Can a grain bowl get even healthier? Yes, if you prep it yourself. Master the basics with these tips from dietitians.
Like many trendy foods, grain bowls seem designed for Instagram with colourful, fresh and healthy toppings sitting atop chewy grains that readily soaked up any dressing. They quickly crossed over to the mainstream and debuted locally in niche eateries. Despite costing up to $20 or more per bowl, they have become so popular that salad joints and mainstream cafes have begun to offer them. These days, you can get your fix at shops such as The Daily Cut, Grain Traders, SaladStop!, HeyBo, Cedele, and Kipos Gourmet.
What are grain bowls again?
As its name suggests, grain bowls start with a base of grains (brown or wild rice, quinoa and such). It’s then garnished with leafy greens, legumes and a protein. The dressing that goes on top is the magic ingredient that ties it all together. Are grain bowls just glorified cai fan (economic rice) in pretty packaging? Maybe so, but grain bowls tend to be less greasy and the toppings are often considered more nutritious than what you’d find at a hawker stall.
Dietitian Jaclyn Reutens of Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants gives grain bowls her stamp of approval. “DIY grain bowls are a great way to have a high-fibre and nutritionally balanced meal. You can pick every single ingredient, so you know exactly what you are eating. For those wishing to go plant-based for some meals, grain bowls are convenient.”
Yan Yin Phoi, dietitian and founder of The Thoughtful Dietitian, also loves the idea of grain bowls. “They tend to have a good mix of high-fibre carbohydrate sources, along with a serving of protein and vegetables.”
Should we have grain bowls every day, then? Both Jaclyn and Yan Yin say it depends on the ingredients you select and whether they suit your dietary needs. “If you’re trying to watch your weight but choose high-calorie ingredients, it probably wouldn’t help,” warns Yan Yin, adding that “purchased (as opposed to home-made) grain bowls can sometimes be flavoured quite heavily with salt and sugar to appeal to consumers. If it tastes too salty or sweet, it probably is. Simply ask for less dressing!”
Grain bowls are easier to prep than you think
It may be super convenient to buy grain bowls, but they are also super easy to make at home – so you can use just the ingredients you want, and control the portions and seasoning. Even better, the components can often be prepared in big batches so you can combine them as you wish through the week. For a balanced meal, Jaclyn advises having “at least one carbohydrate, two to three proteins, four to five fibre-rich foods and a dressing. If each item is about 50g (about ¼ to ½ cup), you’ll end up with a 400-500g serving”.
Jaclyn likes starting with high-fibre grains that are a cinch to prepare, such as quinoa, wholegrain pasta, brown rice and mixed grains which are filling and good for your gut. Yan Yin also likes wholemeal couscous which she says are “hands down the easiest to cook”, as you just need to pour over hot water, put on a lid and wait for five minutes. “Couscous is the ‘instant noodles’ of grains,” she says. Oats are her next favourite and can be used with both savoury and sweet toppings. After all, who says grain bowls can’t be sweet?
To get your recommended 60g of protein daily, Yan Yin suggests varying protein types to get benefits from different sources such as dairy products, lean cuts of chicken, nuts which have healthy unsaturated fats, and omega-3-rich fish like salmon, tuna and sardines. Tofu is another great choice for vegans. “Since it’s plain in flavour, it’s easy to match with other ingredients,” Yan Yin explains.
Other proteins Jaclyn recommends include edamame, tempeh, sunflower and pumpkin seeds as well as halloumi and feta cheese. Avoid fatty meats such as ham, beef patty, sausages, pepperoni and salami as they are high in sodium and saturated fat, cautions Jaclyn. “Those are not ideal especially if you have high blood pressure or at a high risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Cucumbers, tomatoes, capsicums and salad greens are Yan Yin’s convenient go-tos as “all you have to do is wash and chop them up”. Additionally, Jaclyn suggests baby spinach, lettuce, kale, Brussels sprouts, red and white cauliflower, carrots and mushrooms (technically fungi but nutritionally grouped in the vegetable category).
This one may be a bit tricky. Carbohydrates are needed to fill you up and deliver sustained energy. However, Yan Yin warns that scientific evidence has shown that having excessive amounts of carbohydrates in one sitting can lead to insulin surges, poor blood glucose control and diabetes down the road. A carb overdose might happen if you have pasta, barley or brown rice as your base and add on potato, pumpkin, or sweet potato. Having said that, depending on your activity level, you could afford more carbs per meal. For personalised advice about how much you need, Yan Yin suggests consulting a dietitian.
A grain bowl’s dressing can tie all the ingredients together and give the bowl personality. Changing the dressing will also keep you from getting bored of eating the same thing, says Jaclyn. However, Jaclyn advises moderation — “no more than one to two tablespoonfuls. Enjoy the natural sweetness and taste of your fresh ingredients”. Jaclyn also says to avoid creamy dressings such as Caesar salad, thousand island and mayonnaise which are high in saturated fat. These add calories to your meals and increase your chances of weight gain, high cholesterol and diabetes. Beware of store-bought dressings that are “very flavourful”, as these tend to high in salt and sugar as well, says Yan Yin.
Abate those concerns by making your own. Yan Yin’s favourite dressing is easy to make and packs a punch. Simply mix a tablespoonful of apple cider vinegar with a tablespoonful of olive oil. The vinegar can also be replaced with other acidic ingredients such as lime juice, lemon juice, or balsamic vinegar. To flavour it further, add a dash of salt, pepper and mixed herbs. You could also try lemon juice, hummus, yogurt and roasted sesame, offers Jaclyn. “They are tasty and tangy.”
Try these fail-proof combos
Grain bowls are super flexible and can make use of just about anything in your fridge – leftovers, bits of cheese, pickles, fermented foods and the like. The best grain bowls have a good mix of acid, sweetness, saltiness, textures and flavour contrasts. If one ingredient has a strong taste, balance it out with something milder.
Here are three of Yan Yin’s favourite grain bowl combinations:
- Wholegrain pasta + tuna + cherry tomatoes + baby spinach + almonds + feta + lemon juice + olive oil
- Wholemeal couscous + shredded chicken + avocado + red peppers + tomatoes + lime juice + olive oil
- Quinoa + roasted broccoli + onions + salmon + sesame seeds + teriyaki sauce + sesame oil
Don’t forget about variety
Remember that a healthy balanced diet emphasises variety, says Jaclyn. This means that besides eating the colours of rainbow and perhaps going for black beans if you had chickpeas yesterday, you should alternate between raw and cooked veggies as some nutrients are better absorbed when they’ve been heated (for example, the lycopene in tomatoes or beta-carotene in carrots). “If you are eating a grain bowl for lunch, have a hot meal for dinner,” advises Jaclyn.