2016: The International Year of Pulses. We’re not talking about your heartbeat here – we’re talking about the pulses you find on your plate! Not sure what a pulse is? You may know them as beans and peas, as the pulse family include kidney beans, chickpeas and black-eyed peas, just to name a few.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, pulses are “nutritious seeds for a sustainable future.” The 68th General United Nationals Assembly declared this year as the International Year of Pulses (IYP), and this movement’s goal is to inform the public of the benefits this food group provides for nutrition and sustainability.

“The Year will create a unique opportunity to encourage connections throughout the food chain that would better utilize pulse-based proteins, further global production of pulses, better utilize crop rotations and addressthe challenges in the trade of pulses.” – excerpt, International Year of Pulses 2016

FAO explains that pulses are a “vital source of plant-based proteins and amino acids.” Pulses are chock-full of vitamins, high in fiber, calcium and iron, rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, low-fat and low on the glycemic index (to assist with blood sugar regulation and weight management). They’re a fantastic food group for growing students, for vegetarians and vegans who must draw their protein from non-animal products, and for people with celiac disease (pulses are gluten-free!).

In addition to being good for one’s health, FAO tells us that pulses:

  • are economically accessible and contribute to food security at all levels,
  • foster sustainable agriculture and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation, and
  • promote biodiversity.

They’re inexpensive, they’re healthy, they’re good for the environment and the economy…pulses are just awesome all around! Because they offer so many benefits, school nutrition professionals should celebrate and spread awareness for the International Year of Pulses. Whether you’re mashing up chickpeas for hummus, stirring lentils into your vegetable soup or serving up juicy black bean burgers, your program can effectively promote this awesome food group.

Because kids can be seriously picky eaters, you may struggle with fulfilling what many school nutrition professionals know as the “The Bean Law”: dry beans/peas (legumes) must be offered to students weekly, in addition to all subgroups of fresh frozen or canned vegetables, in order to meet USDA requirements. If you’re ready to mix it up and step away from serving baked beans or bean burritos each week, celebrate the IYP with these tasty ideas.

Explore other cultures.

Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and explore other ethnic cuisine. Many Indian and Mexican dishes feature beans as one of the main ingredients. FAO provides a list of tasty dishes with pulses as the star of the show, and you can even search these dishes by pulse type and country of origin. Feel free to do your own research to find new and interesting ways to incorporate pulses into your menus, but remember to keep other USDA regulations, such as sodium and nutritional content, into account.

Think outside the box.

Pulses don’t have to be presented as just beans or peas – if they are, kids will often turn their noses up. There are many creative ways to meet your pulse requirements. They can be sprinkled into salads, or mashed and mixed to create burger patties. Pulses can even be made into sweets! Check out this cool recipe for cookie dough “hummus”.

Start with the familiar.

Speaking of hummus, this is a “unique” food that kids are becoming more familiar with as its popularity has grown in recent years. FAO suggests replacing the traditional hummus chickpeas with cooked lentils or beans, and serving them with traditional toasted pita bread or veggies. You can also spread your homemade hummus on burgers, pizza or sandwiches. By offering something a little out of the ordinary, but something that children are probably already familiar with, they may be more likely to put it on their plate.

Host taste tests.

Involve your students with the menu planning process by holding taste tests. Make a point to test out new pulse-inspired recipes once a week, bi-weekly or even once a month to see what dishes are best received by students. Kids are usually pretty open to participating in taste tests (What kid doesn’t love free food?), and they will be honest with you about whether or not they like the taste.

Mix pulses in with other foods.

Not only will adding pulses to soups, chilis, sauces and/or other dishes help you to abide by “The Bean Law”, they will also help your recipes go further and feed more students. Here is a list of 15 delicious bean recipes that will help you find new ways to offer pulses in your menus.

Educate and create awareness.

Help your students to understand the benefits of pulses, not just for their health but also for environmental and economic sustainability. For marketing materials related to IYP, check out these resources and find a way to showcase them in your program. You can also reach out to teachers to see if they can find ways to work information surrounding IYP into the curriculum, so that their importance is fresh on the students’ minds when they enter the cafeteria.

Getting students to eat beans and peas can be tricky – but it doesn’t have to be! Spice things up in your program to celebrate the International Year of Pulses so that you and your students can reap the many benefits this food group has to offer.