Skip to main content

5 Ingredient Series: Grain Bowls

Fiesta Quinoa Grain Bowl

Grain bowls make great 5-ingredient meals for lots of reasons. They are easy to make. They are made with things that you probably already have in your kitchen. They are a great way to use leftovers or use single ingredients in different ways. And maybe most important, they are full of nutrition, including all five food groups!

What is a grain bowl?

A grain bowl is sort of between a salad and an inside-out burrito without the tortilla. It starts with a grain base, topped with various proteins, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, garnishes and sauces, depending on your taste. You can eat them hot or cold, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. 

How to Build Your Grain Bowl:

Start with your base. Whole grains would be a great choice when choosing your base. Whole grains have not had any part of the grain removed, so they provide more nutrients like fiber, B vitamins, and complex carbohydrates. The fiber helps you feel full after eating and helps with digestion. Different grains have different cooking times. To make your bowl faster on a busy weeknight, cook a large batch of your grain of choice ahead of time. Or, you can find pre-cooked or quick-cooking grains like quinoa, brown rice, and barley in the grocery store. 

Add your toppings. You can place each topping on top of the grains separately like wedges of a pie, or just mix it all together. When choosing your toppings, think about things you already have in the pantry, fridge, or freezer, or things that you like to eat together. Leftovers from last night’s dinner or those almost-empty jars of pickles or salsa can be great toppings. You also want to consider choosing lots of different colors, flavors, and textures to make the dish more exciting to eat and provide a variety of nutrients. This list has examples of foods that give different flavors and textures:

  • Crispy: Romaine Lettuce, Bell Peppers
  • Crunchy: Nuts, Peanuts, Seeds, Diced Cucumber, Tortilla Chips
  • Chewy: Wheat Berries, Brown Rice, Corn, Quinoa, Dried Fruit
  • Sweet: Apples, Raisins, Beets, Peas, Sweet Potatoes
  • Sour: Vinegar Dressing, Lemon Juice, Grapefruit Segments, Kimchi, Pickled Vegetables
  • Creamy: Avocado, Greek Yogurt, Hummus, Mashed Potatoes
  • Savory: Rotisserie Chicken, Roasted Vegetables, Taco Meat
  • Spicy: Salsa, Jalapeno Peppers, Hot Sauce

Give it a finishing touch. Sprinkle your garnishes on top to keep so they stay crispy. Add the dressing last right before eating so it doesn’t make the crunchy garnish or fresh vegetables soggy. Use them sparingly, a little goes a long way.

Practice Food Safety. Do not leave cooked grains out at room temperature. After cooking, divide the cooked batch (or the amount you don’t plan to eat right away) into smaller, shallow storage containers and place in the fridge, uncovered on the top shelf. Once they are cooled after about 30 minutes, cover and keep the cooked grains in the fridge for up to 3 days to use during the week. Cooked grains can also be frozen for up to 4 months.

Use this chart to get ideas of ingredients you can use to build your bowl. Try to pick at least one thing from each section:

GrainsProteinsGreensVegetables & Fruits
(Many can be enjoyed from fresh, canned, or frozen)
(Use sparingly)
QuinoaCooked Chicken (hot or cold)Romaine 
CarrotsOnionsNuts (Peanuts, Walnuts, or Coconut)Bottled Salad Dressing
FarroCanned Tuna or SalmonKaleMushroomsBroccoli or CauliflowerSeeds (Sunflower, Pumpkin)Homemade salad dressing
BarleyBeans, Peas, or LentilsSpinachSquash or ZucchiniBeetsGreen OnionsPlain Greek Yogurt
Brown or Wild RiceHummus – homemade or store boughtCabbageCucumbersCanned Pears, Oranges, or GrapefruitCheeseSalsa or Hot Sauce
OatmealEdamame (soybeans)Swiss ChardAvocadoBrussels SproutsFresh or Dried HerbsLemon or Lime Juice
GritsTofuArugulaApplesCornOlives, PicklesPesto
MilletEggs – scrambled, hard cooked, or friedSpring MixTomatoesBerriesBerries    Dried Fruits (Raisins, Apricots, or Cranberries)Peanut Sauce
Whole Wheat PastaSeasoned ground beef, turkey, or porkCollard, Mustard or Beet GreensPeppers or Fajita Mix VegetablesKimchi or SauerkrautCrispy Fried Onions, Tortilla Chips, or Chow Mein NoodlesTeriyaki Sauce

Here are some delicious grain bowl ideas to get you started. Remember, you can always swap out one ingredient for another if you don’t have it or don’t like it. The possibilities are endless!

Mediterranean Bowl: ½ cup grain base (like spelt, rice or quinoa), 1 cup chopped lettuce or fresh spinach, ½ cup cooked chicken, chickpeas, or hummus, ¼ cup each: bell peppers, sliced red onion, diced fresh, canned, or sun-dried tomatoes, ¼ cup crumbled feta or parmesan cheese, 2 T. vinaigrette dressing.

Egg Roll Bowl: ½ cup cooked brown rice, ½ cup shredded cabbage (cooked or raw), ½ cup cooked chicken, tofu, or edamame (shelled soybeans); 2 T. or more of each: shredded carrot, sliced green onions; Sprinkle with 2 T. chopped peanuts, chow mein noodles, or wonton strips, and 2 T. low-sodium soy sauce, sweet & sour sauce, or peanut sauce.

Tropical Summer Bowl: ½ cup grain base (like spelt, rice or quinoa), ½ cup cooked chicken, tuna, tofu, or canned beans, ½ cup diced mango or pineapple (frozen, canned or fresh), ¼ cup or more of each: diced cucumber, sliced green onion; 2 T. each sunflower seeds, 2 T. poppyseed or vinaigrette dressing.

Burrito Bowl: ½ cup grain base (like spelt, rice or quinoa), ½ cup taco meat and/or beans, ½ cup shredded lettuce, ½ cup corn, ¼ cup each: diced avocado, diced tomatoes, shredded cheese, crumbled whole-grain tortilla chips (or some crumbs from the end of the bag!), top with 2-4 T. of your favorite salsa, low fat ranch dressing, or Greek yogurt.

Check out these other recipes that are great inspiration for your next grain bowl!
Kelly Boeger, MS RDN LDN
June 5, 2024
Blog Topics