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DIY Guide to Building the Perfect Grain Bowl

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Grain bowls are super trendy right now — and for good reason! They’re easy to make, healthy, satisfying and absolutely delicious. Grain bowls are also a great way to break up the monotony when you get stuck in a rut of eating the same thing day after day and don’t know what else to make.

They can also be made with items you likely already have in your pantry or refrigerator, which makes them a fantastic way to use up leftovers.

This handy guide will provide the basics of what a grain bowl is and how to create one that’s perfect for you.

Looking for more inspiration? Here are 10 creative grain bowl recipes to get you started!

Infographic showing how to mix and match ingredients to make your own DIY grain bowl recipe.

Build a healthy meal out of leftovers.

What are grain bowls?

Grain bowls are a complete meal that’s super easy to make ahead and transport. This makes them great for work-week lunches, making them very popular these days.

Grain bowls typically start with a bed of grain, such as quinoa, brown rice, barley or pasta, or even oatmeal or polenta. The base is topped with protein and vegetables. A sauce might be drizzled on top to dress the bowl up and all and fun garnishes add texture and flavor.

You can mix and match to make endless flavor combinations!

Overhead view of a grain bowl topped with roasted butternut, Brussels sprouts, and a jammy egg and drizzles with brown butter.

Tips for making the perfect grain bowl

Start with a base:

Options for the base include:

  • White, brown, or wild rice. Rice is one of the most versatile and easily available foods in the world. What’s not to love about this traditional staple that has sustained civilizations across the globe for centuries?
  • Pasta. Pasta is delicious either hot or as a pasta salad. There are lots of great types of pasta to choose from — pick your favorite texture or shape.
  • Quinoa. This superfood is not only tasty, but it’s incredibly nutritious! Quinoa is an excellent source of protein, dietary fiber and many other essential nutrients.
  • Couscous. Couscous is a type of pasta made from semolina flour instead of wheat flour.
  • Oatmeal, cream of wheat, grits, etc. Go sweet or savory with your toppings on these traditional breakfast cereals. Oatmeal topped with sauteed mushrooms and a poached egg? Divine.
  • Polenta, Soba Noodles, and other grains. Mix things up with polenta, soba noodles, millet, farro, barley, or any other grain — the possibilities are endless!

Choose a protein:

Once you’ve settled on a base, it’s time to choose a protein! There are ton of animal and plant-based proteins to choose from, so go ahead and pick whatever you’re in the mood for at the moment.

  • Beans are an excellent source of protein, fiber and many essential vitamins and minerals. They’re also economical, tasty and easy to prepare.
  • Lentils are another great source of plant-based protein. They’re loaded with essential nutrients including folate, iron, potassium and many others.
  • Tofu is also a good source of plant-based protein that soaks up the flavor of any sauce you add to it.
  • Tempeh is made from soybeans that have been cultured into a solid cake form with the help of grain like rice or millet. It has a firm texture and is also high in plant-based protein.
  • Marinaded Meats, Eggs, Tuna, Shrimp, and even cheese can be great protein options to top your grain bowl!

Add some vegetables:

Pile on the veggies! I love adding 2-3 vegetables to provide valuable nutrients and add color and texture to the dish. Sometimes I go all out and basically turn my grain bowl into a salad!

Some great cooked and raw vegetable options include:

  • Carrots (shredded, diced, ot chopped)
  • Grilled or Shaved Zucchini
  • Shredded or Roasted Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Sauteed Mushrooms
  • Roast Sweet Potatoes
  • Sauteed Peppers and Onions
  • Arugula
  • Spinach

Look in your refrigerator and see what you have. Grain bowls are a great way to repurpose leftovers (roast frozen vegetables work great!) and use up the odds and ends from last week’s grocery trip before they go bad.

Photo of vegetables at the market.

Sauce it up!

Here’s where things start to get really fun! Sauces are a great way to add flavor to grain bowls and start to create a theme. For example, a soy-based sauce might be added to a Chinese-inspired grain bowl or pesto might be added to an Italian-themed dish.

Here are some of my favorite sauces:

  • Green Goddess Dressing
  • Pesto
  • Peanut Sauce
  • Chimichurri
  • Yogurt sauce/Tazatziki
  • Marinara
  • Hummus
  • Harissa
  • Salsa
  • Coconut Curry
  • Oil and Balsamic

Add some fun toppings:

Garnishes are a fun way to dress up your bowl and add even more flavor and texture.

Go ahead and try:

  • Sesame Seeds
  • Scallions
  • Fresh Herbs (Mint, Parsley, Cilantro)
  • Pepitas
  • Fried Shallots
  • Crumbled Feta
  • Pistachios or Walnuts
  • Shredded Nori
  • Olives
  • Crispy Chickpeas
  • Hot Sauce
  • Avocado

A perfect grain bowl is one that includes foods you love!

Two farro grain bowls topped with carrots, asparagus, peas, and pesto.

Some sample grain bowls to get your creativity flowing

  • Oats topped with fruit, nuts and seeds.
  • Farro topped with sliced steak, green beans, baby spinach, tzatziki, crumbled feta, olives, and fresh parsley.
  • Lentils topped with roast beets and Brussels sprouts, tofu, oil + basamic, and pepitas.
  • Rice topped with seared tuna, bok choy, cucumbers, soy sauce, avocado, wasabi, nori strips, and pickled ginger.
  • Quinoa topped with grilled chicken, roasted red peppers, grilled onions and pesto.

You can also try putting your own spin on a burrito bowl, pad thai or bibimbap!

Leave a comment below and let me know what combination you’re excited to try!

If you make a grain bowl, be sure to take a photo and tag @TheBusyFoodieLauren on Instagram.

Love cooking without a recipe? Check out my DIY Guide to creating an awesome salad and my DIY guide to making your own marinade recipes.

Happy cooking!

By on September 29th, 2021

Hi, I'm Lauren!

I love to cook -- but even more importantly, I really like to eat! I have a demanding day job that keeps me busy, so time is precious. I'm a culinary school graduate and five-time cookbook author who's all about finding ways to make delicious, restaurant-quality meals at home on a tight schedule. Read more...

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