My love for the grain bowl — for any meal of the day — knows no bounds. It’s the easiest route to a hearty, healthy and satisfying meal. Particularly for lunch, this one-bowl-meal wonder is a shoe-in because you can make all of the components ahead of time. Mix up a favorite grain (Think: kamut, quinoa, rice, farro, whole-grain noodles or barley) add vegetables, protein and a few flavor punches and you’re off to the great lunch games.
Here are 10 secrets to enjoying great grain bowls for lunch, anytime, anywhere.
RESPECT YOUR GRAINS
Adding whole-grains to your diet can be one of the most healthful changes you can make. But just like many ingredients, they require a bit of care before cooking and consuming. Nearly all grains coat themselves in natural toxins (called phytic acid) that make them difficult to digest. Soaking grains overnight in salted water helps them shed this natural acid and become more digestible. As a general rule, soak grains in a glass jar covered with two-times their volume of water and a pinch of salt. Soak overnight, rinse in the morning and cook away.
Note: Quinoa is an exception to this rule. It needs just a quick rinse before cooking. Soaking makes it have a bitter, soapy taste.
BIG BATCHES OF GRAINS ARE BEST
Because grains can take time to soak and cook, make them in big batches once a week. Pick one favorite to build your meals around or two to keep things interesting. Store them in the fridge in airtight containers and mix them into your meals all week.
INVEST IN A QUICK COOKER
Cooking whole-grains was once a time consuming affair that required attention to stir and monitor the grains over the stove. Nowadays, we have some really cool devices that help make perfect grains without all the watch-and-wait time. Investing in one is well worth it. Rice cookers cook just about any grain you can fathom in a flash. Instant Pots are a great choice if you like cooking grains and would find a pressure cooker and slow cooker helpful. Either way, one of these devices will cook your grains while you’re busy with other important things.
MIX UP A DRESSING (OR TWO!)
You’ve got your grains down. Now, make them shine with a great dressing. Creamy, vinaigrette-y or even just lemon juice + EVOO — your grains will soak up the flavors of whatever dressing you toss on top. Green goddess, a great vinaigrette or any other favorite dressings go great. Keep a couple of jars in your fridge to pour at will.
PREP A PROTEIN
Grains alone don’t comprise a great meal. Pairing them with a great protein keeps your meals balanced and helps you feel satiated all day. Here are some favorite pairings:
- Brown rice + Grilled shrimp
- Farro + Roasted chicken
- Quinoa + Cured salmon
- Barley + Grilled steak
- Whole-grain pasta + Burrata
- Basmati rice + Hummus
The possibilities are endless — pick flavors and ingredients that get you excited about eating lunch.
LEAN ON LEFTOVERS
No one has time to grill shrimp or steak for lunch each day. But you do have time to make a little extra at dinner and lean on your leftovers to round out your grain bowl. Extra grilled chicken, steak or shrimp are great cold or hot for lunches all week — make a bigger batch of these. Roasting a whole chicken or beef roast to last the week is also a great play. If you don’t have leftovers on hand, pick up a can of tuna or smoked salmon to add to your grain bowl.
VARY YOUR VEGETABLES
The difference between a grain bowl and a salad is the amount of vegetables — and much of the time my own bowls border on “big grain salads.” Leafy greens, shredded carrots, chopped cucumbers and any other fresh favorites are great here. So too are roasted beets, turnips and pumpkin … the list goes on. Fruits are fabulous, too. Sliced peaches, plums, apricots, apples, grapes and berries all have a place in a great grain bowl. Pick you favorites and toss them in.
ADD CRUNCH (AND A NUTRITION BOOST)
Crunchy textures and ingredients send a message to our bodies that we’re satisfied, so sprinkling a little crunchy magic on our grain bowls takes them to the next level, adding flavor, texture and enjoyment. Favorite crunchy friends include: toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds or toasted nuts. Toasted nori seaweed is also a great, non-nut or seed option.
If you’re not eating your grain bowl at home, you’re going to need to pack it up and take it with you. Start with a great bowl or airtight container and take care in the way you pack your grain bowl — it makes a difference. If you add the dressing to the grains and veg, some of the vegetables may wilt, which could be awesome for heartier greens like spinach or arugula, but less excellent for delicate field greens or herbs. Putting all of the components together when cold is a surefire way to keep your grain bowl fresh, even if you intend to warm it up later. This way nothing will wilt (or steam) when it hangs out in the container for a few hours.
Keep some notes on your favorite combinations to help you stock the pantry and batch cook ingredients. This takes the guesswork out of building great bowls when you’re pinched for time and just might encourage a little extra experimentation when the moment strikes!