These smoky, sweet, tangy, sloppy sandwiches will remind you of your childhood. A delicious retro meal made modern with a meatless twist and done in about 30 minutes! Grab some napkins and dig in to these Vegan Sloppy Joes!
Let’s face it, kids are finicky. Their favorite food one day is the food they can’t stand the next.
Somehow, simmering pretty much anything in a sweet and tangy sauce will make it ultra appealing. The kids gobble up these Vegan Sloppy Joes and ask for seconds.
The fact that they are a little messy makes vegan sandwiches even more fun. Fun for the kids, anyway. But you can rest easy knowing the extra washcloths needed to scrub those saucy little faces and hands are worth it because your kids just noshed on 4 different vegetables without even realizing it. Score!
Bonus: they cook in about 30 minutes which makes them the perfect quick weeknight meal.
Ingredients you need
Ingredient notes and substitutions
Lentils ~ These are the “meat” of our Vegan Sloppy Joes. They’re hearty and filling and the perfect size and texture to stand in for the ground beef found in traditional sloppy joe recipes.
Lentils are low in fat and calories, and high in fiber, protein, potassium, iron, and folate. [source]
This recipe calls for cooked lentils which you can buy canned or sometimes packaged in the produce section (Trader Joe’s carries steamed lentils in a box among the veggies in the refrigerated section).
I like to cook big batches of lentils at once and then freeze them in freezer safe bags in about 2 to 3 cup portions. They’ll keep in the freezer for about 6 months.
If you don’t have pre-cooked or leftover lentils on hand, you can easily make them from scratch. See this post All About Lentils for cooking methods and times.
Vegetables ~ As with most savory recipes, I start with onion and garlic for lots of flavor.
Green bell peppers are traditional in sloppy joe recipes so I’m using them in this version, too. If you prefer, you can use red, orange or yellow sweet bell peppers instead.
Carrots bring a natural sweetness to the dish and lend a great texture, as well. In addition, they are super healthy and I almost never pass up an opportunity to sneak in some extra nutrients! They are high in beta carotene, which our bodies convert to vitamin A. They also contain plenty of fiber, potassium, vitamin K, and antioxidants. [source]
Tomatoes make the sauce! I like using canned tomato sauce because it generally already has some seasoning in it and it tends to be a bit sweeter than tomato purée. Having said that, you can certainly use tomato purée or crushed tomatoes, if you prefer.
I would not recommend using jarred pasta sauce, like marinara. Those sauces are typically seasoned with basil, which isn’t quite the flavor we are going for here.
Spices and seasonings ~ Worcestershire sauce is what give these Sloppy Lentil Joes that tangy savory flavor. There are a few vegan brands available, like The Wizard’s (my favorite!) or Annie’s. If you can’t find it, you can use equal amounts of balsamic vinegar and molasses (regular, not blackstrap!) for a similar flavor profile.
Liquid smoke brings such a great savory, smoky flavor that helps develop the classic taste of these sandwiches. Smoked paprika will work in a pinch.
I like to add a bit of ketchup and mustard for a sweet tang that helps liven up the sauce. You can use tomato paste instead of ketchup, just be sure to taste the sauce after simmering and adjust for sweetness, if necessary.
Sweetener ~ Traditional Sloppy Joes are the perfect balance of smoky, tangy, and sweet. We already have some sweetness coming from the tomatoes, ketchup and carrots. I find a little brown sugar helps round out the flavors. If you prefer not to use added sweeteners, you can leave it out. Or try substituting with coconut sugar or a drizzle of pure maple syrup – both of which are touted as healthier options than regular sugar.
How to make the recipe
Sauté the onion, green pepper, carrots and garlic over medium heat until softened (1).
Add the tomato sauce, ketchup, brown sugar, vegan Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, mustard and oregano and mix well (2). Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat and let the sauce simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
Add the cooked lentils (3) and salt and pepper and simmer another 10 minutes until the lentils are warmed through and the sauce is thick (4). Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary.
How to serve
We love these messy sandwiches on burger buns with lots of dill pickles. You can also top them with tomato slices, raw onion slices, pickled red onions, or a slice of vegan cheese (we love Field Roast Chao or Violife varieties).
You can serve them up with any of your favorite sides that you’d serve with burgers. Here are a few of our faves:
- Steamed or roasted broccoli (or your fave veggie)
- French fries, potato chips, or Sweet Potato Fries
- Corn on the cob or Raw Corn Salad
- Baked potato or Roasted Potato Salad
- Pasta Salad
If you find yourself with leftovers, store the lentil mixture in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 to 4 days.
You can also freeze it in a freezer-safe bag for about 6 months. To reheat, thaw in the fridge overnight and then pop it in the microwave for a minute or two or heat gently in a pot on the stove.
Pro tips for success
~ Use leftover lentils or store-bought cooked lentils to make this recipe super quick and easy!
~ Try to chop the carrots and peppers about the same size as the cooked lentils for a mixture that holds together well.
~ Use vegetable broth or water to sauté the vegetables to keep this recipe oil-free.
~ Let the sauce simmer until nice and thick.
~ If the sauce is too thin try mashing some of the lentils, then stir the mixture well to distribute the mashed lentils throughout. You can also add a cornstarch slurry made by whisking 1 tablespoon of cornstarch with 3 tablespoons of water. Be sure to whisk the cornstarch/water mixture until smooth before adding it to the sloppy joe sauce. Once added, bring the sauce to a boil, then decrease the heat and simmer gently until thickened.
~ If the sauce gets too thick, add a little more tomato sauce or a few splashes of vegetable broth.
~ Always taste and adjust seasonings to your preferred taste before serving!
~ Use gluten free buns to keep this recipe gluten free.
~ Toast the buns before adding the Sloppy Joes mixture. This will help prevent the buns from getting mushy from the saucy filling.
Traditional Sloppy Joes are made with ground beef or pork, onions, tomato sauce or ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and seasonings and served on hamburger buns.
Classic Sloppy Joe recipes are high in protein, but they can also be high in calories, fat, sodium, and cholesterol. My Vegan Sloppy Joes, made with lentils and vegetables, have plenty of healthy plant based protein, vitamins and minerals, and zero cholesterol.
Choose a whole grain bun instead of traditional white to increase the nutrient profile even further.
Lentils come in a variety of colors, but they are not all the same. For these Vegan Sloppy Joes, you will need brown or green lentils as they hold their shape well and retain a bit of texture. Red and yellow lentils mostly disintegrate once cooked and turn to mush, which we definitely do not want.
While this lentil version of a Sloppy Joe recipe is still quite classic in flavor, there are many different variations you can make. Try one of these delicious twists:
Meatless Mexican Sloppy Joes
Sloppy Chickpea BBQ Sandwiches
Sloppy Joe Casserole with Cornbread Crust
More easy vegan lentil recipes
- Lentil Quinoa Soup
- Roasted Cauliflower Lentil Salad
- Baked Red Lentil Fritters
- Lentil Bolognese
- Lentil Mushroom Tacos
I hope you love this recipe as much as we do! If you tried it, please use the rating system in the recipe card and leave a comment below with your feedback.
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For even more easy family recipes, be sure to check out my cookbook, The Meatless Monday Family Cookbook!
Vegan Sloppy Joes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil or ¼ cup vegetable broth or water, plus more as needed to prevent sticking
- ¼ of a red onion peeled and diced
- 1 green pepper seeded and diced
- 2 small carrots diced small or shredded
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce
- ¼ cup ketchup
- ¼ cup organic brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons vegan Worcestershire sauce The Wizard's and Annie's brands are both vegan (or use 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon molasses)
- 1-2 teaspoons liquid smoke
- 1 teaspoon yellow mustard
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon salt or to taste
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper or to taste
- 2 ½ cups cooked brown or green lentils
- 6 burger buns gluten free, if desired
Toppings of choice, optional
- tomato slices
- red onion slices
- Heat the oil (or broth or water) over medium heat in a large deep skillet. Sauté the onion, green pepper, carrots, and garlic for 5 to 6 minutes until soft.
- Add the tomato sauce, ketchup, brown sugar, vegan Worcestershire sauce (or balsamic and molasses), liquid smoke, mustard and oregano. Bring to a low boil, decrease heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Taste and add salt/pepper (or more Worcestershire sauce or liquid smoke) if necessary.
- Add in the cooked lentils and stir until evenly coated. Simmer for another 10 minutes.
- Serve on buns with your favorite toppings.