Lentils have been a staple in cuisine around the world for thousands of years. So why would we ever neglect this nutritious food when planning weekly meals? Really, there's just no excuse to relegate lentils to boring additions to soups or stews. Lentils should play a leading role -- or at least best supporting actor -- in your recipes, especially if you're vegetarian.

Lentils boast some impressive statistics when it comes to nutritional benefits. They are contain more folate than any other unfortified plant food. Folate is a B vitamin important for nervous system health, energy metabolism, and helps you lower your risks of cancer, depression, and heart disease. Just half a cup of lentils provides one third of your daily fiber needs, which helps to regulate blood sugar and lower cholesterol. That means you’re reducing your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Lentils provide you with iron, which helps your blood cells and muscles, and magnesium, which improves the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. Both iron and magnesium are factors in preventing heart disease. So if you haven’t caught on yet, eating lentils means having a healthy heart!

Lentils are an important part of anyone’s diet, but especially so if you've eliminated meat from your diet. Of all legumes and nuts, lentils have one of the highest levels of protein, one of the important components of a complete diet. You get an impressive 18 grams of protein per cup of cooked lentils, all with less than a gram of fat. When you combine lentils with a grain like rice, you have all the amino acids needed for a complete protein, so you can ditch meat entirely and get all the protein you need along with a ton of other necessary nutrients! And with the recipes we have in store for you below, you won't even miss having meat.

mushroom lentil

Mushroom Lentil Bourguignon

If you're a fan of beef bourguignon, or even beef stew, then you'll find comfort in this healthier vegetarian version that tastes just the same. I can vouch for this after serving it to my non-vegetarian partner without saying what it was, and the first words after tasting it were, "It tastes like beef stew." So, there you have it. Lentils and mushrooms combine for a nutritious and hearty dish, complimented by sweet onions and a savory sauce. It can be served over mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables or with a nice crusty whole-grain bread.

Portobello Lentil Burger 

Lentils are ideal for making vegetarian burgers. They're loaded with protein and savory flavor, and have a texture that makes it easy to form them into patties along with a handful of other ingredients. This burger recipe uses lentils and portobello mushroom along with onions, vegetable broth, sunflower seeds and a handful of spices. It all combines for a filling and satisfying burger, so delicious with sliced tomatoes, lettuce, caramelized onions, and a whole-grain toasted bun.

Lentil and Orzo Pasta Salad

For a Mediterranian style meal, try this hearty pasta dish. Lentils bring the protein power to the pasta, and a ton of other great nutrients are added in thanks to red bell pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, and red onion. The whole thing is tossed with a light and zesty lemon vinaigrette.

Thai Curry and Coconut Lentils

Not in the mood for Mediterranean? Try a cuisine from another part of the world! Tomatoes, onion, curry spices and coconut milk make this lentil dish something to drool over. It can be served over quinoa or rice for a filling, flavorful meal. Best part is it only takes about 30 minutes in total from start to finish, so it's great for a very healthy weeknight dinner.

lentils with egg

Spiced Lentils with Arugula and Fried Eggs

Lentils can be the center of attention for breakfast dishes as well. Lentils simmered with onion, celery and vegetable broth thickened with tomato paste is the base, then toss in a handful of arugula at the end to wilt down. Top the whole healthful dish off with a fried egg and you have a delightfully savory breakfast that livens up your entire morning. Of course this also works as lunch or dinner too!

Smoky Lentils with Tomato

If you like to be a little more adventurous, or at least more exotic with your lentils, this dish will likely send you to the store in search of ingredients you've never heard of before. At least, it did for me when it came to asafetida. I also don't exactly keep tamarind concentrate or curry leaves around. But this recipe makes me wish I did. Packed with amazing flavor, you're getting a ton of important vitamins and minerals in addition to fiber and protein, all in the most delightful way.

Green Lentil and Swiss Chard Stew

If you'd rather stick with something relatively simple that uses ingredients you probably already have in the cupboard or fridge, this is your recipe. Not only are you getting everything great from lentils, but Swiss chard, another superfood, plays a leading role. Three cheers for a comforting bowl of hot, filling vegetable stew!

lentils salad

Lentil Salad with Roasted Vegetables and Lemon-Rosemary Vinaigrette

This excellent salad is perfect for celebrating a summer's day. Roasted vegetables are tossed with a bright lemon-rosemary dressing, and poured over the top are lentils that have been simmered in a broth with garlic and bay leaves. So. Good!

Crunchy-Topped Lentil Casserole

You can't go wrong with a good old casserole, especially on a winter's day. A simple lentil casserole is livened up with a crunchy bread crumb topping and the whole thing pairs perfectly with a tomato salsa.

Hearty Lentil Soup with Tomatoes

One more soup recipe, since I have to prove that lentil soup doesn't have to be boring. This starts with the basics of a vegetable soup, including onion, carrots and celery, but then you toss in some spices that add quite a kick, including paprika and cayenne pepper. Yep, definitely not boring!

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

10 recipes for lentils that move this superfood from drab to delightful
Not only are lentils a powerhouse of nutrition, but they have nearly limitless possibility for delicious dishes from burgers to salads.