I struggled with how to make a grain bowl when I first discovered the concept – grain bowls are great ways to “clean out the fridge”, but sometimes going down that path leads you to making something that just doesn’t come together. Instead, my approach on how to make a grain bowl starts with choosing a theme. Maybe it’s a broad region or a cuisine, like Indian or Italian – or maybe it’s as simple as a warm, comforting dish for a rainy evening or a cold, refreshing one for a summer afternoon. Some might say that this approach boxes you in but I’ll take the other side of that argument. I think it gives you an opportunity to try something new within a realm of food you know and are comfortable with. More importantly, I can assure you that you won’t be ordering a pizza instead of eating whatever you make! The goal is to pull together a weekday meal that’s balanced and healthy. Since you’re customizing everything, it’s easy to make it gluten-free or vegan.
A good grain bowl or “Buddha Bowl” as some call it has a few necessary elements:
Choose a mix to experiment with different textures or stick with one. Some of my go-to’s are brown rice, red rice, quinoa, farro and mixed millets. Add some flavor depending on theme what you’re going for. Turmeric rice works with pretty much any meal. For an Asian or Indian meal, some fresh ginger or cumin works great. For a Mexican bowl, cilantro lime rice is a classic base.
Dressing & Sauces
The opportunities are endless here! This is where you can really add flavor without overwhelming the dish. A simple, creamy greek yogurt dressing with a little lemon and salt goes with everything. Olive oil dressings make good accompaniments to your leafy greens. They are easy to make – add a tinge of mustard, half a clove’s worth of minced garlic, plenty of lemon juice and a few tablespoons of olive oil and mix it all up. If you have balsamic vinegar in your pantry or things like pesto or hummus in your fridge, use them!
Leafy Greens, Veggies & Protein
To make it a balanced meal! Kale, arugula (rocket leaves) and spinach are my favorite greens that adjust well to most flavors. To me, romaine and lettuce tend to be a little boring so I steer clear from them. You can choose to add your veggies in the form of simply sautéed or roasted veggies. Alternatively, add some protein-rich legumes like chickpeas, kidney beans or even a veggie patty or falafel if you have leftovers lying around. Tofu is one of my favorite vegan proteins – it acts as a blank canvas for the spices and flavors you choose. For some tofu tips, check out my tofu tacos recipe and my guide to making tofu taste good. This is make a grain bowl more than just a cold, simple salad.
Try not to skip out on fresh herbs. If you get in the habit of using them, you’ll see that they give character and round out your meal. The simplest herbs like cilantro, mint and basil can elevate your grain bowl from a mish-mash of leftover things from your fridge to an innovative, satisfying meal. For a Mexican-inspired meal, I always go with cilantro and green onion. Italian herbs like basil, oregano and sage are great to add to your sautéed or roasted veggies. A sprinkling of fresh mint works for Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and even Indian grain bowls. For Thai grain bowls, I like to add lemongrass and chili. If you feel like you never use the entire packet of herbs, try making a paste with a little olive oil, salt (almost like a pesto) that’s easy to freeze in small boxes or ice cube trays in single-use sizes.