10 Ways to Make a Better Grain Bowl

updated May 1, 2019
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You’ve likely seen grain bowls in your favorite magazines, food blogs, and on trendy restaurant menus. They always look beautiful and taste so composed and interesting — the exact opposite of how they can come across in real life. So how do they do it? How is it that a dish that’s lauded for its supposed simplicity can seem so tough to pull off in reality?

Grain bowls are a big part of my diet, but like anything, it’s really easy to fall into a rut. And in this season of shorter, darker days I find that food needs to step up to the plate and remain interesting, colorful, and flavorful. So here are a few tips for making grain bowls at home that are just as photogenic as the ones you’re seeing in magazines and just as delicious as the ones from the café down the street.

1. Get out of the quinoa rut.

When I teach whole-grain cooking classes, I often refer to “the quinoa rut” — that inevitable roadblock many of us face when we know we should eat more whole grains, but aren’t really sure where to turn beyond quinoa. So next time you’re cooking grains for a grain bowl, encourage yourself to get creative and try something new.

If you love quinoa, try millet: another fluffy, quick-cooking, gluten-free grain. Into farro? Try freekeh. Love wheat berries? Pick up some


2. Cook grains in anything but water.

While most directions call for cooking your whole grains in water, why not amp up the flavor by using part (or all) chicken or vegetable broth instead? Or if I’m cooking grains for morning grain bowls, I’ll often cook them down with half apple cider so they have a subtly sweet fragrance right from the start.

3. Splurge on sauce.

I think condiments and dressings are the most important part of making a standout grain bowl. I always have a few things on hand so that I don’t feel like I’m reinventing the wheel every time I open the fridge to make lunch. Harissa, pesto, tahini, and preserved lemons are little pantry splurges that quickly help dress up even the most uninspired grain bowl.

An easy peanut sauce is also great, and quick-pickled onions or radishes keep well in the fridge and add a vinegary bite and some instant brightness.

4. Use the weekend wisely.

If you get in the habit of roasting a big batch of vegetables over the weekend (cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and beets are my favorites), you’ll always have a huge jump start on your weekly grain bowls. Because really, if I’m honest, when I have to preheat the oven to roast vegetables, grain bowls no longer feel like a great candidate for a weeknight dinner or easy desk lunch. It’s all about that prep.

5. Add some crunch.

Having textural variety is really important with grain bowls. My favorite crunchy things to sprinkle on top are seeds of all kinds (pepitas and sunflower seeds are always in our pantry), chopped toasted nuts, and even roasted chickpeas.

6. Always include protein.

Making more substantial grain bowls will help ensure that you feel full, satisfied, and energized, so I always aim to add at least one protein source. A little leftover shredded meat, chickpeas, or tuna are always a good bet. And you can never go wrong with a soft-boiled or runny fried egg.

7. Yes, you can layer a grain bowl ahead of time.

There’s nothing wrong with making your grain bowls the day before you plan to eat them. In fact, I find that sometimes it really takes a good day for the flavors in the dressing or sauce to fully settle into all the other components. Again, it’s all about that prep.

8. Color is key.

So much of the pleasure surrounding what we eat is sensory, so I always try to incorporate a variety of colors when I’m making grain bowls. This time of year, look for purple cabbage, sweet potatoes or squash, greens, and broccoli.

9. Cheese!

In the same way that crunch and creamy dressings are important, I love a little bit of cheese in my grain bowls. Think about a few crumbles of a goat, feta, or blue cheese for some instant flavor and a little creamy texture.

10. Trust your instincts.

When experimenting with new things in the kitchen, it’s natural to rely on recipes and hard-and-fast rules, but I think the fun in making grain bowls is letting a little creativity in and trusting your instincts. You know what pairings you tend to like and what things taste great together, so start there and before you know it you’ll be free-styling your way to a better bowl in no time.

How do you make your go-to grain bowl more interesting?