ½ tsp chili powder (optional)
- 1 tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp onion powder
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- 1 15oz can of diced tomatoes, with juices
- 2 cups small whole wheat pasta (i.e. macaroni or shells)
- 2 cups fresh or frozen mixed vegetables (optional)
- 1 cup shredded cheese, divided (I've tested with cheddar and Monterey Jack)
- In a large pot, combine lentils, chicken stock and taco seasoning. Bring to a simmer and cook lentils for 30 minutes.
- Add remaining ingredients, cover and cook on low for 10-15 minutes until the pasta is tender. (Stir occasionally, if needed, to ensure noodles are nearly submerged in liquid.)
- Remove from heat and stir in ½ cup of cheese. Serve immediately and sprinkle with additional cheese.
* If you want it to be more like a conventional "helper," use tomato sauce in place of diced tomatoes and add another cup of shredded cheese.
* Vegetarian: Use vegetable stock in place of chicken stock, omit cheese.
* Gluten-free/Grain-free: Use GF pasta, or even rice in place of traditional pasta.